Emotional Intelligence: What I Learnt From a Company of Young Actors

Back in the ‘90s my manager passed me a copy of Dan Goleman’s book ‘Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ’.  Fads come and go but his description of EQ - tuning into your own emotions, noticing what impact they have on your thoughts and behaviour, and on others, and adjusting thoughtfully - consistently resonated for me.  I explore EQ with clients in the business world and it often provides a useful lens for leaders.    

Separately last year I was getting a train out of London with my son at around 4pm and our quiet carriage became overrun with secondary school students on their journey home.  Far from being rowdy and disruptive, the carriage remained silent.  My son and I watched as they sat side by side, each staring at their phones.  I’m not judging – they probably had a day full of engaging face-to-face, the train journey being a time to zone out.  And maybe they were being very emotionally intelligent, electronically.    

But for all the benefits of zoning out, I was left thinking how valuable it is to be able to be present and to connect in an emotionally intelligent way, not just for business leaders but for young students too.

Over the summer I had a chance to put my theory to the test, when I was invited to run a workshop with the young actors of District 64, an up-and-coming arts company.   I had planned to introduce EQ to them; what it meant for them as actors, as members of a company, and as young citizens.  Their week was themed around technology, social media and presence, culminating in a performance entitled “Present Absent”.  I could see the fit between technology, social media, presence and emotional intelligence but would EQ connect with this group?

I had other concerns and wobbles about this work.  As a teen, acting was my passion, but as an adult I took a more conventional path.  Facilitating young actors vs. business leaders was out of my comfort zone and my conscious and unconscious biases were planting all sorts of assumptions:

·      EQ will be news to them;

·      They are teens – they won’t get empathy;

·      They will want to get on with the acting;

·      They will treat me like a PSHE teacher, or worse, a supply PSHE teacher;

·      I will have to work hard to get them to engage with the topic and will have to dramatically change my strategies.

Those of you more familiar with young adults may not be surprised to know I was wrong on most counts! 

The group were engaged, thoughtful, curious and energetic.  Several of them knew exactly what EQ was and were able to articulate it beautifully.   They commented, questioned and challenged and didn’t take my words for granted.  Our discussions were animated and their enthusiasm was infectious.

Empathy and Teens

Our exercises focussed on empathy and active listening, key behaviours of EQ.  Empathy is a fascinating topic to explore with young adults; a quick internet search suggests that teens cannot easily access empathy due to their developing brains; if this was to be believed my work would be cut out.  However the D64 students demonstrated empathy ably in their scenes and discussions.

This is much more consistent with research which contradicts the myth of the selfish teen.  Rather than saying that teens don’t demonstrate empathy, research from the Centre for Adolescent Development at Utrecht University highlights that their empathy is under development. If it is under development, it’s more important we positively support and reinforce that growth.  Further research from the Utrecht unit suggests that parents and young adults who can express emotional flexibility have better quality long-term relationships.

(As an aside, research from the Netherlands (again), suggested that use of social media in adolescents improved both their ability to understand (cognitive empathy) and to share the feelings (affective empathy) of their peers.)

Active Listening and Teens (and the rest of us!)

Back to the D64’ers and our next exercise – active listening, without speaking; this was a definitely a greater challenge. 

The urgency with which many of us want to intervene and share our point of view, is common to both younger and older adults.  But how can we respond with EQ if we haven’t taken the time to truly listen? 

And as an actor, really listening on stage as though you had never heard those words before (instead of getting ready for your next line) is a real skill.   So the students were challenged to listen to their partner for 2 minutes without intervening, verbally and physically; to listen with attention, curiosity and without judgment (á la Nancy Kline or Carl Rogers), allowing the peer to have space to explore their train of thought.  Unsurprisingly this was not easy.

In a social media setting, I was reminded of a phrase used by a friend and academic who described the pressure to comment online as ‘performative’ – less listening or reading to understand, more feeling pressured to make a statement of great interest, hilarity, gravity, relevance and so forth.  (As I write this blog, I hold that mirror up to myself!)

 So how can they improve their active listening?  Through practice, yes, but also through experiencing the benefits from those around them; parents, teachers, friends and so on.  The more we value this skill and role model to this fertile group, the better.

And what did I learn from them? 

As well as understanding their perspective on EQ, technology and presence, it raised plenty of questions and thoughts for me as a coach and facilitator, including:

·      How can I create an environment, with my business clients, that replicates the same wide-eyed curiosity and energy shown by the students of D64?

·      I love acting and therefore how can I incorporate it more into my work (clients watch out!!) and finally:

·      It reinforced to me that focus on being present, active listening, empathy and EQ are all more relevant then ever, for teens and adults of all ages alike.



Van der Graaff J, Carlo G, Crocetti E, Koot HM and Branje S (2018) “Prosocial Behavior in Adolescence: Gender Differences in Development and Links with Empathy,” Journal of youth and adolescence, 47(5), pp. 1086–1099.

Vossen, H. G. M. and Valkenburg, P. M. (2016) “Do Social Media Foster or Curtail Adolescents' Empathy? A Longitudinal Study,” Computers in Human Behavior, 63.



Mountain-biking and the purpose of ‘Purpose’

I was recently asked to deliver a talk on the subject of “Purpose” – what it is and how to coach for it.  When researching I was pondering how to address such a meaty, meaningful topic without being overly earnest or positioning myself as a modern-day guru!

As I reflected, I was reminded of an experience I had 15 years ago.  My husband and I were living in London at the time and had invested in shiny new mountain bikes.  I regularly cycled to work, but the thought of throwing myself down a woodland hill in the pursuit of leisure, was pushing me well out of my comfort zone.  So I booked us onto a mountain-biking course and we headed out into the Buckinghamshire countryside with a couple of friends to learn some new skills.

I started timidly, making slow progress through the forest – there were so many things I could ride into, and many I did.  (This was in stark contrast to my fearless other half who sped off in the distance.)

We regrouped with the coach and he took us through some basic skills.  There were two particular messages he imparted which have stayed with me from that day:

·      “You look at a tree, you hit the tree!” and
·      “You look at the root you hit the root, and fall off” (a particular hazard if your feet are clicked into the pedals!)

Instead, the instructor taught me to look up and ahead, through the trees, picking out the path.  He explained, as you ride along the path, towards your destination, you ride quickly and smoothly over the individual bumps.

This was a revelation for me – firstly, I had far fewer crashes, and caused less damage to the flora and fauna, but also, instead of stressing about every single little obstacle, I learnt to relax and ride over them, and travel fluidly towards my destination.

That experience, amongst the trees, became a powerful metaphor for me, for the purpose of ‘Purpose’; a guiding compass that supports us staying on track when distracted or blindsided. 

A metaphor may be one thing but it is rare to openly discuss ‘purpose’, let alone consider what it could be.

So let’s start with how it is defined; the dictionary suggests “why you do something” or “determination or a feeling for having a reason for what you do”.

In my experience with clients it is about having a set of guiding principles or a direction.  This is different to setting short-term goals (although very valuable), and equally it’s not about setting the GPS and heading off rigidly regardless of what’s happening on the roads around you.

Instead, it’s about considering what our values are, when we are in ‘flow’ (see the work of positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for more on this), when we are energised, discovering our strengths and our hopes and finding a sweet spot.

In a business setting you generally have a high level plan, a mission perhaps.  And yet, we don’t tend to do this for our personal lives.  In fact most of us manage quite fine/bumble along without explicitly exploring our purpose.  However evidence suggests having a thought out purpose brings significant life and health benefits.

In his research of long life and health Dan Buettner studied regions with a significantly high concentration of centenarians – looking for any common elements amongst those populations that we could learn from.  In his fascinating research he details the commonalities of these ‘Blue Zones’ that include diet, natural movement, connection and having the right outlook. 

His study took him to a group of Japanese islands called Okinawa where there is the oldest living female population and the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world.  In this society, where there is no word for retirement, he found people lived by their guiding principles of ikigai.   Ikigai is roughly translated as:

“The reason for which you wake up in the morning” or “the reason for being”.

He gave examples of some of the ikigai of his interviewees such as fishing daily or spending time with Great-Great-Great-Grandchildren (they are old!)  You’ll note that these are not necessarily about saving the world, although don’t let that stop you.  These are simpler but nevertheless life-affirming principles.


Dan Pink explores Purpose in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.  He attributes motivation or drive to three elements: Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose.  He comments:

“Autonomous people working towards mastery perform at very high levels.  But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more.”

If you have purpose you are more likely to believe you have power and responsibility to chose between options and make decisions.  The opposite – powerlessness – is a source of frustration and stress.  Indeed, having a purpose is a key lever to pull when building up resilience.

So how do you define your own purpose? There are many exercises you can use to start you on your journey of reflection.  Here is a sample below.

1.    The caterpillar question’ 

In Alice in Wonderland the caterpillar asks Alice “who are you?” Can you distil the essence of ‘you’ into one sentence?  Start by considering the following question, “Based on all the actions and behaviours of your life so far, how would you objectively define yourself?”  This may take several iterations to build one sentence.  Once you have your current definition, reflect on whether this is the message you want as your defining motivating statement?  It may be.  If not, can you redesign it to be more inspirational and motivating for you? 

2.    Be, Do, Have’

This long-standing tool turns on its head the default behaviour of ‘doing’ in order ‘to have’ and therefore ‘to be’.  By starting the process of looking at who or what we want to ‘be’ we are taking a more conscious choice on what we ‘do’, and therefore we are more likely to create or ‘have’ outcomes that are congruent with our values.  So, put simply, ask yourself, ‘Who am I and what is important to me?’ ‘What do I need to do?  What actions do I need to take?’ and ‘What do I want to have, what outcomes’?

3.    ‘Ikigai’'

Populate your own ikigai, using the venn diagram above.

About ten years ago I wrote my own purpose as I made the career move from finance to HR.  Out of curiosity I dug it out.  I wrote of learning, uncovering self-insight and releasing potential in others; I found it quietly reassuring I am still on this path, and get much joy from doing so.

And as for my mountain biking, well, no one would describe me as a fearless speed demon, but I can cruise through woods at my own pace.  Or maybe I’ll join the masses, hit the tarmac and get a road-bike!

There's 'vivid' all around!

On this bright and sunny April morning, I have set myself a small and hopefully stimulating challenge - to look for 'Vivid' all around me!

I'm a typically positive person, hence my branding, but I wanted to think about what Vivid means to me.  Whether it's images, observations or experiences, my aim is to lift my eyes from my ipad/laptop/phone etc. and capture the Vivid around me.  

I was discussing this with my kids this morning as we walked to school.  They were feeling the post-Easter holiday excitement and fears of returning to school; joy at seeing friends, and doing more art this term, and nerves about who they'd be sat next too.  They tentatively agreed to their own challenge today, to see some good in the outcome of their biggest fear - where they were seated.  With a few grunts and groans, they agreed and negotiated that they may find only one 'good' vs. several annoyances but we'll see how we get on!

So to my challenge, here's my first 'Vivid' (a photo this time - take a look above).  

And here's to sharing - when you lift your eyes up, and soak in what's around you, what Vivid do you notice? I'd love to hear!

Gratitude vs. aspiration with added skydiving, poetry and a great big comfy sofa!

For six years my husband and I were lucky enough to live, and work in Sydney, Australia.  It was a wonderful, carefree time, and it was there that we had our three children; a daughter and then very shortly after twins.  When the twins were born I remember changing over 20 nappies a day, with chapped hands and not a lot of sleep! 

People often ask me how I coped at that time with three babies under 18 months.  A hands-on dad and a year’s maternity leave were helpful, but what kept me sane were huge gratitude and an appreciation for the small things in our chaotic life.

I remember making a choice to focus on performing the basics, as best as I could and then viewed anything else as an upside - a walk to look at the sea, a trip to the corner shop, moments when all three were asleep at the same time.  As many parents will relate to, it is a bit like being stuck in an endless endurance event but utterly, utterly joyful.  

And gratitude was key.

There are many definitions of gratitude and appreciation but here’s one for consideration:

Gratitude is the ability to see and appreciate good.  Appreciation is about being in the present; a mindfulness of what you are grateful of.  So I am grateful for a warm home, and I appreciate in the moment, the comfort, sanctuary, and safety that that warmth brings.

The value of gratitude has been written about through history, especially in religious teaching.  More recently there are an increasing number of studies linking gratitude and well being.  The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology noted that of all the big personality traits gratitude has the highest connection with happiness and mental health.

Back in 2003, Dr Robert Emmons, psychologist and leading expert on gratitude, conducted a study where a group of participants who recorded weekly gratitude journals, felt more optimistic, exercised more regularly and reported fewer physical symptoms than the group who diarised the negative aspects of their week. (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)

So gratitude breeds contentment, calmness, feeling grounded and all round loveliness, in me at least! 

However, last month I read an article that suggested that it might have its limitations.

What if gratitude and contentment were the soft velvet cushions on a great big comfy sofa and aspiration was squashed underneath?

 Can we be so content that we don’t push ourselves out of our comfort zone and discover a newer, even more luxurious seat?

My own experience made me wonder whether this could be true.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in three different activities that would be stretching for me, and I mentally said no to all of them.  

 I could go down many psychological avenues here but the one I chose to explore was the role of gratitude.  My life would still be amazing if I didn’t accept the three challenges, because I am grateful.  And this has been my internal justification or excuse dialogue. 

 (In case you’re interested, the three are; indoor-sky-diving, entering an obstacle race ('Tough Mudder' style); and performing poetry in a drama event.  None of these are extraordinarily stretching for me.  (You don’t need to look far in your own friends, families and communities to find a proper definition truly stretching.)  However I have a low level of fear of all of them:

  • Fear of tumbling around a large windy tube, in a blue jumpsuit with my cheeks flapping - Tick
  • Fear of being left at the bottom of a large muddy wall in tears -Tick
  • Fear of exposing true emotion on stage in front of my family, an audience and a judge - Big Tick

So I could say no and life absolutely continues.  

But what would happen if I said yes?  What will I get from pushing myself?  Will I achieve new levels of gratitude?

Dan Pink certainly thinks so.  In his book“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” (Riverhead, 2011) he writes of productive discomfort”.  Facing our fears involves discomfort, and from discomfort comes growth, and from growth comes motivation.  Add to that the fact that doing new things motivates and helps us learn on multiple levels.

This fits with the ideas you may read on operating outside your comfort zone.  The well-known diagram depicts us (well, me) sitting in the centre circle, on my sofa in the comfort zone.  If able, we stretch out to the next circle that is the learning zone, and if we go too far, we risk lurching towards the outside ring and into the panic zone.  It is in the learning zone that we grow, and potentially have more to be grateful for.

But if you are grateful, can you get out of the comfort zone?  

Dr Robert Emmons studied the link between gratitude and complacency, to respond to his detractors, who suggested that gratitude leads to laziness and lethargy, amongst other criticisms.  He found the opposite to be true; when people practiced gratitude consciously, e.g. using a journal, they were more successful in achieving their goals.  Their gratitude practice led to a sense of purpose and desire to do more.  This was amplified by the fact that his respondents felt more energised and in better health and therefore more able to achieve their goals.  

So it seems we can be grateful and be driven, and face our fears, and as proof I have signed up for my three challenges! 

I remain a big fan of gratitude - my glass is usually half full rather than half-empty - and this time I’m going to have a go at filling it to the brim and maybe, just maybe, joyfully letting it spill all over the floor, comfy sofa, cushions and all!

Post Script:

I have completed Challenge one and I have to admit I quite enjoyed indoor skydiving.  Despite obvious nerves, I was able to fly the right way up and I found the blue jumpsuit rather fetching!  

Why it takes 9 months to write a blog on procrastination and what you can do about it!

Why does it take so long to get cracking with something you know you’ll enjoy doing, you know you’ll learn from, you know will in all likelihood will turn out ok, and is pretty low risk if it goes wrong?

Maybe it just happens to me but it certainly seems a bit crazy!

Nine months ago, following an amazing NLP course, I committed to writing a blog.  It was something that made lots of logical and emotional sense to me - I like writing, I like reading and learning new stuff, so writing the blog would allow me to combine these three things.  Easy!  Eight months ago I launched the blog, announcing that the blog was coming…….eight months later……still nothing!

I’d argue that I wasn’t delaying, simply prioritising - prioritising family, client-facing work, the school PTA and other “stuff”….but is the “stuff” worth more than my development and interests?

I wanted to explore this further.  One of the reasons I hadn’t put pen to paper yet was that I couldn’t decide on the topic.   And so, deciding to tackle the enemy face on, ‘procrastination' seemed to the perfect subject to start with!

Face your fears

A fellow coach advised me “just do it” - the risk is low and in reality, how many people will read it at first?

In a succinct sentence she had hit on several of my blockers, my limiting beliefs that were stopping me from “just doing it”.  I realised I believed in all the following statements:

  • The blog has to be perfect (or perfect enough in my mind).
  • The people who do read it will judge my intellect, my ability to coach, my ability to write, my ability to be relevant, how nice I am, my parenting, how I run my life.…you get the idea!
  • It will take ages.
  • It needs to be original research.

These were preventing me from doing what I love, but were they actually true?  I looked at them in turn:

  • Perfect would be nice, but what is perfect?  And, although I am not advocating mediocrity, I’ve read some dross out there!  (Helpful dross, of course, as it’s given me encouragement!)
  • They may, or they may not judge me.  Let’s go with "may not” - and see if that takes me to a more productive space!
  • It doesn’t need to take ages.  I know a coach who writes very short blogs - just short thought provokers, and frankly, no one has got time to read War & Peace, when there’s Facebook status’s to keep up with!
  • I am original, my experience of the world is original, so anything I write will be original.

Damn it….I’ve run out of excuses now! 

Is this a pattern?

My procrastination is a familiar friend, a comfy chair - easier to hold back and be risk-sensitive than to be bold and put something out there.  It’s my habitat, and in that habitat a pattern of thought and behaviour has formed.

When you read up on NLP - the study of patterns of thoughts, language and behaviour - you come across patterns or programmes that are typical of procrastinators.   

"Away from” vs. “Towards"

  • If you exhibit “Away From” patterns you have a preference for considering what you “don’t want” rather than what you do and for attempting to address all your concerns before getting started, steering wide of risk. Security is a high priority and this sensitivity can easily stop you from diving in.
  • Conversely, if you show patterns of “towards” behaviour you express what you “do” want and easily and frequently set new goals with energy and drive.  This excitement may mean however that you’ve moved on before you've finished off.

“Options” vs. “Procedures"

  • Exploring options, finding choices, considering all angles are typical of the “Options” pattern.  At an extreme this is procrastination.
  • Compares with “procedures” behaviour, where you orderly create, complete and tick off lists. Wonderfully efficient, a person with a preference for “Procedures” may focus more on the procedure than on the outcome required.

“Considering” vs. “Doing"

  • Similar to “Options”; if you spot this pattern, research, exploring options and implications are all second nature, vs. a “Dooer” who prefers to be active - learning on the go. 

Any of these resonate?  Acknowledgement of your pattern is the starting point to trying out a new modus operandi: so climb out of your beanbag, kick off those ugg boots and give it a try!

Busy doing nothing….working the whole day through...

I don’t know about you but I’m quite a busy person, busy here, busy there….but too busy to do something fulfilling?

The modern phenomenon of multi-media distraction has been well documented.  Multi-tasking with all these alerts, pings, news feeds, blogs(!) etc. etc. - is doing us no good.  And then, if you work from home, there’s surfaces to be wiped, laundry to be processed...…... 

Why approach a challenging, hairy task when you can get an instant hit of gratification for tackling something far easier and quicker?  Get repeat hits mid-activity by quickly checking out what’s happening in the world, with your friends, quick bit of shopping and so on.

Neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin explores this in his book “The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”.  "Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation."

With mental fog and scrambled thinking I’ve got no chance of dealing with procrastination.  To make matters worse he explains how when multi-tasking we use up valuable brain energy every time we make small decisions - these constant queries - to text or not, email or not - take up as much of our brain power as larger decisions.  The risk?  Our brains are so frazzled we end up making bad choices about the important stuff.

The answer:

  • Focus for 90-120 mins on major tasks;
  • Approach this work when your energy levels are the highest; &
  • “Lose the distractions!”

Put simply multi-tasking is inefficient - particularly if you have an activity you really need to focus on.   Knowing yourself and your energy levels can really help here. 

Can you block out time to complete strategic tasks at your peak energy points, saving emails and tactical issues, until , say, 11am when you energy starts to wane?

When you are focusing, turn off email, remove the apps that ping - social media, the news feeds, answer the phone when you are able to answer rather than when you are in the middle of an important task and so forth.  It’s a habit we’ve acquired and it’s a habit we can break. 

Looking back at our beliefs around our necessity to be in constant contact is a good place to start.  Or alternatively just do it!

Overthinking and the role of intuition

I read a description of procrastination as planning between two opposite course of action.  We go one way…then back off….head down the other route……then back off.  All this thinking could be perceived as analysis - useful even.  But is it paralysis?  It certainly was for me.  More useful would have been to do some objective, time-bound reflection then make a decision.

Ahh - making a decision…..but do I have to?  I had a wonderful crazy Swedish manager who modeled decision-making to a tee.  Did she always make the right decisions?  Who’s to say, but she did move through decisions like a high-speed train.  She suggested I trust my intuition more - test it out, give it a try.  For someone who says, “I don’t mind” to an awful lot of questions, this is a challenging concept.  But what if I “had to” make a decision? 

Feeling or listening to my instinct is a new one for me, cutting out inner noise.  I can think of plenty of examples when I haven’t followed my instinct, and this may well be my risk-averse, smoothing over pattern re-emerging.

But, as with all patterns, with a bit of testing, it’s there to be challenged.  I’ve changed other patterns before. So why not this one? I never used to be able to do full press ups, but years of carrying twins has built up those muscles, so I’m hopeful it’s the same for my intuition.  Indeed, I made two important decisions recently, based purely on intuition, and you know what, it felt amazing!   

Breaking it down

 My blockers were largely fear based, but that’s not what causes everyone to procrastinate.  The sheer perceived size of a project is enough to put most of us off, whether complex or just massive.

Brian Tracy writes about slicing your projects up like a salami - you wouldn’t eat a whole salami in one go - you’d go slice by slice.  I personally wouldn’t touch a salami but give me cake as a metaphor, and I’ll happily eat it in chunks of any size!  

Gluttony aside, his point is simple, obvious perhaps, but it works.  Go for easy slices first if that eases you in, don’t do them all in the same time period and leave the dry ends for later when you’ve got some butter.

 So what did I learn?

There is so much information out there on procrastination and time management (you could get quite distracted researching it if you tried!) But this is what I learnt:

  • Look at what’s stopping you from getting started?  Are those assumptions or beliefs helpful, true even?  If not, ditch them and replace with something more helpful.
  • Notice the pattern - is this a way of thinking or behaving that operates in other parts of life?  Could you “fake it until you make it”, and try a different approach for size?
  • Test out your intuition.  Practice making decisions, and then move to action!
  • Thinking is not always the same as doing!
  • Limit distractions - they are false rewards.
  • When you do get started, do the tricky tasks at a time of day when you have most energy, and whilst being persistent, don’t sweat it: 90-120 minute chunks of concentration seem to work. 

So there we are, I’ve done it, quizzical musings perhaps, but it’s out there!  And the next one?  Well, give me a few weeks…...

Coming soon: the blog!

Having come back from Sue Knight's inspirational NLP Master Practitioner course in the Dordogne I made several commitments to myself, to keep exploring, growing, learning and developing.  One of those commitments was to start writing a blog.  I am passionate about discovering more and more about how to the get the best of ourselves.  Writing the blog is a forum for me to share some of the discoveries and musings and hopefully it will infect those who read it with a quizzical look and a curiosity to discover more!