Honing Emotional Intelligence to Guide Communication
A Guide for Executive Assistants
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a buzzword in the professional world when discussing building soft skills. Understanding emotional intelligence is one thing, but knowing how to have it work in your favor is another. The role of an executive assistant calls for high EQ, as well as deep listening skills and empathy in order to navigate situations and conversations with many different stakeholders, often simultaneously. Authentic and effective communication is essential for the success of an EA. When discussing techniques to improve communication through listening, empathy, and paying dynamic attention to people, we turn to Sarah Chase, COO of Alda Communication Training.
In order to be an effective business partner to your executive, there are three stakeholders that always need to be taken into consideration. Sarah Chase dives into how to nourish and guide conversation with these three stakeholders to get the outcome you are looking for.
Reading a room
EAs must go into a room more prepared than just about anybody else. They must gage the temperature of the room, fully preparing themselves with the expectations of all stakeholders involved. There are always three stakeholders: the audience, the EA, and the person they are representing. When an executive assistant prepares for a situation, they must be attune of the audience’s expectations and how these expectations affect their executive. Sarah asks, “Are you listening carefully to understand the subtext? This will give you a better understanding of the people in the room or the situation you’re in. You want to be keenly aware of their needs and their expectations, some of them underlying, so you know how this might affect your executive.” Preparation is key.
Sarah suggests considering all three stakeholder’s goals and expectations prior to the meeting or encounter. “The EA sits in a very crucial point between needing to manage the audience’s expectations and also what their executive wants to achieve with that audience. Not only is it important to prep your executive, but it’s also equally important to prep the audience. The EA has the ability and responsibility of influencing and guiding the conversation. Depending how they set the stage and the tone directly determines the outcome of the meeting.” Determining the emotional temperature of the room, though, is only one component to honing better deep listening skills in day-to-day interactions.
Sarah stresses that self-awareness and empathy go hand-in-hand. The relationship between the EA and the executive is only successful when the EA can empathize with the executive. Sarah reminds us to also understand that this isn’t always a two-way street and don’t let that frustrate or undermine your responsibility as an EA. The more the EA can empathize with the executive and can anticipate the emotional needs and outcomes, the better. Sarah provides the example of anticipation when scheduling:
When scheduling a meeting for your executive, ask, ‘Is this person tired? Did I put too much on their plate? If I put this meeting before that meeting, is it going to send my boss into a spiral, because I know the outcome of this meeting might not be as good as the next one?’ These are the questions you should be asking yourself.
Sarah also stresses, without trust, there is no good relationship. Trust allows you to relate at a higher level of comfort. “Be able to anticipate and respond to the emotional needs of the other person so that you can guide and direct that conversation.”
Last but not least, Sarah clarifies that empathizing doesn’t necessarily mean sympathizing:
Empathy is too often misunderstood for sympathy. They are not the same thing. To quote my own CEO, Alan Alda, ‘Empathy is a tool.’ It’s how we read others and relate to them. We allow ourselves to be more open, authentic, and real when we employ this tool and we allow ourselves to be changed and impacted by the other person. Being empathic makes for a more powerful relationship and experience – it is not being soft or kind-hearted, it’s being understanding. When you’re understanding you know how to bend to the situation in just the right way. Like a tree in the wind – bending, but not breaking.
Communicating with multiple personality styles
We’ve touched on reading a room and guiding outcomes with multiple stakeholders, but let’s dig a little deeper. “When you are juggling different personality styles, it’s crucial to have the ability to be mentally agile and find relatable points with each character,” Chase explains. This is where empathy takes the stage. Chase clarifies it takes awareness and empathy to be in sync with multiple executives you may be supporting. Through practice and deep listening, EAs can learn to defuse the tension in a room through body language and conversation.
Responding in an authentic and strategic manner
Anticipation is key when guiding a conversation. “The mistake many professionals make is the failure to anticipate how the conversation could go in different directions. We sometimes get too focused on the goals or objectives in our own heads that we fail to hear what others are really saying, and this can put us right outside our comfort zone, even derail our confidence, when someone throws us a conversational curveball.”
Sarah explains that improv can help you hone your skills on responding in an authentic and strategic manner. “Improv is learning to respond when the conversation doesn’t go in the direction you thought it would. With improv, you learn to be in the moment and In touch with the other person, so that you can follow along, or guide the conversation, as needed. You turn rigidity into fluidity and you become an engaged partner to the other person, and not just someone spewing facts or singular objectives.”
Sarah expands that improv is a technique you use on the spot, but it is something that requires practice. Let’s say you have a huge meeting coming up with your executive. Pair up with a peer and discuss the goals of each stakeholder and the different outcomes that can occur. Practicing improv helps you hone those relatable skills and prepares you for on-the-spot interaction.
Articulation traditionally means clear and distinct speech. In this case, Chase explains articulation first and foremost means having an emotional connection at all times with the person you are speaking with. Secondly, articulation should never be scripted. Even if you have a conversation scripted, Chase urges, don’t stick to the script. “Let the other person affect you and that changes how you respond.” Articulation is best received when it’s built during the conversation.
“That’s how you change the tone of any kind of conversation. You can drive home how you want to change the outcome of that conversation. Being confident in the situations you are in so that you can guide the conversation. You don’t want to control it, you want to guide it,” Chase concludes.
Hone those skills
By practicing communicating through empathy, anticipation, deep listening, and articulation, executive assistants can thrive in their careers. An EA’s success is dependent on the relationship and partnership they build with those they support. Sarah offers improv as an effective method to continue practicing effective communication techniques.
Sarah Chase has worked with executive teams in the United States, Europe, and Asia to translate high-level corporate visions into actionable plans. She works directly for actor and writer, Alan Alda, helping to manage the operations and growth of his new company Alda Communication Training (ACT). ACT works is close partnership with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. All of ACT’s profits go to the Alda Center to support life-saving work in STEM and medical communication.
The Executive leadership Support Forum is lucky to have contributors like Sarah guiding EAs. Her vast experiences in different areas of business provides a unique perspective to managing up in a competitive business environment.
If you have not attended an Executive Leadership Forum in the past, we hope to see you at one of our upcoming forums in New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, or Dallas. If you have attended one or more Executive Leadership Support Forums, we encourage you to describe your experience in the comments below. The ELS team is endlessly thankful for all of the past, present, and future attendees.