To Develop EQ: Practice with Purpose

Or, What I Learned from a Cabbie

What do you think a taxi driver can teach you about emotional intelligence, or EQ? Well, maybe a little or maybe a lot, but if you happen to be riding in a London taxi, your driver is a living example of how to develop EQ. Not because he necessarily has high EQ, but rather because he’s gone through a training process that, if applied to practicing EQ instead of navigating complex streets, would result in him becoming a master of emotional intelligence.

This is because London cabbies are perfect illustrations of how to develop a new skill to the point of expertise. A famous study on these drivers found that after going through several years of training to learn the myriad streets, landmarks, buildings and parks of London, licensed taxi drivers had significantly larger sections of a brain region devoted to memory than people without this training.[i] (The particular part of the brain is called the posterior hippocampus and it is especially involved in forming visual-spatial memory.)

This part of the brain actually grew larger in these taxi drivers. To put this in context, this is similar to a weight lifter comparing the size of her pre-training biceps to their size after doing dumbbell curls every day for three years! The brains of taxi drivers bulked up, but with brain tissue instead of muscle.

The big implication of this and other research is that the human brain grows and changes in response to training. In his book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” Dr. Anders Ericsson provides a model for human learning that describes how all of us can become “experts” in virtually any ability, including EQ. Dr. Ericsson points out that most people never achieve greatness as musicians, athletes, accountants, project managers or whatever their profession happens to be. The reason is that to become great, or gifted as some people like to imagine, requires far more practice than most people are willing to devote. But, these are also the types of abilities that can be developed because the human body and brain are so adaptable and responsive to training.

The reason that most people don’t achieve greatness isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for it. Instead, it’s because they’re comfortable with the status quo. As Ericsson says, “they live in the world of ‘good enough.’” We learn just enough to get by in the world but we seldom push ourselves to go beyond our own comfort zones.

Ericsson’s research led him to make a distinction between the traditional learning approach and an approach that incorporates “deliberate practice.” Traditional learning is “naïve learning.” Playing the same song on guitar for an hour a day will help you get better, but only to a point. Over time, you’re likely to stagnate. Deliberate practice is more purposeful, thoughtful and focused. In particular, it requires a three-step approach: It has a specific goal that is outside of one’s comfort zone, it is focused with full concentration on attaining the goal, and it incorporates feedback to allow for reflection, problem-solving and adjustment.

The traditional approach to learning never pushes people out of their comfort zones. With this type of learning, the most people can hope for is to reach a fixed potential. On the other hand, with deliberate practice, the goal is to build your potential, to make things possible that weren’t possible before. This requires getting out of your comfort zone and forcing your brain to adapt. Once you do this, you can shape your potential in ways that you choose.

Which brings us back to EQ. Some people think that emotional intelligence is a gift – you either have it or you don’t. But this is a myth, research has shown that EQ can be learned and developed, and there’s no better way to develop it than by using deliberate practice.

First, set a specific goal. Limit yourself to one goal that is well-defined. For instance, “I want to increase my ability to motivate others.” This is outside of my comfort zone since I tend to stick to myself and focus on my own work instead of providing direction or guidance for others. This has become my stable habit and I want to change it. By developing this skill I’ll enhance my influence within the company and improve my EQ.

Second, concentrate fully on this goal: “I have a strategy that I’m going to use – I will take ownership of an important project; one where others will rely on my guidance and leadership.” This is pushing me outside of my comfort zone and is also requiring a lot of my time and effort, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to practice. This is where there’s a real opportunity for skill development. I’ll have several hours a day of direct interactions with my team – through group and individual meetings – as well as more time solving problems, making adjustments to the project plan, and working with external vendors who are assisting with the project. While this may not be quite as much time as professional musicians devote to practicing their instruments, it’s still a lot of practice. With this amount of focused practice, I’ll develop my motivational skills relatively quickly and will be on the road to developing a new behavioral habit.

But one other piece is necessary: “I need feedback that is immediate and trustworthy, and I’m going to get it directly from my team.” In fact, I’m going to treat every project meeting as a feedback mechanism. Near the end of each meeting I’ll ask my colleagues to provide feedback and advice on my behavior. This insures that I’ll improve after every meeting since I’ll be able to reflect on the team’s input and incorporate this into my performance.

This three-step strategy for enhancing personal influence, which is an aspect of EQ, conforms to the elements of deliberate practice, which is a proven strategy for developing expertise in any domain. If you’re interested in learning more about deliberate practice and how it can be applied to any learning program, I encourage you to read Dr. Ericsson’s book.

Learn more about developing Behavioral EQ >>>


[i] Maguire, E., Gadian, D., Johnsrude, I., Good, C., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R., & Frith, C. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 97: 4398-4403.