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Robin Hills on Emotional Intelligence and Building on Your Strengths

In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Robin Hills about the importance of emotional intelligence in life and at work, building on your strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses and the value of purpose to enable resilience.

Key Takeaways

  • Emotional intelligence is about how we apply our intelligence to our emotions in order to build up authentic relationships and make good quality decisions
  • Emotional intelligence underpins good leadership, good teamwork, collaboration; it is the pinnacle behind diversity and equality. It helps us with communication. It helps with conflict, conflict management and conflict resolution
  • Well, the best way to work with emotional intelligence on an individual basis is to know yourself and identify your strengths – it is more effective to build on strengths rather than focus on weaknesses
  • The only change that you can implement, the only change that you can bring about, is change in yourself. You cannot change other people
  • Resilience is having a core set of values and qualities that gives purpose, understanding that life is meaningful.  With that we can adapt and cope with many external pressures


Introductions [00:05]

Shane Hastie: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down across the miles, almost diametrically across the world, today with Robin Hills. Robin is just outside Manchester in the United Kingdom. I'm sitting at my home in New Zealand. Robin, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Robin Hills: Thank you for inviting me onto your podcast, Shane.

Shane Hastie: It's my pleasure. So I'm going to guess that most of our listeners have probably not heard of you before now. Who's Robin, and why should we talk to you?

Robin Hills: Well, my name's Robin Hills. I am an emotional intelligence coach, trainer and facilitator. I've been working in the field for well over a decade now specializing in this area. I have a number of online training courses based around emotional intelligence, and the reach is global. I have about a quarter of a million learners on various different platforms, and they're in over 180 countries worldwide. I'd be struggling to list all 180, but they're out there. They're learning. They're finding out more about emotional intelligence, how it works and what it can do for them.

Shane Hastie: So possibly a good starting point, some of our audience might not have heard this term emotional intelligence before. What do we mean by that?

Describing Emotional Intelligence [01:29]

Robin Hills: Well, it's an interesting question because emotional intelligence is made up of two words, emotional and intelligence, and the majority of people are very familiar with the idea of intelligence, particularly cognitive intelligence, how we go about making rational, analytical decisions, logical decisions, but then we've got this word emotional that creeps in. What is that and what does it mean? And many people don't like the idea of emotional interventions creeping in, because people have this idea of people losing it, losing their rags, screaming, shouting, making a fuss, crying. Well, yeah. Underpinning all of that are emotions, but emotions underpin everything that we do. Emotionally, you and I are engaging at the moment. So how do we apply our intelligence to our emotions in order to build up authentic relationships and make good quality decisions? That, in a nutshell, is emotional intelligence.

Shane Hastie: So two really important phrases I heard there, authentic relationships and good quality decisions. How does emotional intelligence help us with both of those?

Authentic Relationships and Good Quality Decisions [02:55]

Robin Hills: Well, emotional intelligence is being smart with your feelings and underpinning relationships are emotions and underpinning decisions are emotions. So how do we use our emotions to make the decisions that we need to make in an appropriate, timely fashion? And how do we use our emotions to build up the relationships that we need to make inside and outside of work?

Shane Hastie: So having sort of begun to understand that there is this emotional underpinning, I think almost all of us would recognize that, yeah, we are emotional beings. What is the intelligence side of that?

Robin Hills: Well, emotions contain information. As we are emotional beings, we need to understand what our emotions are telling us, what the information in the emotions are and use our intellect, use our intelligence, to define how we're engaging with the environment, how we're engaging with the people that we're engaging with, and use those emotions to help them and help us to improve the way in which we're engaging, improve our performance and improve the way in which we're working together. So to take emotional intelligence to a different level, emotional intelligence underpins good leadership, underpins good teamwork, underpins collaboration, is the pinnacle behind diversity and equality. It helps us with communication. It helps us with conflict, conflict management, conflict resolution. Everything that we do, which involves working with other people, involves emotional intelligence. To a certain extent, everything that we do when we're working on our own involves emotional intelligence, but we've learned to work with that and cope with that on an individual basis far better; many people are able to cope with it when they're working with other people.

Shane Hastie: How do I get better at this emotional intelligence, managing that emotional stuff?

The Importance of Self-awareness and Building on your Strengths [05:14]

Robin Hills: Well, the best way to work with emotional intelligence on an individual basis is the fundamental principle of knowing yourself, understanding yourself through self-awareness. What is it that you are good at? What are your key strengths? What are your key qualities? How can you work to utilize those in the most appropriate and the best possible way? How can you build upon your strengths to engage with your work, with your environment, with your team, with your clients, with your stakeholders in a better way. Whereas most organizations are really focused on finding out what people's weaknesses are, what their liabilities are, and to try and convert those from being bad into not bad, my focus really is to encourage people to look at what makes them special, what makes them different and why we should engage with them, because they're capable of doing that something that I am not. And the best way of finding that out is to get some feedback, some feedback from other people.

Robin Hills: And when I'm working with people, I will give them some feedback. "You're very good at building up relationships with people. You're empathetic. You're good at listening. You're good at calmly and patiently engaging with my issues and helping me to resolve them. You ask the right questions." And a lot of people will look at me strangely and say, "Well, everybody does that, don't they?" Well, no, everybody doesn't do that. By the same token, there are some people that are very detail orientated. They work in a very procedural way. They will work with screeds of data, analyzing it and dissecting it in many, many different ways and coming out with really good, clear decisions from a mass of numbers that are meaningless to other people. And again, that is a core quality and a core strength. That's something I'm not very good at. So, if I want somebody to do that for me, I'd rather turn to an expert and to pay them for that service, because I know that’s something that I'm not good at, but it doesn't take anything away from me in terms of being the individual that I am.

Shane Hastie: How do I recognize these strengths in myself, and how do I recognize them in others?

Recognizing Strengths in Yourself and Others [07:43]

Robin Hills: Well, I think it's very much keeping an open mind. The best way of recognizing it in yourself when you're engaging with other people is to get feedback and not to denigrate any of that feedback, when people say to you, you are very good at this. Now, often within feedback, when we get feedback, you get the positive and then everybody is waiting for the "but", and then they kind of latch on to what comes afterwards, and that then becomes the focus of the conversation. Well, listen to the bit that comes before the "but", because that's more important. Emotionally, you're going to feel a lot worse around what comes after the "but" than before, because that is highlighting something that you can work on, and it's your choice. You don't have to accept it. It's just a person's perspective, and they're just giving you some information, and you can accept it or reject it as you see fit.

Now, if you're hearing it from a lot of people, then it's something perhaps that you need to concentrate on and work on, and if it's causing you issues, something that you perhaps need to consider. If it isn't, you only hear it once or twice, what is it that that person is seeing that other people aren't? Is it something to do with that individual? Another very good way, Shane, is to utilize psychological instruments, psychometric tests, and they are very, very good at giving you some indications around what your preferences are, how you use them and how you express them. So I am qualified in using DISC, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, NEO, which is one of the gold standard personality assessments, and a number of emotional intelligence questionnaires, and they are brilliant for opening up coaching conversations.

Shane Hastie: What do I then do with that? How do I change myself? How do I influence change in others?

Changing Yourself [09:48]

Robin Hills: I think the first factor to consider here is that the only change that you can implement, the only change that you can bring about, is change in yourself. You cannot change other people, and if you start to think about changing other people, you're going to do it all wrong, and it's not going to work. So what is it that I need to do in order to get better engagement with those particular people? How do I change my approach? What is it that's working? What is it that's not working? How do I change? How do I use my strengths to affect the change? And how do I minimize my liabilities? How do I minimize my weaknesses?

Robin Hills: Now, for some people that might be a step too far, and in certain situations, you may come to a decision quite appropriately that the organization and the environment that you're working in, it's just not right for you, and you need to move on. It doesn't it mean so you failed. It means that you have looked to close a chapter of your life and move on to the next phase. That's big change. So how do you work with that change? How do you bring that about? Now, that's going down a negative spiral. Well, it's not a negative spiral. It's going down a particular pathway. Let's look at a particular pathway where most people just need to affect some change in their approach. How do they build up relationships? How do they build up teamwork? How do they become a better leader? How do they use their emotional intelligence in order to do that? How do they motivate themselves to be the change that they want to see in the world?

Shane Hastie: Those are good questions. Let's tackle one. How do I motivate myself? What type of things could I do?

Motivating Yourself [11:42]

What motivates you, Shane, is not necessarily going to motivate me, and what motivates me on a Monday morning doesn't necessarily motivate me on a Friday morning, and certainly doesn't motivate me on a Saturday morning. So I think what we've got to do is to look at what it is that motivates us. What drives us? What is it that gives us the pleasant emotions that drives us forward in our lives and in our work? How can we get more of that? And again, it's down to what your strengths are and how you're utilizing your strengths. How do you get into a state of flow where you are working so intently in a particular situation, on a project, and everything is going really right, and time almost stands still? How do you get into that state of flow, where everything is going really, really well? And that will only come with a degree of self-understanding and self-awareness.

Shane Hastie: One of the topics that you mentioned before we started recording was this concept of resilience and emotional resilience. The world's been battered the last year. We see that organizations have come through and the massive shift to remote working, amazingly with not a lot of productivity dip according to many of the studies, but we're also starting to see quite a lot of evidence that people are suffering now. There's a lot of burnout. There's a lot of people just being tired. Zoom fatigue is something we hear about, the relentless series of online meetings, but even without that, it's just hard.

The Impact of the Last Year [13:32]

Robin Hills: It is. Well, I think a lot of it is down to the fact that we are social beings, whether we like it or not. Whether we've got a very strong introversion preference, or whether we've got very strong extroversion preference, we have a need for engaging with people, and that need has been denied to us. And Zoom, it's great, but there are psychological issues with Zoom that people are choosing to ignore, and I think we need to look at those, but that might be another topic for another occasion. I think to go back to your question, people are more resilient than they're giving themselves credit for, and I think there are some big issues with the word resilience, because it does tend to get lobbed into conversations too readily and too easily.

Robin Hills: And the very fact that people are listening to this podcast is testimony to the fact that they are probably more resilient than they give themselves credit for. They have lived through the pandemic, and with a fair wind, they will continue to live through the pandemic. They've learned to cope and its downs to these coping mechanisms that we need to really think about, and we really need to concentrate on, and it goes back to a certain degree to your question around motivation, because our motivation has been sapped through the relentless lockdowns we've had, the relentless restrictions we've had, and the denial of human contact.

Shane Hastie: Tell me a little bit more about resilience. What is it?

Exploring Resilience [15:09]

Robin Hills: It's a very interesting question, Shane, because a lot of people assume that resilience is all about bouncing back, and I often hear people talk about bouncing back. Well, we're not going to be able to go back to 2019 where the world was opened up, and travel was freely available to anybody who could afford it, and we could go anywhere we wanted, and we could meet anybody we wanted whenever we wanted. We're not going to be able to go back to that. So bouncing back is not an option. Now, the word resilience, if I take you back 50 years ago, didn't exist in the social psychological arena. Resilience was a word in material science, and I'll take you back to your teenage years when you're at school. Like me, you were studying science, and you were looking at forces, and you were looking at putting weights on springs and bits of elastic, and you were measuring what's known as Young's modulus. You were looking at stress over strain, which equals resilience.

Now, resilience has been taken out of material science, and it's been applied to the human spirit. And to a certain extent, it works, but in many ways, it doesn't, because when a spring has been stretched and you take away the force, the spring returns to how it was beforehand. You don't know that any force has been applied to it. Well, it's not the same with humans. When we are subjected to stress or strain, we grow through it. We learn through it. We adapt to it. We become better at it. When we are repeatedly subjected to certain stresses over time, we become more accustomed to it. We adapt to it. We become better. We grow through it. So my definition of resilience is not anything to do with bouncing. It's having a core set of values and qualities that gives me a purpose. It helps me to understand that life is meaningful, and it's helping me to define what that meaning is in how I could make a difference, and it's also having the adaptability and creativity to be able to work with situations as they change and unfold.

And by so recognizing that, I become resilient. It means that I adapt to the situation. I creatively work within a situation that I find myself in, because I know I'm putting meaning into my life. Very easy to say, extremely difficult to do, because I don't like the situation I find myself in any more than the other person does. But what is it that I can do with the restrictions that are being placed upon me? And I can't see my family. I can't travel. I can't go to places where I would like to go to, but I get the opportunity to spend more time with my wife. I get the opportunity to read. I get the opportunity to take walks in the countryside. I get the opportunity not to drive anywhere. I get the opportunity to relax. And these are things that I probably wouldn't have available to me if I was working all the hours that God gave, frantically going across the globe, delivering my training interventions and coaching.

Shane Hastie: Coming back to the metaphor of the spring, sometimes when you pull the string too much, it doesn't go back. How do we make sure that we don't do that to our people?

Avoiding Becoming Overstretched [19:02]

Robin Hills: That is a great use of the metaphor because there are times when we are overstretched, and I think we've just got to recognize on an individual and personal level that that can occur to us, and what my breaking point is is going to be completely different from other people's breaking point. We have a saying, you probably have it in New Zealand, "The straw that broke the camel's back." You need to understand what that straw is, and when you are getting to a point of overload, it's your responsibility to seek help. There's nothing wrong by sticking your hand up and say, "Help me. I'm struggling here. I need some help. I need some support. I just need somebody to talk to." That might be all that needs to happen. There are going to be times when you get to that point where you are overstretched, and again, we have to ditch the spring analogy because once the spring is overstretched, it can't go back.

I think as humans, we are, dare I say, more resilient than that. What we are capable of doing is going back, but we need to take different approaches and different steps. So there is absolutely nothing wrong in going to seek clinical intervention, going and speaking to your doctor and say, "I have high levels of anxiety. I am very depressed," and that is a good way of actually recognizing that you've got this problem. It's nothing to do with your inabilities as a human being. It's just that your neurobiology, your neurochemistry, just needs a little bit of a tweak, and some of the medications that are available are very useful and very powerful, and if they are used well, will help you to overcome any kind of short-term issues, whereby you just need a boost to get you back onto the straight and narrow again. And there is absolutely nothing wrong in utilizing that if it is appropriate, but many people don't need to go down that route because all they need to do is just to talk to somebody.

So as a leader, as a manager in an organization, as somebody who is responsible for other people in the organization, how do I identify when they, the people that I'm responsible for the care of, when they are starting to get stretched?

The Leader’s Responsibility for the Wellbeing of their People[21:37]

Robin Hills: I think the key there is as a leader, when you are working with people, recognize that you are working with people and just ask them, have regular check-ins with them, just to see if they're alright. Just talk to them and ask them the questions that you don't want to ask them. Rather than saying, "Are you alright?" "Yeah. Yeah. I'm fine. Yeah. I'm fine. I'm coping. Yeah. Aren't you alright?" Just ask the difficult questions, "What are you finding difficult at the moment? What challenges have you got? What's getting in the way? What would you like to change? What is it that you need to do to feel that you are coping better?" Those are the questions to ask, not the closed questions, "Are you okay?" "Yeah. Things going all right." "Yeah. Yeah. Okay." "How are you feeling? How are you feeling at the moment?"

One of the little tips that I've got for virtual meetings is when you have a team meeting, do a two-minute check-in, and a two-minute check-in is going around... Or two-statement check-in, you're going around everybody and saying to them, "Right. Give me two emotions, how you are feeling at the moment?" Now, some people find it very difficult to do. Particularly those who are not experienced in expressing their emotions are talking about their emotions. "How are you feeling at the moment?" "I'm worried. I'm anxious." You don't need to say anything. No judgments. Next person, "I'm coping, but I'm angry." "I'm happy, but I'm concerned." And again, go around everybody. Now, anybody who flags up any emotions that you really want to address, pick it up with them after the meeting. "During the meeting, you said you were angry. What is that? And how can I help you? Where are you feeling the anger? Why are you feeling the anger? Is it something that I've done? Is it something that organization's done?"

And as a leader, you have more of a responsibility to do that for your people than you have when you are working in an office environment, in an office space, where you could have a quick chat at the water cooler, you can have a quick chat between meetings. That's denied to you when you're working virtually. So you've almost got to plug in a defined time to have that conversation, and it's your responsibility as a leader to do it. "Oh, I'm too busy." No, you're not too busy. These people are your people. These are the people who are going to give you the success that you're looking for. It's not... You can't do their job. You need them to do the job for you. So how can you get them to do that job to the best of their ability? Talk to them, engage with them, treat them like human beings. And if they're struggling, allow them to struggle. Don't try and resist it. Don't try and change them. "Oh, it will be all right. Just carry on doing this. You'll be fine." No, they won't be fine. They need a bit of tender loving care. They need some support. They need somebody to talk to.

Shane Hastie: Robin, some really solid, practical advice and some really interesting points. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

Robin Hills: Well, my website is, feel free to drop me an email. I'm on LinkedIn. I'm on Facebook. I'm on Instagram, on Twitter, all the usual social media platforms. I'm more than happy to have conversations with people. That's part of what I do.

Shane Hastie: Thank you so much.

Robin Hills: Thank you.



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