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Lucy Ball is an executive coach, pairs coach and team coach.

Aug 2019

The emotionally intelligent leader knows their body

Emotional Intelligence is now firmly accepted as a vital enabler of leadership. In Daniel Goleman’s model, Emotional Intelligence comprises Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness and Relationship Management underpinned by a big dose of Purpose.

This post is about Self Awareness. Self Awareness is about noticing what one feels, being aware of one’s mood and state.  We need it so that we can manage ourselves in order to have a choice over what we do or say. We need self-awareness so that we are not hostage to our emotional state, acting by default but acting consciously, choice-fully. As Moshe Feldenkraus puts it “You can’t do what you want until you know what you are doing”.

I recently ran a programme on Emotionally Intelligent leadership. Self-awareness came up as a key issue. Several people asked, “But how do I get better at self-awareness? I find it hard to even know what I feel.”

There are not that many categories of human feelings. The Dalai Lama and the Ekmans describe just five basic human emotions ( These are Sadness, Joy, Anger, Fear and Disgust.  Each has many sub-categories, for example mild anxiety or abject terror are different degrees of fear. In addition to these feelings another state is possible, a sense of calm mind, of ‘no emotion’, a peaceful state.  So with only a few categories of emotion to choose from, why is it so hard to identify which we are experiencing?

Sometimes this is a language issue. Because we are not fluent in the language of feelings, particularly in a corporate setting, it might be hard to put an experience into words. But I think there is more going on in our organisations. What it going on is a mass case of leaders being trapped in their heads and cut off from their bodies. We don’t know what we feel when all our attention is on our thoughts or our external world. In order to know what we feel we need to turn our attention inwards and to our bodies.

What do you notice in your body? This is the critical question to knowing how you feel. Feelings start with, or are accompanied by, bodily sensations. We know we are grieving when our heart feels heavy, we know we are anxious when our stomach feels jittery, we know we are angry when our jaw is clenched and our fists are curled. We know we are tense when we find our shoulders up near our ears. There are several areas of the body that give us clues to our feelings:

Gut – wrenching, churning, pit of the stomach queasiness

Heart – pounding, aching

Chest – pressured, weighted down, tight, breath constrained

Breath – fast, shallow, high in the chest or low in the stomach?

Voice/throat – tight, constrained, wobbly, congested

Shoulders – raised, tight, rigid,

Hands – clenched, sweaty palms, agitated

Jaw – tense, locked, shaky

Without the ability to notice our bodily sensations we are unlikely to be able to develop the necessary self-awareness required for emotionally intelligent leadership. The working world is not set up to help us. Our cars, trains, planes, meeting rooms and screens keep our attention elsewhere. So we are going to have to help ourselves. Start right now. Hello body – what’s going on with you? I believe you have some useful data for me….

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