In many people’s view, emotions and business should be completely divorced, as if a cold, analytical viewpoint is necessarily more productive. But that ignores the fundamental way human beings interact. Emotions are part of life and part of doing business, and they provide valuable clues for how to better serve clients.
Corina Walsh of Shift People Development is an author, speaker, coach, and certified emotional intelligence assessor. She’s spent more than 500 hours working alongside business leaders to help them unlock greater levels of potential in their work, often by building their emotional intelligence and developing more empathic ways to conduct their business interactions. Walsh points out that in the context of business, emotions are just data. The key is to use our own emotional data to be more effective in life and business.
At its most basic level emotional intelligence is our ability to be aware of and manage our emotions and also understand how someone else is feeling so we can respond effectively to their needs. When you’re more effective at meeting clients’ needs, your business is more likely to flourish. It’s really that simple.
Boosting your emotional intel-ligence takes practice. It’s not something you master by taking a work-shop. However, there are some steps you can take to move your emotional IQ in the right direction.
1. Listen to your emotions. Learn how to bring up your own emotions regularly and understand what they’re telling you. Acknowledge that you’re feeling something and label it by naming the emotion you’re feeling.
2. Take a deep breath. Taking a deep belly breath has a calming effect on your brain and helps you slow down. “When we get stressed or feel a strong emotion, we start breathing shallow, from the top of our chest, which actually sends us into a stress cycle,” says Walsh. “We need to stop that cycle and calm down so we can move on to the next step.”
3. Understand what the emotion is telling you. Once you’ve acknowledged that you’re feeling a strong emotion and you’ve calmed down enough to think, then you can process what the emotion is telling you about what you need.
4. Examine the source of the emotion. Ask yourself, Why am I feeling this emotion? If you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, is it be-cause you didn’t plan your day very well? If so, recognize the cause and resolve to plan better next time.
This process helps identify what you need in the moment to manage the situation and how to make positive changes for the future. “Understand that you can’t go back in time to change things, but you can correct things in the future,” says Walsh.
The better you are at understanding how you feel, the better you are at picking up on what other people are feeling. This is the essence of empathy. “If you’re not in tune with your own feelings, you’re just plowing through and not picking up on all the cues people are giving you,” says Walsh. “But you don’t have to play a guessing game or try to interpret things based on facial expressions. You can ask simple questions, in a gentle way. For example, ‘Can you tell me what you’re feeling?’ or ‘What are your thoughts?’”
Practicing listening skills can also help you get better at understand-ing other people’s emotions. Often when we’re listening, we’re not really listening, says Walsh. We’re just waiting for our turn to speak and thinking about what we’re going to say next. When you’re doing that, you’re not truly process-ing everything the other person is saying. So stop worrying about your response and focus on what your client is telling you.
Emotional intelligence is critical when having difficult conversations with clients or business associates because when people push you to a place you don’t want to go, that’s often an emotional trigger. You can still turn that situation around, but not if you lose your temper or get upset. That’s when you lose control of the situation.
“So take that deep belly breath, recognize that you’re being trig-gered, identify the emotion you’re feeling, and understand that the conversation is going in a direction you don’t want—but you can handle it,” says Walsh.
You can handle it by establishing and sticking to a strong set of boundaries. Walsh points out that all businesspeople, especially service-oriented business owners like photographers, are constantly walking a fine line between pro-viding good customer service and having boundaries. It’s important to know where your boundaries are—how much you will give and when you will stop. Knowing those boundaries and being willing to enforce them helps you stay calm. Yes, you want to provide good customer service, but that doesn’t mean caving to every demand. Find ways to be firm about your boundaries while also offering pleasing alternatives. For example, “I’m not able to do that, but here’s what I could do for you ... .”
There are people who will try to take advantage of your generosity and keep asking for more, more, more. These are not the kind of people you want to build your business on, says Walsh. Yes, you may lose a client by drawing a line, but that may ultimately benefit your business.
Who are the right clients? Figur-ing this out means calling on your emotional intelligence to help identify people who share your values. “One of the key traits of people who are high in emotional intelligence is they know what their personal values are, and they make decisions based on those values,” says Walsh. “That, in turn, attracts people who share those values.”
Once you identify your values and define how those values apply to your business, then you can search for clients who share those values. Communicate your values in your marketing. Build them into your social media, blog posts, emails, and other materials. Talk about your business values during consultations and networking.
One useful exercise is to think back to clients you’ve worked with who were amazing. Identify what was so great, how you worked well together, and then develop questions for new prospective clients based on that experience. For example:
If you find that you’re aligned in your thinking, then move forward with the business relationship. If not, or if you sense the person is trying to push you in a direction that doesn’t fit your business vision, then politely refer them elsewhere.
The retrospective approach not only helps identify better clients, it also helps you build your overall emotional intelligence as well. “Look back on the really good experiences you’ve had with clients,” suggests Walsh. “What in that moment made it so great? Who were you being in that moment? Now compare that with a bad experi-ence. What made that experience so bad? Who were you being in that moment? Obviously, you want to be the person when everything’s going well. So look at the bad ex-periences, identify the triggers that drove you in the wrong direction, and diagnose what is likely to send you off track in the future. Then you can figure out how to avoid those situations and identify what you can do to improve if they do come up.”
Emotional intelligence and the ability to navigate difficult conversations are critical business skills, says Walsh, but they’re often overlooked. That mistake could cost you business.
“Emotions are just data, but we let them run all over us,” says Walsh. “It’s important to get better at listening to them and understanding them. That’s how you take more direct control of your life and your business.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.