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“Hey, how’s it going?”
“I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”
“I know exactly how you feel.”

What do these phrases have in common? People with high emotional intelligence know that they’re ostensibly positive expressions that you should nevertheless use sparingly, if at all.

Why? Because they’re tricky trap phrases, the sorts of things that other people can easily misinterpret, even when you have the best intentions. Examples:

  • You ask someone, how are you doing? or how’s it going? as a greeting. It’s easy for the other person to be left wondering what you truly mean. (“Does my boss really want to hear all about what I went through this morning? Or is she just using this as a substitute for ‘hello?'”)
  • You say, “Sorry,” – or, especially, “Sorry if anyone was offended,” when you legitimately mean to apologize. Yet, our society has come to recognize those kinds of phrases as possibly standing for the exact opposite – a non-apology instead of an apology.
  • And ask yourself: If someone were to tell you, “I know exactly how you feel,” would you think that they truly did understand your inner being and feelings? Or would you be just as likely to wonder if they could possibly and truly understand?

Welcome to Overthinking Island, a figurative place that you might or might not recognize – but that people with high emotional intelligence understand is inhabited by many more people than you might otherwise imagine.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been pushing this idea for years: the notion that we communicate in multiple dimensions all the time, and the challenge if you want to leverage emotions to make it more likely that you’ll accomplish your goals is at the very least, to let your language not get in the way.

In fact, I offer dozens of examples of these kinds of phrases (and what to say instead) in my free ebook, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence.


But while almost every psychologist, coach, and emotionally intelligent person I’ve talked with about the issue has agreed that unintended parallel misunderstandings are common, it’s been hard to quantify the problem scientifically.

Until now.


Writing in the journal, Open Mind: Discoveries in Cognitive Science, a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, set out to quantify the likelihood that ordinary people would be prone to have the exact same understandings of the subtle definitions of even the most common words.

Short answer: A heck of a lot less common meaning than you might think. As senior author and Berkeley psychologist Celeste Kidd told Scientific American, which reported on the study:


“People have wondered for a long time how to put a number on how much overlap there is, and it’s really low. It blows my mind … We think it can explain a lot of disagreements people have. It’s an approach to understanding why people talk past each other.”

One of the key examples Kidd and her colleagues used in their study was the word, “penguin.”

You might think that we could mostly agree on the picture that forms in our mind’s eye when we mention the name of that noble and yet endearingly goofy bird.

Lo and behold, however, her team identified “at least 10 to 30 quantifiably different concept variants” that people think of when they think of the word “penguin” – from whether a penguin is heavy or light (some who’ve seen them waddle might think heavy; some who have studied bird skeletons might think light), to whether a penguin is “noisy,” or whether a penguin is more like, “a finch or a dolphin.”

“The probability two people selected at random will share the same concept about penguins is around 12 percent,” Kidd told SA.


The researchers also studied other nouns, but you can’t get much more memorable than the word, “penguin,” and so that’s what I think we’ll call this whole practice of being acutely aware of the myriad subtle and unintended meanings that your less carefully chosen words might imply.

Look, emotional intelligence is a complicated and complex subject. And, it’s probably most useful to look for simple, practical, easily replicable ways to achieve the benefits of improving your emotional intelligence.


Among the easiest I’ve found? Thinking carefully about the words you use ahead of time, and accumulating go-to phrases that you can be confident about when things matter most.

It’s the point of my ebook, and the point of the study. And whether you think a penguin waddles or slides on ice more often (obvious answer, right?), I think you’ll find it useful.

Lennox Mall

Source: IncAfrica

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