What’s challenging about learning and teaching emotional intelligence… and what have we learned in that experience? Maybe it’s easier to teach others, but at Six Seconds, we believe change starts on the inside. So, from our experiences leading EQ development with thousands of people, here are some of our own hard-won (and not-YET-won) life lessons.

Insights from Teaching EQ

What are we learning and practicing ourselves?

Maybe it’s what happens when a group of passionate educators start an organization. From the first day planning Six Seconds, sitting at Anabel Jensen’s kitchen table, she said, “I want our work to be based on the current science of how the brain actually learns.” We all rolled our eyes just a little because Anabel wants EVERYTHING to be based on research about the brain… and, we all firmly agreed. So, we created Six Seconds’ methodology to do so, and have taught 100s of 1000s of people how it works.

But we haven’t shared before:

What’s happened to us in the process of learning and teaching about emotions?

For our theme of How Learning Works Best, in this first-ever-team-interviewing-itself article, we’ll share some of our personal experiences learning about emotional intelligence.


Here are insights from our global team about our own learning, practicing, and teaching EQ. Plus, we asked on another questions along the way.


What’s one aspect of EQ that you’ve struggled to learn?

Why has it been difficult?

Michael: Enhance Emotional Literacy. I come from a long line of people who have struggled mightily with depression, and I did myself for many years. And in really indirect ways, that’s what has brought me to EQ. I had to get better at EQ  or else I really don’t think I would be alive right now. In terms of enhancing emotional literacy, I mean that I had to learn how to recognize my feelings before they snowballed into full blown, suicidal depression. In a way, that’s still the competency I struggle with the most. I feel like I can bulldoze my way through uncomfortable experiences, like working a 75 hour week, with a really genuine smile on my face. But then I hit a wall, and that wall is dangerous for me, because really severe depression is around the corner. So I have had to learn how to identify my feelings as I go along in life, before they are really intense.

Josh: My struggle has some parallel to Michael’s, mixed with being afraid of strong feelings. For example, one time I had a group where a lot of participants were upset, mostly with themselves because they didn’t like their own behavior… but some were mad at me. I had such a strong impulse to say, comfort them and take away the challenge… I realized then that strong feelings scare me. I KNOW that all feelings have value, even when they’re tough. But in that moment, I wanted to “be nice” instead of being emotionally intelligent.

Marilynn: Navigating my emotions has been a challenge for me AND it is especially difficult because the internal process of “Navigating Emotions” does not match the external face at times. It is especially difficult because I am so DANISH! We were taught to be nice, friendly, calm, collected etc. And we were also taught not to confront, challenge or provoke others with uncomfortable topics. I have learned to be a “gentle bulldozer” when necessary as it is not OK to step aside from feelings that need to be expressed. As a result I feel closer, more honest and very authentic when I can break that old family pattern.

Ilaria: I’ll join Marilynn on the theme of Navigating Emotions. In the last few years I’ve developed more strength in navigating my emotions, it was my lowest EQ skill in the past, so I can say that this has been a success in a way! Unfortunately I’ve discovered that my level of Optimism decreased and I’m still struggling with it. Professionally I can always see alternatives and list options, but personally I often find myself stuck with what in Italy we call Leopardi’s cosmic pessimism (Leopardi was one of the most Italian famous poet in history). My first reaction to an adversity is quite negative, I can’t see the light. When with my family we drive somewhere and maybe we take a different road, I tell my husband: – this is the wrong way – and he replies – no it’s the right one. And 99% of the times he’s right …

I need to CHOOSE to pass from fear to courage and turn the wheel! 🙂

Natalie: I think the hardest has been empathy. I find my brain style being very rational, I focus a lot on information and details and my high intrinsic motivations drives me to get results, to “get things done”, but it also means that i tend to tune- in less into how people feel, how do I feel and how do I make people feel. I have learned to slow down and tune in more into emotions but I must say that after so many years working in EQ, I still need to be intentional about it.

Jim: Me too. Empathy seems to be my achilles tendon. When I get busy or tired I lose it. It just seems to leave, go, pretend I never had it. I am painfully aware of this shortcoming and working to be in the flow of caring and deep compassion.

Lynette: For me the biggest challenge is Navigating Emotions. I think of this as the “twin” to Recognizing Patterns, which is a great start, of course, but I found doing something about those patterns to be the hardest part.  I am the only person I know that can recite the 7 dwarfs in alphabetical order–which is the tool I used to take 6 seconds before responding, especially as I got better and better at recognizing my triggers. I wasn’t allowed to express anger growing up, so internalizing those feelings for many years made it hard to recognize that I developed a pattern of shutting down.  Now, I know it is ok to be angry, to look for the message in that anger, and then transform it into energy to move forward in a healthy way. That’s been my biggest learning.

Susan: Empathy for me, like Jim, is the most difficult. Especially when I “disagree” with someone, it’s hard to see their point of view and even more to feel how they’re feeling, and even more than that,  to motivate myself to do the caring, compassionate, listening that’s called for. I’m always working on it. Adaptability, seeing others’ perspectives is also one of my lowest talents. I also remember Yoshimi first pointing out to me, when we did very first debrief, about empathy for self. I’m getting a little better at that one. It’s interesting that Empathy doesn’t show up on my Neural Net.

Jayne: Hands down, as a Deliverer, I’ll join the Empathy-challenge-team.  Interestingly, I can sense the emotional data… but my rational brain kicks in saying, “you don’t have time for that.”  As Jim says, I find it a greater struggle when I get super-busy, stressed… and more task-focused… then I can see myself retreating more-and-more into my Brain Style.  On the other hand, when my “task” is, for example, coaching, I find myself moving into care, compassion, curiosity quite easily, so I know I can “do” it.  Discussing this with Marilynn once, she asked, “So what stops you in other situations?”  My response was, “Time” – I believe this is the underlying reason why many Deliverers struggle with empathy.  By the way Marilynn’s response was, “So what if you were to drip feed it?”  It’s a question I often reflection on – and what that would look like.  Picking up on Susan’s comment, there’s then also the application of self-empathy… another struggle since there’s never time for that when you’re striving for task-perfection.

Imran: Donning the Visionary hat, it has been a constant challenge while dealing with people knowing well that they don’t see what you see or maybe it is that they don’t want to see the way you see. Empathy has challenged me in many ways. One of them is how much do I give in / let go off, in order to ensure that I am empathetic enough?

Tom: For me Navigating Emotions has been one of the biggest challenges, maybe because I’m a warm blooded italian eheh. I’m usually a very relaxed and diplomatic person but especially when I’m facing strong emotions, it’s really hard for me to keep my cool and not let those emotions make me feel overwhelmed, my passion and energy rises the more I care about the situation, and sometimes it leads to actions or behaviours that I wouldn’t consider ideal or the exact response that would have liked to give in that moment. Working on being more present and in tune with emotions and the information they are carrying. 🙂

Josh: Anabel, in both Natalie, Jim and Jayne’s comments, there’s this challenge of getting caught in rational thinking. I definitely do that too, I find myself wanting to explain or to get the data clear… or to be right. How can we avoid that trap?

Anabel: Perhaps these instances are an example of cognitive bias.  It is extremely easy to become entrapped in our own point of view.  We tend to not pay enough attention to the data, research, counter arguments, etc.– but instead become instead even more enraptured by our set of beliefs.  I think, therefore, it is essential that we read/listen to the counterarguments, to perhaps even the propaganda from the opposite side, that we recognize the emotional undertow that come from a heart-stirring story, and that we actively search for the conflicting data.  Then I believe in a waiting period of some type — depending on the urgency of a decision.  Wait time improves the effectiveness/efficacy and creativity of a decision significantly.

Susan: I think my hardest and continual struggle is to move from Judgment to Curiosity on the Change Map. I am Evaluative in my Brain Style and seem always to be a little reluctant to try new things, take risks. When confronted with an issue or a person who is doing something I don’t immediately approve of,  I often say (to myself, “This is crazy or ridiculous or wrong …Why is he doing this?  . . .What’s wrong with her? Fortunately, with EQ I’ve also learned that it’s possible to take that pause, to increase empathy, and remind myself to be Curious first. Ask Questions. Listen first. Try to see the other perspective. It’s not easy but it is can lead to greater Connection, Adaptability, and Innovation.

Lize:  Similar to what Susan wrote, I can get caught in evaluating. My continual struggle is to turn off the Apply Consequential Thinking (ACT).  It is a competency that stands me in good stead but also holds me back.  I have been trying to use less ACT.

Paul: I’m with Lize; I’m often inhibited by over-thinking and placing too much weight on the consequences of decisions rather than just “letting it roll.” This is, I believe, tied into my challenge with Exercising Optimism. In the best of times, I find it hard to be consistently optimistic; the current state of affairs makes it even more difficult, if not impossible, at least for me. The worst thing, perhaps, about being optimistically challenged is that it prevents action despite knowing what needs to be done. The good news is that on my recent SEI, my optimism score was high (but still lower than Consequential Thinking, which is still my highest); now I just have to “unpack” what that means given my day-to-day feelings.

Rachel: Optimism is often a challenge for me, especially when I read the news lately, or in dealing with two loved-ones in my family with cognitive and emotional issues (alzheimer’s and depression). Spending time with them forces me to be aware and in the moment and to focus my emotional literacy on what they are feeling, as well as to practice empathy. At first it was hard to feel optimism when seeing their chronic conditions and difficulties, but I have learned to manage my own emotions around their illness and just appreciate the good days when the symptoms are minimal and some joy in life can be found in the small things, like seeing a smile or walking in the sunshine.

Carlos Aldan: I wish it was just one! All eight competencies represent a permanent challenge for me everyday. The conscious awareness that Six Seconds brought me about EQ put me in the position of responsibility to use them, and that in itself, has represented an important advantage for me, but a constant struggle nonetheless.

David: Looking through this, I would agree that Empathy is an ongoing struggle in which to stay authentic.  I think it was the novel The Chosen by Chiam Potok that describes the Rabbi as the repository of pain for his community.  I’ve kind of been there done that for the 22 years with military folks and empathetically engaging can be hard as can managing the pain that they share with you.  I found working with folks in the EQ community very helpful in that regard since they come from situations with less (or at least different) pain in their worlds.


In your work as an educator, since you started focusing on EQ, what’s been your biggest aha! about teaching?

Rachel: My students are not empty buckets to be filled up by my well of knowledge. Rather, we are on a journey of discovery together that I am facilitating. At least that’s the ideal I’m aiming for.


Natalie: How to “spark’ a space for everyone to learn more, from each other and together, allowing exploration and many different perspectives instead of trying to get to “one right answer”.


Susan: The attunement needed between teacher and learner. The importance of empowering students to create a caring classroom community for themselves.

Josh: For more learning, do less talking.

Marilynn: Challenge, provoke, pause and LISTEN.

Ilaria: Asking powerful questions

Carlos Aldan: that the SEI and these can be a road map for life!

Lize:  In answer to Josh’s question about what I have learnt from teaching people of many different nationalities – I used to be very empathetic.  It was in fact my strongest competency and I prided myself on the fact that I was so very empathetic.  It is exhausting to be empathetic to everyone else.  I have now learnt to have empathy for myself.  I do more for myself now and paradoxically am able to do more for others too.


Jenny: Lize, I love what you said because it’s something so many of us need. What actions, thoughts and/or feelings do you do, encourage or generate, to show empathy to yourself? What does that mean for you or what would you recommend for others?

Lize: I think initially for me it meant just shifting the emphasis in the questions in the three pursuits of the process to I – So, what am I feeling? What options do I have? What do I really want for myself?  After getting my Neural Net report I have had some more insights.  The NN asks me to consider how well I am balancing self and others.  Balance is something I struggle with and have to consciously commit to all the time.  The NN also asks me to consider if I were more self-empathetic, what would I do to revitalize and nourish myself.  Revitalize and nourish means different things to me in different situations but I keep that in mind.  I really like the last part of the NN with a recommended action.  I really enjoy connecting with and supporting others, as it is in line with my Noble Goal.  I use this supportive connection to nourish me.  It is an ongoing process and I’m evolving and learning.

Paul: My main role as an educator is with the VSCC 1:1 certification course. My biggest aha was that, unexpectedly, I love having that close, emergent relationship with other people as we explore, together, how we can uncover meaning through dialogue, how data can become actionable through insight and reflection.

Jim: When I owned the business and realized how much I needed to use my own EQ to work with and mentor my colleagues.

Tom: I’m not really an educator or a trainer, but I can say that I feel really lucky for all the things I learned from Six Seconds’ methodology, learning philosophy and from all of you. Probably the most precious one is asking Questions, it has reawaken my curiosity, I always thought I was a very curious person, but I realized I was curious on some things and not at all on others, and of course I still am more curious about the things that really interest me. At the same time, shifting the mindset from Judgment to Curiosity is soooo important, and incredibly useful, having a conversation with someone becomes so much more engaging and productive, and a really a true learning experience.

Imran: As an educator/facilitator, my biggest AHA has been people like to learn but they don’t like to be taught. They need respect and a sense of belonging. They want to ask questions without the guilt of not knowing.

David:  Helping people get past the “what to I need to know” stage and into what should I be practicing is very difficult.  In a half day or day workshop, I’m not teaching them all they need to know about EQ, I am giving them the equivalent of their first lesson in learning to play the violin.  They may be really smart but still need to practice to get good at EQ.

Jayne: In order of priority –
#1. Awareness of the emotional power we wield as facilitators, and with that the confirmation that if you can’t be passionate, if you don’t believe, then don’t teach it, because if you can’t, then how can you expect your learners to be?  I want them to look at me and think, “Wow, if she’s this passionate, there must be something in it… I want to know more!”  
#2  How important it is to support learners in ‘joining the dots’, so creating material that is learner-focused rather than trainer-focused.  “I know”, but how can I enable them to know?  Adding to this, it’s been really interesting to see Brain Styles at work in the groups and appreciate how these impact the perception and processing of information.   
#3  How important it is to ‘enter the learners reality’, especially with a subject that can often be perceived as “fluffy’.  Making it practical, helps create the “ah-ha” moment and offers increased chances for the transfer of learning.  No matter how wonderful the learning, unless it is transferred then it’s useless… guess which is my favourite Learning Philosophy?  So getting learners to consider how it will look in their reality, what would the implications be, etc, are crucial to laying down the foundations for the application of learning.  Considering the Brain Style demographics of many of our EQ learners, reinforces to me how important this is.  


What’s one moment when you realized you have, in fact, learned more EQ skills?

Ilaria: every time that I make mistakes

Marilynn: When I take the time to settle, pause, reflect and then walk into situations that may require my most aware and present self. Remembering to do this is the key!

Josh: Marilynn, You seem to be so calm and bold as a facilitator, gently asking people hard questions. How do you enter into controversial, or even heated conversations, with such grace?

Marilynn: By taking a deep breath and trusting that the pause will help me. I often ask myself privately, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here?” And then I take the risk to jump in with great curiosity and care. It is truly a practice and at times I am scared, intimidated, worried etc. but those feelings show me how much I care. And there are still times that I politely retreat but later I use the learning to support the next opportunity to be BOLD.

Michael: It’s in the moments of frustration, like when I am sitting in traffic or when someone is late to meet me. I realize, all of the sudden, that I need to breathe. The remarkable thing is that it doesn’t take long to relax! Even one or two deep breaths and a nice stretch can bring me to a relaxed state from a pretty tense, antsy state. It’s beautiful and makes me feel empowered, the realization that this moment really doesn’t have to be stressful. I could curse the other drivers, or give thanks for the fact that I own this incredible machine that can zoom me up a mountain in no time.


Natalie: some of these moments are when I am with my team. EQ has been helping in becoming a better leader. One of my patterns used to be around my  angry reaction when my colleagues made mistakes. Lately, when one of the made a mistake, I responded very differently, instead of getting angry, I succeeded to stay calm and allow her more space and time to fix it without feeling stressed and afraid.


Jim: When I worked with Natalie and made a mistake assuming things are the same everywhere. We worked through it, and she became my friend. I feel a great honor of that friendship that grew in moving from misunderstanding to understanding. Awareness is important to navigate my own emotions.

Susan: When I notice I am able to have more authentic relationships, with family as well as with friends, students, people I meet, and with people in our network.

May: In a recent workshop of parents that I didn’t know at all, I “felt” a sense of dissonance in the group, that there was something going on beneath the surface group dynamics. Resisting my automatic need to make the situation better, I noted the discord, navigated my emotions, and let it flow through me.  After the session, the host told me that in fact, there had been acts of bullying by one child (whose mom was present) on other children (whose moms were also there in the group).  The “lack of harmony” that I felt was REAL and that it had nothing to do with me.  I learned an important lesson in trusting my insight and not to personalize things that are happening around me and to allow the truth to unfold, to sit in ambiguity, dissonance, and discomfort.

Lize:  EQ really works and people notice.  My family and friends have all noticed a change in me and I believe it has everything to do with practicing EQ.


Paul: When I catch myself being more curious and less judgmental…


Jayne: When I pause to apply consequential thinking before “doing”… which is exactly what my NN says I need to do more of!


Tom: I think that in the interactions with friends and strangers I can really see a difference, I’m much more intentional, and self aware, sometimes is natural and some other time is more of a conscious effort, one that it very worthwhile.


Michael: Hey Paul, that transition from judging to curiosity sounds powerful. Can you share an example of a time where you made that journey? What opens the door to make the shift?

Paul: Great question, Michael. Actually, a recent example in my life was deciding to get a new puppy (a big decision when you’re my age!). I was standing firm on my judgmental side, stating all the rational reasons it didn’t make sense, “pre-judging” the outcome rather than being curious about how a “new family member” might change things in a positive way. I think what tipped the scale was increasing my empathy to really appreciate what this would mean for Susan and allowing that realization to engage my own curiosity about possibility and experience. Tasha, the new puppy just chewed a hole in one of our Zapotec rugs, but even that hasn’t forced me back to my judgmental self.


Carlos Aldan: when my Noble Goal drove me to accept trying to have one more child with Sandra after a couple years of trying to evade the responsibility. We are sad that after 14 months and 10 attempts we did not succeed but avoided future regrets and resentments for not having tried.


Lynette:  When debriefing or coaching a client, and I feel my empathy for wherever they are in that moment and that there is truly no judgment. Then I feel the meaning of giving myself and the energy of fulfilling my Noble Goal, and it is awesome!


Imran: Staying calm in challenging situation requires one to Listen, Reflect and Respond without being Judgmental. I have realized I am better at this now.


David: Usually at the end of a SEI debrief, where great insights have come out, connections have been made and I realize that it wasn’t what I said or the insight I gave, but that I was the catalyst for someone to discover insights in themselves.


Anabel, what’s your conclusion to these stories about learning about EQ? You’ve said many times that “we teach what we are, and we are what we teach.” How does this apply to being emotional intelligence practitioners? Any final words of wisdom on the theme of learning about learning & teaching EQ?

Anabel: As I read the stories/comments what surfaced for me was the importance and power of reflection.

I think reflection is the process by which we make sense of our lives.  Without it we are simply a gigantic collection of various moments in time.  Reflection makes it possible to personally evaluate our own performance–something we often neglect to do in the accelerated speed of living in today’s fast-paced world.  We can self-monitor how we are moving forward on plans and objectives, establishing and sustaining relationships, taking care of our bodies and minds, and for me, most importantly, what daily progress am I making on my noble goal.  I reflect every evening to verify that each and every day I have performed some action that is moving my dream forward.

Six Seconds

Six Seconds supports people to create positive change - everywhere... all the time. Founded in 1997, the organization now has offices in 11+ countries and certified practitioners in over 100, and is the world's preeminent resource for putting emotional intelligence into action.