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What is Emotional Intelligence? And What’s Missing?

April 17, 2018

I have a love/hate relationship of sorts with Emotional Intelligence. In 1995, my boss at the time suggested I read the recently released book by Daniel Goleman as part of my development.  She didn’t mean it in a casual “this is a book you might enjoy” kind of way, but more of a “if you don’t figure this out, you’ll never be successful” kind of way. Hmmm.

One of the reasons I purchased Learning in Action a few years ago was because there seemed to be no end to the depth of the space we call Emotional Intelligence.  It’s a rich, complex topic with so many angles into it.

This post is a bit on the dry side.  And iIt’s intended to help you and your coaching clients better understand the origin of Emotional Intelligence, how it has been defined, the limitations of some of those definitions and how the definition we use really matters if what we are wanting is to be more successful in life and in business. 

A Brief History of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) is defined differently by different people. In fact, authors Gerald Matthews, Moshe Zeidner and Richard D. Roberts wrote in their 2004 book on the topic, “EI may be the most protean of all known psychological constructs.” David Caruso, Research Affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, called EI a conceptual inkblot.

Controversy over the definition, construction and measurement of EI is embedded in its history.

While some of the ideas and concepts underpinning EI have been around since as early as 1920, the term emotional intelligence is more recent.

  • 1964 – Michael Beldoch used the term emotional intelligence in a research paper
  • 1966 – B. Leuner wrote a paper entitled Emotional Intelligence and Emancipation
  • 1983 – Developmental psychologist, Howard Gardner, published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences which included both interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence .
  • 1985 – Wayne Payne wrote a doctoral thesis, A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence
  • 1989 – Child psychologist, Stanley Greenspan, put forward a model to describe EI
  • 1990 – Social psychologists, Peter Salovey and John Mayer, published their article, Emotional Intelligence
  • 1995 – Science journalist, Daniel Goleman, published the book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ

In 1995, after more than 30 years of research and publication in the scientific and academic community, the term emotional intelligence was still virtually unheard of. When Daniel Goleman published his book on EI that same year, it quickly became a bestseller, and the concept of emotional intelligence was popularized, seemingly overnight.  

In the 20-plus years since the publication of Goleman’s book, hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written on EI and related topics. And a great deal of controversy has sprung up, about both the definition and the measurement of EI. (We’ll tackle the controversy about measurement in a future post.)

Controversy about the Definition of EI

Not only do researchers and scholars differ on the definition of EI, these same researchers and scholars regularly amend their own definitions. It’s clearly an indication of the growing interest in, and scrutiny of, the topic.

Following are some of the definitions of EI that have been offered over the years and later amendments:

  • 1990 – Peter Salovey and John Mayer – emotional intelligence is: “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
  • 1995 – Daniel Goleman – emotional intelligence – “knowing one’s emotions,” “managing emotions,” “motivating oneself,” “recognizing emotions in others” and “handling relationships.”
  • 1996 – Reuven Bar-On – emotional intelligence is: “an array of non-cognitive (emotional and social) capabilities, competencies and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.”
  • 1997 –  Six Seconds Team – emotional intelligence is: “the capacities to create optimal results in your relationships with yourself and others.”
  • 1998 – Daniel Goleman – emotional intelligence is: “self-awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, social skill.”
  • 2002 – Peter Salovey and John Mayer – emotional intelligence is: “The ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional meanings, and to reflectively regulate emotions in ways that promote emotional and intellectual growth.”
  • 2004 – John Mayer – emotional intelligence is: “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.”
  • 2009 – Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves – emotional intelligence is: “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships.”
  • 2018 – Six Seconds Team – emotional intelligence is “the capacity to blend thinking and feeling to make optimal decisions.”

While the details of these definitions differ, what most all of these definitions have in common is the sense-making of emotions, one’s own and those of others, to achieve an ideal outcome in relationship.  

We, at Learning in Action, align with much of that general definition. However, we see it as incomplete.

What’s Missing in Definitions of EI

For the last 20-plus years, the colloquial use of the term emotional intelligence has been shorthand for “good with people.” The most emotional intelligent person in a heated room would be the one who was most able to stay present, calm and focused on the topic at hand, while staying connected with both themselves and others. If you buy into this shorthand, even a little, clearly, there’s more going on than  simply being able to make sense of one’s own emotions and those of others.

From our perspective, several core capacities that are elemental to emotional intelligence are missing from the above definitions. For example, navigating challenging interpersonal terrain requires:

  • Not simply relying upon the emotional dimension of our experience, but also relying on our thoughts and our wants/desires
  • Not simply the recognition and understanding of emotions, but also the recognition and understanding of thoughts and desires/intentions of both ourself and others
  • Not simply giving in or acquiescing to others, but also staying connected with ourself
  • Not simply recognizing and understanding the emotions of others, but actually caring about and sharing in them
  • Not simply allowing the patterns of past relationships to blind us to the present, but seeing and accepting ourselves, others and the world as it is and as we are.

Without these essential internal capacities, emotional intelligence simply isn’t possible.

Learning in Action’s Definition of Emotional Intelligence

Our definition of EI is inspired and informed by the field of interpersonal neurobiology. Thus, our approach to defining and measuring EI is based upon science, but not constrained by it.  

We define emotional intelligence as the ability to recognize, understand and rely equally on all dimensions of our internal experience (our thoughts, wants and feelings, not simply our emotions) and the internal experience of others, to accept and be present in the moment with who and what is, and to stay connected with and separate from others in order to navigate wisely the challenges of interpersonal relationships.

The theoretical underpinnings of our approach to EI recognize the ways in which we are all shaped by the relationships and experiences in our lives, not only metaphorically, but neurobiologically. How we are shaped impacts how we see, think, feel and experience ourselves, others and the world around us.  

The end result of that shaping becomes our default experience – our patterns of thinking, feeling, wanting and focusing – that become the non-conscious backdrop to our lives and relationships. Only by becoming aware of how we’ve been shaped in ways we can’t see, are we able to become emotionally intelligent. (That is the awareness created by the EQ Profile).

We believe that emotional intelligence is an inside job. While we don’t diminish the importance of developing social skill, without the core capacities of emotional intelligence, it’s akin to “putting lipstick on a pig.”

The inner capacities that make up emotional intelligence can be developed once we are aware of them. 

Creating Awareness

Our core purpose at Learning in Action is to create greater awareness that leads to more choice and better relationships. Only by being aware of our default experience can we know what we are bringing into any challenging interpersonal situation.

Once we are aware of our non-conscious defaults – our patterns of thinking, feeling and wanting that have been shaped over the course of a lifetime – then (and only then) can we exercise more choice over who and how we want to be in relationship, and to create the relationships that we are proud of.

What about you?  How do you define and measure emotional intelligence? Has it changed over time? How so, and why?

Join the conversation.


P.S. Our next EQ Profile Certification course begins May 11, 2018. Register now. Hope to see you there!

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Posted in: Emotional Intelligence|Learning in Action

Angry? Who, ME?

April 5, 2018

I didn’t see myself as angry early in my career … and I was.

I accessed higher than ideal levels of anger, but didn’t recognize that within myself. Looking back, I can now understand both why I didn’t see the anger within me, and how my unrecognized anger hurt my working relationships.

This blog post is written with the hopes of opening the eyes of others who have high access to anger, but can’t see it.

Patterns Playing Out

In my early working life, I was acting out a pattern of behavior that had been modeled in my home throughout my childhood. To be clear, I, and only I, am responsible for my behavior. Now and then. And what is true is that I was shaped by my earliest relationships. And anger played a role in the shaping.

I didn’t see my anger because it was my default experience. It’s what was modeled for me and how I was wired to conduct day to day interactions. I didn’t experience myself as angry or not angry. I just was.

We are all shaped by our primary relationships. And not simply metaphorically, but also, neurobiologically. Meaning, the neural wiring of our brains, our mental models, our implicit understanding of what is is and isn’t acceptable are all shaped by our earliest relationships. And it can blind us to certain aspects of ourselves.

The Tale-Tell Signs of Anger

While I didn’t experience myself as angry, the signs were there if I had looked. My co-workers tended to give me a wide berth. Silence often followed after I spoke. I didn’t have the kinds of close personal connections at work that others had. Eventually, I was told that I was seen as having an agenda (which I thought was ludicrous.)

I just wanted to get s%$t done. I wanted to be successful. I didn’t think much about how I did that. I just did it. And because I was unaware of my inner experience and how that experience was playing out, I didn’t make the kinds of connections with my co-workers that would have enabled me to be more successful.

Angry Shadow in the Workplace

I’m not the only person who accesses anger without feeling it, knowing it, or seeing it. I believe there are armies of people, just like the younger me, in workplaces across America.

While there are a number of studies on Anger in the Workplace, they are mainly about physically aggressive or verbally abusive behavior. The more common, more subtle, more pernicious presence of anger is in the non-conscious internal experience of anger that people access and don’t see. Meaning, many people access anger and don’t recognize it in themselves.

Angry? Who, Me?

When anger is a dominant part of our internal experience and is not overtly manifest in our behavior, it’s easy for us to dismiss the notion that we might be accessing anger. In fact, I’ve worked with a number of clients who reported (in their EQ Profile) experiencing anger more than any other distressing emotion, and still didn’t recognize the anger in themselves.

Access to anger is one of the many dimensions of internal experience that the EQ Profile measures.And when an EQ Profile reveals greater access to anger than is ideal, people often push back, saying “This isn’t right. I’m not angry. I hardly ever get angry.” One might say that they are accessing anger (or resistance) at the idea that they access anger. 🙂

The Fingerprint of Anger

Anger has a recognizable fingerprint (if you know what to look for …and want to see it). Anger, like other emotions, has a direction. Anger points outward. “I’m angry at you.” The focus of anger is on the Other. (The Other person, the Other thing, Other Situation). People who have high access to anger tend to focus outside of themselves when challenged. That might look like blaming or judging or competing with or dominating the Other. Or like feeling victimized by the Other.

The essence of anger is rejection, resistance or non-acceptance of something or someone. There is no curiosity in anger, no openness, no uncertainty. Anger is right! Maybe even righteous! Some people enjoy the feeling of anger because it provides them with clarity, with a feeling of being right. If we are feeling right, there is a good chance we are also accessing anger!

The language of anger points outward, as well, and implies resistance. Many people who don’t see themselves as angry, tend to see anger as binary (versus as a spectrum) and as extreme (versus nuanced). However, anger, like all emotions, is experienced on a spectrum from “peeved to seething.” Anger has many nuanced shades that include annoyed, frustrated, irritated, perturbed, ticked, rankled, riled, livid, vexed, impatient, appalled. As people describe their challenging experiences, they’ll use these words that fall on the anger spectrum, often without noticing it

The Underlying Meaning of Anger

The underlying meaning of anger is essentially, “I’ve been wronged.” That’s why anger makes us feel so right!

Exactly what that wrong is, is unique to the person experiencing the anger and the meaning they’ve made of the situation. People who are angry can be convinced of the absolute correctness of their response. However, for any given situation that provokes anger in one person, the exact same situation can occur for someone else and they will not access anger. Our anger is all about the meaning we’ve made of the situation, and is unique to us.

The internal language that someone accessing higher levels of anger might use to explain to someone why they are angry would sound like, “You are wrong!” “You wronged me.” “You are at fault.” “You are to blame.” Most people would not externalize this language, particularly in the workplace, however it would be the voice of their internal experience. Again, the focus is on the Other.

When the person accessing anger turns the spotlight back on themselves (if they do), and owns their experience, the internal language might sound more like, “My needs are not being met.” “My values are being violated.” “This is not what I wanted / expected.” “My voice is not being heard.”

Guide for Coaches with Clients who have High Access to Anger

It’s common for clients who have easy access to anger not to see it. And though it may show up in their 360 feedback, that often merely reinforces their focus on the Other. The key is to connect them with their inner experience using what you both witness together in your coaching sessions.

If you have clients who don’t see their anger, consider the following approaches to help them see and process their anger:

  • Listen and mirror the emotion words your client uses. As your client describes challenging situations, listen for words like “frustrating,” “annoying,” “irritating” (all anger words) and mirror that and be curious.
  • Listen and mirror the focus of your client’s words. As your client describes challenging situations, listen for where their focus is. If it’s on the Other or outside themselves or if they are giving their power away, mirror that and be curious.
  • Attend to your client’s tone of voice, facial expressions and body language. Some clients don’t use emotive words, however, their voice, facial expressions and / or body language may appear rigid, tight, defensive or resistant. Mirror that and be curious.
  • Divine what is underneath the anger. Considering asking questions like, “What of your needs are not being met?” “Which of your values are being violated?” “How is this different than you expected / wanted / hoped?” “How are you feeling unheard?”
  • Access the missing perspective. When you are sensing the anger in your client, mirror and explore it using some of the techniques mentioned. Then, at the right time, consider asking your client how they might have contributed to the situation that provoked their anger. What of it do they own? If they continue to focus outside themselves, respond defensively or like a victim, or respond rigidly, mirror that and be curious. (We all can tend to lose our agency when we are angry, because our focus is outward. These kinds of inquiries can help our clients regain their sense of agency.)

These approaches can help your client connect more fully with their internal experience, giving them more access to themselves. Anger can be disconnecting because the focus shifts so strongly to the Other. And turning your client’s attention back on themselves can connect them more with themselves and ultimately with others.

Do you have clients who don’t see their anger? What have you tried to help them see it? How have you helped your clients see their anger and connect more fully to themselves?

Join the conversation.

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Posted in: Assessment Tools|Coaching|Emotional Intelligence|Learning in Action

Can Anger Be Good?

March 16, 2018

Yes….is the short answer. Lest I give ragers permission to rage, I’ll explain further.

All emotions contain both information and gifts. Our emotions contain messages that no other dimension of our experience provides. If we don’t experience an emotion, we lose access to important information about ourselves and our experience. Also, each emotion comes with its own gifts that improve the quality of our relationships. Believe it or not, anger can improve the quality of our relationships! Crazy, right?

The Information in Anger

The information or message for us in the emotion of anger is “I’ve been violated” or “Someone / something I value has been violated,” or “This is not what I wanted / expected / hoped for.” All meaning, something is not right here!

Often times, our anger is prompted by a violation of our values. Even though we might not know for sure what those values are. Other times, our anger is triggered by unmet expectations. Regardless of how reasonable or communicated or clear those expectations might be.

Anger can be like the lightning rod that points us in the direction of our values, our unmet needs, our boundaries. It provides us with important clues to our inner world, the assumptions we make, the ideals we hold, the projections and presumptions we place on others and the world.

The Gifts of Anger

The gifts of anger, when received, demonstrate how anger can be good for us and for our relationships. The gifts of anger include boundary-setting, direction-setting, and motivation.

Anger helps us identify for ourselves and others what’s okay and what’s not okay,

helping us to set clear boundaries. Anger has a way of clarifying what’s important to us, providing direction, making clear what was previously foggy. Anger can give us the energy to right a wrong, to take a stand, not just for ourselves but for others, as well.

Anger, when experienced in proportion to the situation, and addressed with care for others, can be an appropriate response that fosters healthy relationships.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” This saying is so old and has been adopted by so many cultures that no one quite knows its origin. Anger is like an emotional fence that helps us to maintain a healthy separation from others, to stay differentiated from others. It helps us know where we stop and others start. Even Benjamin Franklin said, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Smart man.

What Do We Mean By Anger

Some people think of anger one way: bug-eyed fury. That’s not how most people experience anger. Anger is not binary, on or off. And it’s not one volume, screeching or silent. Anger is an emotional spectrum from mild irritation to outrage.

All of the following emotions fall somewhere on the spectrum of the emotion of anger: (in no particular order) annoyed, frustrated, irritated, ticked, impatient, perturbed, dismayed, infuriated, outraged, bitter, indignant, mad, seething, cross, enraged, provoked, rankled, riled, livid, vexed, appalled, spiteful.

Some people insist they don’t feel anger, perhaps because they’d prefer not to think of themselves as angry (or want to be seen that way). However, they often recognize feeling irritated or frustrated or annoyed or impatient. All of these emotions are nuanced colors within the emotional color palate of anger.

Feeling Angry ≠ Acting Angry

Many people conflate the concepts of feeling angry and acting angry. We are used to hearing things like “I am angry!” Meaning I = Angry. Feeling, being, and acting are all merged into one. When I = Angry, there is no space for observation or choice.

However, we can feel angry and not = angry or act angry.

We have a choice point between our internal experience of our feeling and our behavior. We may not recognize that choice, and it’s there. Acting angry may feel almost involuntary for us, until we learn to understand ourselves, what is triggering our anger and how to press pause to determine an appropriate response. Feeling angry and expressing it in ways that both connect and separate us is essential for a healthy relationship, personal or professional.

What’s Lost by Not Experiencing Anger

If we don’t access our anger (and some people don’t), we lose the information it would provide. We don’t acknowledge or connect with the violation or the unmet need. As a result, we tolerate behaviors from others that those who experience healthy levels of anger wouldn’t tolerate. And our toleration of otherwise intolerable behaviors teaches people how they can treat us.

If we don’t access anger, we don’t enjoy its gifts. We may not set boundaries. We may not take a stand for ourselves or others. We may allow people to manipulate, take advantage of, or unintentionally overwhelm us with work or emotion. Not accessing anger has significant implications for the quality of our life and relationships.

Why People Don’t Get Angry

If anger has all of this information, these gifts and these obvious advantages, what keeps people from experiencing anger?

Author and addiction specialist, Dr. Gabor Mate, spoke to this question in a recent interview with Tim Ferriss. Dr. Mate connected the dots something like this:

For the first many years of our lives, we are reliant on the care, love and attention of others (usually our parents) for our survival.

During that time, we learn many things, including what’s okay and what’s not okay within our family. If we have parents that were, for example, raised by rageaholics, they might tell us, in so many ways, that “Good little children don’t get angry.” They may chide us or ignore us for our anger. What we learn from that is “Angry little children don’t get loved.”

We need love to survive. So we think, “I’d better not get angry.” We learn not to access anger in order to survive.

Instead of accessing anger to set boundaries and create separation, people who have been taught not to access anger may tend to move toward or merge with persons they are in conflict with, making the other person’s feelings and responsibilities their own. The fear of the loss of connection may cause them to lose the boundary that defines them.

Recognizing Suppressed Anger and the Cost

Many people who suppress their anger, don’t see the cost. They may feel that not experiencing anger is a good thing, a benefit to themselves and their relationships. They may be rewarded for their good behavior. They may have an underlying belief that anger is bad or wrong. They may fear the loss of the relationship more than they fear the loss of themselves.

Leaders who don’t experience anger may encounter a number of challenges that impact their leadership.

They may keep poor performing employees too long. They may suppress their own opinions or give up their authority or defer to others to not “make a fuss.” They may take on more work, more responsibility than is theirs to take. They may rationalize reasons not to delegate, not wanting to put more work on others. As a result, they can easily become overworked and overwhelmed by all that they feel they need / have to take on.

They do all of this, consciously or unconsciously, to stay in relationship. They prioritize their relationships over themselves. (And this shows up in their EQ Profile results.)

Coaching Leaders Who Don’t Access Anger

Leaders who don’t access anger often don’t draw clear boundaries. The two tend to go hand in hand.

Without clear boundaries, leaders tend to take on more than is theirs to take. They feel responsible for not only the work but also the emotions of others. As a result, they feel overworked and overwhelmed.

Often times, these leaders can’t see where or how a boundary could be set. They can’t see the option of asking for help or saying no or not stepping in to catch every falling knife. Drawing boundaries is foreign and uncomfortable for them. They turn a blind eye to the personal toll it takes on them.

A common approach to coaching these leaders would be to inquire about the cost to the leader of taking on so much; to explore how not asking for help and not saying no impacts their health, their well-being, their effectiveness.

The leader may reluctantly admit, “It’s true, I’m burnt out. Yes, I’ll ask for help. Yes, I’ll say ‘no’ next time. Yes, I’ll let my peer / boss / direct report do their own work.” But none of that happens.

In my experience, the way to help leaders who don’t access anger to set boundaries, or say no, or ask for help, is by connecting them with the cost to their loved ones.

When leaders take on too much responsibility, and work longer hours due to not setting boundaries, it often results in less quality time with the people they love most. Their loved ones and their relationships pay the price. When a leader realizes that they might be compromising their most important relationships because of a challenge with setting boundaries, then they can be coached into finding their voice, defining what’s okay and what’s not okay, and connecting with themselves.Ca

Coaches can use the value of the leader’s most important relationships to help the leader draw healthy boundaries elsewhere.

What about you? Do you have clients who don’t access anger? How does it show up? How do you help your clients draw boundaries?

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Posted in: Learning in Action

Who You Are is How You Coach

March 9, 2018


How did an idea – encountered during a dialogue – move coaching beyond competencies and skills?

It was during a conversation 17 years ago that Edna Murdoch, co-founder of the Coaching Supervision Academy, happened upon an idea that Who you are is how you coach!

It’s All About The Client, Right?!

For those who were taught that the coach is never part of the picture – “It’s all about the client.” – this can be quite surprising. Who I am influences how I coach? Really?

I can easily answer who I am: I’m a Master Certified Coach (MCC), a coach educator and I’ve been coaching since at least 1990. I have a name, an address, a social security number, a degree or two; and I’m an ENFP – that’s who I am. At one level, yes.

What Edna was, and is, talking about is more complex: the nuance of how I coach is subtle stuff. It is not only my credentials, my experience, my validated competencies or what it says on my website.

Coaching is not simply a set of techniques, though techniques are important. It is not a set of preplanned transactions, though there are transactions between coach and client.

Coaching is an exchange, an interaction, a dance between two human beings who have experiences, pressures, hopes, dreams, biases, preferences, styles, personalities, patterns… The list goes on and on.

These factors shape who is interacting with the client from moment to moment and session by session throughout a coaching engagement. Who I am at a given moment is how I coach.

The Character of the Coach Matters

On a more technical basis, we can turn to research on the key factors that determine successful outcomes between coach and client. Dr. Erik DeHaan, in Relational Coaching (John Wiley and Sons Ltd, West Sussex, England, 2008), quotes studies about helping professions that conclude the character of the helper is one of four key factors which determines positive outcomes from the engagement.

In other words, once again – who you are matters.

My core self shapes how I interact with and am seen by my clients. If I am reserved, quiet, contemplative by nature, that’s likely to be how I coach. If I am energetic, fast paced, crisp, driving – that’s how I show up. Fortunately, the world is full of clients looking for the right match.

Who We Are Changes

Regardless of that core self, who I am also changes from moment to moment. In different contexts, I am a bit different, and if I know that, I am more prepared to deal with it.

In a stark example, people with whom I work in both French and English say that I’m just a bit different when I speak English and when I speak French.

When I coach a senior executive in a large health care company, I’m a bit different from when I’m working with a scientist. I’m aware that I speak differently. My pace is different.

And, here’s a key point, how I think of myself is a bit different, too. I am quite fond of scientists and, on the other hand, I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with very senior executives in health care.

Knowing this about myself helps me be effective.

Seeing Ourselves in Our Coaching

Another way of looking at who we are comes from Transactional Analysis (TA) – the ego states of parent, adult, and child.

My own supervisor helped me see that at a specific point, my coaching client and I were moving from state to state. I saw that for the briefest moment I was a rebellious child while he was a rather bossy parent. We didn’t get stuck there, but in that moment, my interaction with him and my coaching questions were coming from somewhere other than my best self, my competent MCC self.

What can we do with this notion, “Who you are is how you coach?”

Since 2009, I’ve been studying and teaching  Coaching Supervision, in which a coach strives to be awake, aware, and conscious of all that is happening in a coaching session and relationship. Supervision often comes down to generating a good sense of our core self, our triggers to the extent we can know them and, most importantly, to know what is going on for us from moment to moment.

In supervision, we ask questions such as, what am I experiencing right now? Am I reacting blindly or habitually? Am I distracted or present? Am I a competent adult right now (in the TA sense)?

The story of Alice In Wonderland (Lewis Carroll 1865) illustrates this as well as anything I know. In one passage the caterpillar asks Alice, “Who are you?”

Alice responds, “I knew who I was when I woke up this morning, but I’ve changed so many times today, I’m not sure.”

As a coach, I believe I am obligated to know, as best I can, who I am as I accompany my clients on their learning journey. During a single day, I, like Alice, have been known to change many times.

Relationship to EQ

Understanding our Emotional Intelligence is part of understanding ourselves as coaches.

Emotional Intelligence calls for us to be self-aware and to self-regulate. It explores our access to a range of feelings, positive-negative balance, balance of thoughts-wants-feelings, self-other balance, empathy and relationship strategies. What I’m calling out here is the need for self-observation in contexts.

The more aware I am of how I show up in various settings, the more capacity I have to make choices in service of my clients. If I’m on autopilot or assume I am as constant as the north star, I delude myself.

One of my great learnings I received was from the EQ Profile, an instrument that measures one’s internal experience under stress.

I learned that I have excessively high standards for myself. If I don’t watch myself, I can go to my cranky place when I’m afraid of not measuring up. It’s not a nice experience for my clients! They get confused about the different Sam who suddenly walked in the room.

Back to France for an example. I was, at a certain moment, so freaked out about speaking French in a professional context that I got all flustered and grumpy with my colleague in front of the group. None of the participants cared about my French; they were all engaged in the cool demonstration! As a French friend once told me, “Sam, tu mets le bar trop haut!” Translated, “You set the bar too high!”

Meanwhile, that old caterpillar in Alice and Wonderland? He gets it. He is at home with his own continual internal changes.


How about you? Do you know your patterns? Do you know what triggers you when coaching particular sorts of people? Do you diminish your quality when you lose your footing?

-Sam Magill, Sr., MCC


Join us at this month’s podinar to explore who we are in how we coach!

Editor’s note: We’re so glad to share Sam’s insights with you through this guest blog post. Join Sam and me (Alison) for our upcoming podinar, where we’ll explore the topic of Who you are is how you coach! We’ll dive deeper into the topic and you can ask your own questions. We’d love for you to register and join us live, or register to receive the recording afterward. LIVE Wed. March 28, 2018, 10:30-12:00 PT / 1:30-3:00 ET.



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Posted in: Learning in Action

Want a Better Life? Try Changing Your Focus.

March 1, 2018

My father passed away recently. My thoughts are saturated with him. 
There are many words I’d use to describe my dad, but the word optimistic stands out the most. 

A few years ago, I asked my dad what it was that made him so optimistic. He replied simply, “I’ve never failed!” Hmmm….

Can you imagine?! Living for nearly 86 years and believing you’ve never failed?! (To be clear, my dad, a humble man, wasn’t boasting, just explaining.)

As I’ve reflected upon my dad, I’ve wondered about the mindset that resulted in his believing he’d never failed. (Most days, I feel like I’ve failed at least once before breakfast. I didn’t inherit his optimism.)

I’ve determined that the key to his optimism was in his perspective and what he chose to focus on.

Optimism (Like Failure) is a Matter of Perspective

Clearly, my dad’s belief that he’d never failed was a product of his perspective. Most people living his same life would likely frame it differently. They might say they’d failed many times, in smaller and bigger ways, learned from those failures, and applied what they’d learned.

While my dad did accomplish a great many things in his life (mainly in the business arena – many said he had a Midas touch), he definitely lived a very human and imperfect life. He wasn’t a good student (he played too much), he made decisions (or didn’t make decisions) that he would have made differently in hindsight, and not everything he pursued came to fruition.

What you and I might call failures didn’t seem to stick with him. They didn’t matter or were irrelevant to him. He focused so little on what didn’t work out that his ‘failures’ were consigned to oblivion.

It’s About Focus

What was it about my dad that created such an optimistic perspective? My dad focused on the positive. I know, yawner, right? How many times have you heard, “Focus on the positive!”?

Throughout my life, I’ve heard it dozens, if not hundreds of times, though never from my father. He simply did it.

Our own data from the EQ Profile, an instrument that reveals one’s level of positivity under stress– reveals that people who focus on the positive, experience fewer distressing feelings. Something about focusing on the positive makes the rest of our experience better, lighter.

So, I’ve decided to attempt to reverse engineer exactly what it was that my dad focused on that allowed him to be so optimistic. I’ve written this blog post as if he’s teaching me how to shape my focus to become more optimistic.
My hope is that if you have clients who could use a bit more optimism, this post might be a resource for them.

Work in the Sweet Spot 

Find the intersection of what you are good at, what you love to do and what makes a difference. And DO THAT!

When you spend time in that sweet spot, you’ll find that you are having fun, that you are in the flow, that you feel joy and gratification. Over time, you’ll enjoy the experience of mastery, which is its own reward.

My dad went to work, most days, up until a week or so before he died at age 87. Work was his medicine. Work never felt like work to him. It’s what he chose and loved to do. He experienced mastery.

Focus on the Pluses

Focus on what’s working, what’s good, what’s positive. Any given day is full of pluses and minuses. Focus on the pluses. Doing or experiencing more of the pluses will get you further than trying to focus on and fix the minuses.

My dad’s doctor recommended hospice to our family more than two and half years before he died. When my dad was ill and began to feel an ounce better, he focused on that. And that ounce got bigger and bigger until he WAS better. He did this throughout his life, focusing on what was good, on what was working.

Set Realistic Goals

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) sounds good, sure. But most of the time, for most people, setting realistic goals works better. Setting a series of realistic goals that result in a string of small wins usually produces better results than swinging for the fences. Once you have a string of wins behind you, and you know what you can confidently produce, then you can aim higher. 

It’s easy to look at my dad’s accomplishments and imagine that he set one BHAG after another. I know that he didn’t. Whatever he did, he started small, planned and analyzed thoroughly, worked smart and hard. And that created small successes that led to bigger ones.

Focus on Your Successes

Focus on what you’ve done that’s worked. Focus on what you’ve done that you’re proud of. We spend way too much time ruminating on what we didn’t do or what didn’t work. That only makes us miserable. The book, Hardwiring Happiness, provides the neuroscientific evidence that proves this point. By focusing on our successes, our pleasures, our pluses, we can live a happier, more content, more fulfilled life.

My dad loved his life. Even at the end, when he was practically blind, quite deaf without his hearing aids, and needed a walker to get around, he focused on what he still could do, and he got joy from that.

Focus on the Good in Others

Look for and see the best in others. When you look for, see and acknowledge the good in others, they feel seen and appreciated. And they do more of what you noticed. And they enjoy being with you.

At the end of his life, my dad had a company with three full time employees who had worked for him for a decade or more. They were more like family than employees. They loved working for my dad, and enjoyed the time they spent at work.

Never Stop Hoping

We can always hope. No matter how dark things are, no matter how difficult life can be, we can always hope things will get better. Studies show that hope isn’t simply a dream or a passing belief. It’s a dynamic cognitive motivational system that is conducive to growth and improvement.

My dad never stopped hoping that even the most intractable challenges in his life would get better.

Focus is a Choice

I recently started reading a book called Happiness is a Choice, after hearing the author interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The idea that happiness is a choice kind of ticked me off. 

Choice assumes control. And I don’t believe I can control my thoughts. And I don’t believe I can control my emotions. So how is it that happiness can be a choice?

I’ve come to learn, from studying my dad and from reading the books mentioned herein, that when we focus on the good in ourselves, in others and in our lives, we are happier, more joyful, more content. And focus is a choice. 

While I may not be able to control my thoughts or my emotions, I can control my focus. And I will.

I will aim to place my focus on the good in myself, the people in my life and the events of my life, to honor my dad, and to become more optimistic.

How do you focus on opportunities and positivity? 
Is it a struggle? Or something you’ve made great progress on? 

– Alison


Alison Whitmire
President | Learning In Action


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