Bob Morris Interview: Jen Shirkani on the liberating power of EQ
Jen Shirkani is a nationally recognized expert on emotional intelligence and a featured speaker at national and state conferences, universities, government agencies, and at business organizations around the world. She is the author of Ego vs EQ and Choose Resilience. She has spent over 25-years working with organizations as a business consultant and executive coach. In addition to emotional intelligence, she frequently speaks and writes about workplace challenges, including: interviewing and selection, employee engagement and motivation, generational differences, and coachability.
Jen has been a frequent guest of several national radio programs, and has been featured in Bloomberg/Businessweek, Leadership Excellence magazine, Investors Daily, Business Insider, Publishers Weekly, Fast Company, Reader’s Digest, and Upstart Business Journal. She holds a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership and has devoted herself to improving leadership effectiveness and on making common sense more common.
For those who have not as yet readChoose Resilience, hopefully your responses to these questions will stimulate their interest and, better yet, encourage them to purchase a copy and read the book ASAP.
First, when and why did you decided to write it?
My first book was written to help leaders help themselves use more self-awareness, empathy and self-control to be effective in their roles and avoid the pitfalls common in executive leadership. I wanted to provide some tools for those who weren’t in a traditional management role, but still wanted to know how to leverage the benefits of emotional intelligence (EQ) for self-leadership. I started the writing of the more recent book in 2015.
Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Shirkani: Since Choose Resilience is about overcoming struggle and facing challenges with strength, I felt it was important to include my own personal story. I have been through a health scare with my daughter, financial distress, business failures and a divorce. It was difficult to talk about myself, and many times I thought about giving up the book topic. But, eventually I realized that the key to resiliency is being able to own our situations and take action anyway, even when it’s easier to stay in a safe comfort zone.
To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
About half of the original content stayed intact from the first edition version, but the format and chapter flow changed completely. Since I self-published this time, it gave me the flexibility to keep revising and creating content that I felt it needed, without the pressure of publication deadlines. So, it was published when it was ready and not any sooner.
When and why did you first become so intensely interested in emotional intelligence (EQ)?
I became interested in EQ back in the mid 1990’s when I was working as an in-house training specialist and EQ was a hot topic. I became intensely interested (some could say “obsessed”) with the topic when I started my own business in 1999 and realized that without the vital functional skills of stress tolerance, flexibility and self-control the development of other skills was almost impossible. EQ is the foundation of everything. In the early 2000’s I was certified in a couple of the assessments and that really helped me understand the psychometrics behind the behavioral science and I have woven it into everything I do since then.
Who and/or what have had the greatest influence on the formulation of your thoughts about EQ?
It was Stephen Covey. Even though he never used the language of EQ, his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it has the principles of EQ woven throughout it and gave me a practical model to follow that takes EQ from competency to behavior.
What are the defining characteristics of a supervisor who has highly developed EQ?
Leaders with high EQ can communicate with others effectively, provide balanced feedback, lead others through ambiguity, use humor to build rapport, read and respond to the leadership needs of others, and remain optimistic even in the face of difficulty. These leaders can emotionally and mentally plug into others and can read the situation at hand and behave accordingly to get the best results for everyone.
How and to what extent is resilience relevant to EQ or vice versa? Please explain.
Resilience is a valuable outcome of EQ. Without EQ, you may survive hardship but you won’t thrive because it is the foundation of skills that allows you to tolerate stress with motivation and optimism. It is the blend of self and social skills that allow us to choose responses, instead of allowing our emotions to overwhelm and eventually undermine us. Too many of us have lost our ability to tap into our resilience because it is a deeply hidden resource. It is there by design for emergency situations, but one thing is required to access it: We must set aside our ego, instead showing vulnerability and humility. It’s either ego or EQ.
How specifically can a comfort zone (as you indicate) “betray” its occupant?
It is easy to fall into a pattern of familiarity or ease and avoid whatever requires us to stretch or challenges us. But we can be lulled into a false sense of security. Moderate stress builds tolerance for stress so when something unexpected comes along (job loss, miscarriage, death in the family, health crisis) we are better equipped to deal with the consequences. Even if there is no big hardship, by pushing ourselves out of our bubble of comfort we take risk. The comfort zone strips away the confidence we can only get with risk.
When explaining how to use EQ to “survive and thrive,” you have much of great value to say about “Three Rs.” Please explain the unique importance of each. First, Recognize
In almost every situation, you have the choice to remain safe or challenge yourself and take a risk. When you use EQ to recognize, read and respond, it’s like pausing long enough to circumvent the gut reaction of the comfort zone that entices you to play it safe. The first component of EQ, “recognize” relates to the importance of recognizing yourself (self-awareness). This includes knowing your strengths and weaknesses. It includes recognizing your personality type, communication style preference, moods, drives and the way you are perceived by others which is social self-awareness. The more we know the things that we cling to, the better we can challenge ourselves to try new things.
This is your ability to read situations and people accurately. Understanding the emotional make-up of others, reading non-verbal body language, sensing the impact your behavior is having on others. Those with high EQ can pick up subtle signals from others that send us messages. This requires empathy to see the world from the viewpoint of another, and even if we don’t agree with it, still understand why they have that perspective.
It is important that we choose responses that are most appropriate for the situation or person you are interacting with. This is a mindful way to react vs. taking a one-size-fits-all approach, treating everyone the same way no matter the situation.
How specifically can EQ help someone to break out of their comfort zone? What role does resilience then play?
Breaking out of the comfort zone requires three critical EQ skills: Motivation, Optimism and Stress Tolerance. Motivation is the ability to stay productive, even during challenging times. Motivation gives you the drive and the energy to push into your confidence zone. Optimism is a belief that the future will be better than the past and positive change is possible. Motivation helps you get started, but optimism helps you persist. Stress tolerance provides the coping skills to help us manage uncertainty, ambiguity and challenge. I think you can see how having a solid foundation of all three of these skills would provide you better resilience when things get uncomfortable.
What must an “exit strategy” take into full account? Why?
People are hardwired to value safety so we often avoid anything that feels like risk or failure. The real challenge in creating an exit strategy from the bubble of your comfort zone is accepting responsibility for the circumstances of your situation. It’s so easy to blame a bad spouse, bad parent, bad boss, or bad friend for our disengagement. But the reality is, we all play a part in what happens to us.
Long ago, I became convinced that people cannot be motivated by someone else but their self-motivation can be inspired or ignited by someone else. What do you think?
I completely agree, and as the mother of two teenage daughters I can attest that motivating others is nearly impossible! Seriously though, doing things that are motivated by someone else will get me to act, but it likely will be temporary. Permanent change must come from a drive within. Now, I think we all have the ability to inspire and support change in others, but ultimately the best thing to do is identify what someone else wants. Then you can create an environment that supports them motivating themselves.
In your opinion, what seems the best way to ignite someone’s “internal fire”?
Too many people don’t know what theirs is! It is so important that we all take the time to self-reflect and carefully consider what satisfies us. in psychological terms, this is referred to as “self-actualization” which is feeling of fulfillment. It is a sense that we are using our talents to make a difference in the world and adding value. A fully realized person is happy.
How best to extend the limits of stress tolerance?
Actually, moderate stress is what extends stress tolerance. One activity is to imagine a stress ruler, with a green zone on one and a red zone on the other. Then monitor which end of the ruler you tend to be in. Our stress levels move around based on what is happening in our lives, so no one stays in one zone all the time. The goal is to have the self-awareness to recognize the warning signs for you before you are fully in the red zone, and then do things to help yourself, so you can get back to the green zone to regroup as soon as possible.
A friend of mine continues to stumble over his past. He hauls more “baggage” than a bellhop at the Plaza Hotel. Any advice?
Hah! It is not uncommon to lament over mistakes or wish we could have made different decisions. The healthiest thing to do is forgive ourselves, identify the reasons behind our actions (without finger pointing or blaming others for justifying why we did what we did), and then move on. We are so often our own worst enemies.
What are the defining characteristics of a “Super Survivor”?
Super survivors don’t just cope with tragedy, but use the experience to be stronger. They have high optimism about their own ability to rebound from trauma, but at the same time have no delusions about the world or what happened to them. Many devote themselves to hard work as a way to channel their negative experiences, often dedicating their lives to helping people in similar circumstances. In my book, I profile four such super survivors and their stories are so inspirational and powerful.
One last question about comfort zones. I view them as “sources of nutrition” as well as temporary sanctuaries. What do you make of this?
Doing whatever helps replenish your own stamina is exactly right. The goal is to do them in moderation, allowing us to savor those times and value them even more. If you spent all day, every day with Oliver lying on the couch listening to Vivaldi, they would lose their power as a source of nutrition. Even though it might be tempting, it is important that we push ourselves to do whatever challenges us and enjoy our time- out’s sparingly.
In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Choose Resilience will be most valuable to those now preparing for a business career or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.
I recommend Chapter 4, “Motivation: Lighting Your Internal Fire”. This chapter really helps you recognize your unique passcode that unlocks your energy and passion.
To first-time supervisors? Please explain.
I recommend Chapter 2, “How Our Comfort Zone is Betraying Us”, especially the section on Control.
To C-level executives? Please explain.
For both C-level executives as well as owners/CEO’s of small-to-midsize companies I suggest the whole book. There are many examples of the typical challenges we face as leaders, and it also contains tools and ideas for developing EQ in a practical way.
Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
I was hoping you would ask me if my ex-husband and mother have read the book yet since they are both in it. The answer is, I don’t know because I am afraid to ask!
Editor's note: This article was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.