Emotional Intelligence for Executive Assistants

This interview was first published in April 2019. Author Jan Jones interviews business trainer and consultant Heather Dallas about the relevance of Emotional Intelligence for executive assistants.

Emotional Intelligence is a hot topic, but it is not a new idea. The term “Emotional Intelligence” was coined by two psychology professors, John Mayer and Peter Salovey, in 1990. In 1995 Daniel Goleman wrote the book “Emotional Intelligence” and followed up with an article for Harvard Business Review called “What Makes A Leader”. The article contributed to the topic becoming important for business leaders and business people in general. Emotional Intelligence is about our inter-personal and intra-personal skills. It is typically abbreviated as “EI” or “EQ” (Emotional Quotient).

These days, business is placing a premium on employees’ emotional intelligence. What’s important to the executive, must be important to the executive’s assistant. If the executive is focusing on developing emotional intelligence personally, or within the organization, then the assistant must do likewise. With this in mind, Jan Jones invited business trainer and consultant Heather Dallas to speak with her about the work she is doing teaching businesses about emotional intelligence, and more specifically, her work teaching assistants about emotional intelligence. You can read about Heather’s background at the end of this interview.

Jan Jones: Heather, apart from the fact that their executives are serious about understanding and developing emotional intelligence, why is EI relevant for executive assistants?

Heather Dallas: I’ve seen growing interest in this topic over the past few years and clients are asking about it more and more. I teach a course on emotional intelligence for executive assistants, and have seen a considerable increase in interest recently. Assistants understand that as they serve their executives and the organization at large, they need to develop the vital skills that make up the components of emotional intelligence. Because executive assistants are the public “face” of their executives, in many ways it is even more important for them to embody the traits of emotional intelligence, which are:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy for Others
  • Social Skills (Relationship building and management)

JJ: I heard Daniel Goleman speak at a conference. He said that basically emotional intelligence is how we handle ourselves, manage ourselves, lead ourselves, and how we handle our relationships.

HD: Yes, and here are a couple of theoretical definitions I use to explain emotional intelligence: “The ability to understand how emotions affect behavior, and do something with that information”, and “Developing awareness of your emotions and behaviors through self-reflection and noting feedback from others”.

JJ: I like the idea that in addition to understanding how emotions affect behavior, that there is guidance on what to do with that information. Otherwise it is just intellectual understanding and we need to be able to put the ideas into practice at work every day.

HD: Exactly. In summary, it’s inter-personal skills, meaning how you relate to others, your rapport skills, which are the central pillars in communication. Your relationship management, your intra-personal skills, meaning how self-aware you are, how authentic you are. What buttons are you pressing in others that you are not aware of?

JJ: And how self-aware you are leads you to understand the effect your words and actions have on others. This is especially important for executive assistants who often have to relay messages from their executives to team members and employees across the organization. If the executive is tone deaf, the assistant must make certain that they finesse the message in order to make it easier for others to digest. I had one job in particular where I became an expert at tempering the tone of my executive’s communications. People would remark to me how much more “mellow” my executive had become. But I didn’t always have that expertise. When I first started as an assistant, I thought I was supposed to mirror the tone of my executive. This caused problems until a colleague helped me to understand that I could convey the message just as easily and effectively, if I took the sharp edges off. It was an early lesson in EI about building business social skills.

Heather, what are some other elements that can help executive assistants develop and expand their EQ, in order to increase their effectiveness in the EA role?

HD: Some other building blocks that make up emotional intelligence are:

1. Self-Awareness: Understanding your strengths, weaknesses, needs, what drives you. Being authentic, aware of the buttons you are pressing in others. Do you perceive yourself as others perceive you?

2. Motivation: Level of energy, passion, personal drive and enthusiasm for work, and commitment to goals. Being optimistic and positive. The desire for achievement and challenge.

3. Empathy: The ability to recognize, be sensitive to and consider others’ feelings, needs and perspectives. Being able to understand, help and work with others and take an active interest in their concerns.

4. Decisiveness: Willingness to make decisions. The need for control and the level of comfort you have with decision-making responsibility.

5. Influence: The drive to influence, inspire and persuade others. To be heard and have an impact.

6. Adaptability: The desire for, and enjoyment of, variety in the workplace, the capacity to keep an open mind and be flexible with different and creative approaches. Being willing to make adjustments as necessary.

7. Conscientiousness: The need to plan and have structure, be diligent and meet deadlines, the level of comfort with conforming and following the rules.

8. Stress Resilience: The capability to relax and deal with the day-to-day pressures of work, the level of comfort with showing and managing emotions. For example, controlling or hiding your temper when provoked.

JJ: It has to start with self-awareness. The statistic is that the average person experiences emotions 90% of the time. Even though we are emotional beings, we don’t typically make much effort to become aware of our emotions.

HD: We have to become aware of our emotions in the moment they are happening and understand the effects those emotions are having on ourselves and others. When you are experiencing emotions such as anger or frustration, just slow down for a moment. I know in your book you interviewed the gentleman who teaches Mindfulness at Google. He said to stop and take a breath.

JJ: Yes, it was Chade Meng who talked about that. He also suggested that when you sit down with your executive, or your team, before you dive into the matters at hand, everyone should just close their eyes and take a breath together.

For me, as I was rushing into my meetings with my executive, I always paused and took a deep breath. That one small action helped to center me and clear my mind so that I could be fully present to what my boss needed, rather than only being focused on getting answers to my agenda items. It made for productive meetings because we both accomplished our objectives in those meetings, even if on some days they were brief. When I got back to my desk and had a multitude of things I needed to get done, I simply took a breath and told myself ‘OK where do we need to start?’ That small step of taking a breath brought clarity and calm from where I proceeded to tackle my projects. Sometimes, when I saw someone who was hard to deal with approaching my desk, I’d do the same thing – just close my eyes for a second and take a breath to help me center myself and be present to what they wanted in that moment, rather than focusing on their past behavior, or my feelings about them.

HD: We have to learn to consciously control our emotions so we can respond appropriately. And there are times when there is no need for a response. Awareness is enough. Self-regulation shows discipline. It is a sign of maturity. There are some EI habits we are already good at and others will require practice.

JJ: I was surprised when I first heard of Motivation as being part of EI. I’ve always thought of motivation as an internal drive, something that is propelled by my personal passions and desires, pushing me to high achievement. I thought of EI as being external, influencing my inter-personal actions, how I related and acted with others.

HD: You are spot-on about motivation, Jan, but remember, EI is not only about the social side (our behavior with/towards others), it’s also about our “behavior” with ourselves. Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation and Motivation are the “Self” side of EI and Empathy and Social Skills are the “Social” side, the inter-personal, people skills side of EI.

To elaborate on your comments about motivation, it is important for assistants to have a regular personal check-in to examine what they need to do to keep motivated. Reminding yourself of your purpose is one way to rekindle your passion. What are you passionate about at work? Is it appreciation, more involvement, power, authority, intellectual stimulation, the culture and working environment, promotion prospects? Whatever it is that keeps you motivated and excited, find ways to do more of it. One daily exercise my clients find useful for motivation is to list “3 good things that happened to me today.”

JJ: I hope assistants will take note of this, Heather, because there are assistants who wait for their executive to motivate them. They expect their executive to provide exciting projects for them to work on, or find ways to keep them happy and challenged. When assistants tell me they need more challenge in the job, my response often is that they should look for ways to challenge themselves. What can I do to keep interested and motivated? What’s not getting done that I can do? What initiative can I take on a project that doesn’t rely on my boss for direction or approval? What task will help excite me to stretch my ability and thinking, so when it’s done, I can truly appreciate myself and the effort I made?

Can you share an example of how you have worked with EAs on EI?

HD: Sure. A good example is the work I’ve been doing with an executive assistant in a global pharmaceutical organization who is remotely managing other EAs in her company’s European offices. When we started working together, Elizabeth’s Empathy was an 8 (out of 10). She needed to bring that down as she was spending too much time on not offending her team and giving them feedback in a sensitive way. This linked in with her Stress Resilience that was only 2. Through awareness and coaching, Elizabeth is now a 7 on Stress Resilience, a 5 on Empathy and a 7 on Decisiveness.

JJ: What I like about the work you are doing is how EAs can learn to increase their EI, not only in developing their talent for management and leadership within their role, but also to make them more effective in growing that ability to take on additional opportunities.

HD: In my 30 years of experience working with EAs all over the world, I’ve seen a lot of under-utilized EA potential. My work with emotional intelligence can give assistants a framework to develop their skills, their awareness and fine-tune their communication ability.

*Further reading for developing potent “Intangible” skills for becoming a multi-faceted, exceptional executive assistant.

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About Heather Dallas: A former executive assistant, Heather Dallas’ last EA role was at Deloitte UK. In 1990 she was asked to move into a new training role to introduce inter-personal skills training for the 1500 support staff at Deloitte UK, as well as many of the Deloitte offices  globally. Heather left Deloitte in 2000 to set-up her own training and coaching business. After 19 years, Heather is proud to say she is still  running programs for Deloitte.

Heather offers a range of programs for executive assistants including Presentation Skills, Team workshops, Personality Profiling, Project Management, Management Skills, The Mini-MBA for Executive  Assistants and Emotional Intelligence, designed for in-house programs and public courses, in the UK and internationally. Jan Jones Worldwide has proudly presented Heather’s training skills for events in numerous international training locations, including The Middle East, Australia and New Zealand. Heather has been passionate about developing the role of the executive assistant for nearly 30 years and has an outstanding record with satisfied clients.

To book Heather Dallas for your company in-house, association, or public training events, contact www.theceossecretweapon.com. Watch for announcements of Heather’s upcoming international training dates.

About Jan Jones: Jan Jones spent 20 years as a distinguished international executive assistant to successful business people around the world. She is a passionate advocate for the executive assistant profession, mentoring assistants and guiding executives through her writing, speaking and consulting. She is the author of “The CEO’s Secret Weapon How Great Leaders and Their Assistants Maximize Productivity and Effectiveness” which debuted at #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in the Office Management category. The book has received widespread acclaim from executives and assistants worldwide. www.theceossecretweapon.com

Want more from Jan Jones? Check out her Q & A Series!

Author: Jan Jones

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