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.