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Emotional Intelligence for More Effective Coaching


Wed Oct 16 2019

Emotional Intelligence for More Effective Coaching

In my last post, I touched on the importance of coaching and mentoring in leader and employee development. There are many ways that these relationships add value to performance. For one, they can amplify the effectiveness of emotional intelligence (EI) training.

Consider Erika, a finance executive who attributes much of her career success to EI coaching. As is often the case when leaders seek coaching, Erika didn’t originally request EI development. Rather, she began her journey overwhelmed by workplace conflict and stress. These issues progressed for years, but she had been oblivious to them until a decline in her performance, which she linked to lack of workplace support, prompting her to reflect on what she could do differently. With her frustration mounting and some legitimate concerns about her career, Erika sought a coach who could help her have better interactions at work.


Erika’s goal was to become less reactive. Her coach paired feedback from Erika’s colleagues and direct reports with a process of self-reflection guided by the EI framework. It was the feedback from her direct reports and peers about how difficult she was to work with that helped Erika to understand EI in a practical way. It also enabled her to advance beyond a career plateau and reduce her stress levels. In this way, she was able to understand EI as well as apply it in practice.

Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree feedback–whether formal or informal–plays a critical role in a coach’s ability to help clients develop EI. We’ve learned from working with the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory (ESCI) during the past two decades that coaching becomes more effective when it includes the ability to measure progress in EI development. The ESCI—which has a data samples exceeding 80,000 360-degree assessments, 700,000 raters, and information from more than 2,200 organizations—is one example of a tool specifically designed to fill this niche.

Regardless of how 360-degree feedback is collected, such third-party optics are essential in debriefing the assessment. This helps the client understand how others perceive them and whether or not they come across to others in the manner they would like. Erika described this source of insight as highly significant when it came to identifying ways to influence and enlist the support of others.

A more optimal approach for developing EI also deploys the following strategies for effective learning, which are often not utilized by organizations:

  • scaffolding, which provides structured support in addition to oversight

  • low-impact, habit-forming activities called “daily micro-practices”

  • regular journaling.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help greatly since it focuses on learning how to manage thoughts, beliefs, and reactions that contribute to ineffectiveness. The adaptation of CBT for the specific requirements of leadership coaching has already been done and a variety of tools are available that can help incorporate these techniques into coaching and mentoring.


Coaches and mentors can play a critical role in EI training as well. They help facilitate the support structures and third-party feedback that accelerate development and aid leaders in becoming fluent in a common language that enables mutual understanding. Erika shared that her team began by building upon concepts and terms that people were already familiar with. For example, rather than just reading about empathy, she was coached on simple exercises that helped her recognize and appreciate what others need. This demonstration of her sincere effort to better understand others created an environment for greater cooperation.

Erika also found that her coaching experience leveraged her existing knowledge and capabilities as a foundation for new learning. Referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) theory, this approach recognizes that most people are better able to apply knowledge than they are able to demonstrate it in an artificial simulation. A ZPD-based approach to coaching has a higher likelihood of producing results because it focuses on real-world applications often built upon pre-existing and contextualized experience rather than new information

EI coaching should be rooted in meeting people where they are and utilizing their past experiences as a core development opportunity. My team has incorporated these insights into the development of a series of customizable EI coaching and training programs. We integrate technology, domain expertise, and virtual coaching in a number of unique ways that you can learn more about on the Goleman EI Coaching and Training page.

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