5 Smart Phrases People With High Emotional Intelligence Keep Saying Over and Over, and Why


I think there are two ways people can try to improve their emotional intelligence.

  • The hard way, which involves studying the concepts, training yourself to analyze interactions, and working case by case to isolate emotions from other motivations.
  • The easy way, which involves memorizing phrases that inspire positive emotional reactions, and training yourself to use these phrases in the place of others that can be more counterproductive.

The examples speak for themselves. Here are five specific things that people with high emotional intelligence learn to say reflexively, over and over, and why they work better than the alternatives.

1.    “I apologize.”

Say “I apologize” instead of “I’m sorry.” Why? Several reasons.

The first reason is so grammatical that I’ll bet a lot of people don’t realize that they subconsciously understand it. It’s the difference between an adjective and a verb.

In short, when you say “I apologize,” you’re describing an action — something you’re actively doing. But, when you say, “I’m sorry,” you’re describing a state of being or feeling — something you may not have any control over.

Description of bold action is simply more powerful than description of a passive state.

The second reason is that in recent years, we’ve had a culture-wide acclimation to the idea that people can say they’re sorry for things in a way that explicitly avoids apology, and even carries a bit of an insult.

  • “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.”
  • “I’m sorry you didn’t understand the joke.”
  • “I’m sorry you didn’t try hard enough to make the team.”

As a result, many of us reflexively (but understandably!) get our guard up a bit when someone says they they’re sorry.

Nobody wants to be made a fool of, and our collective understanding of the phrase “I’m sorry” now has a subtle potential meaning that’s the opposite of the dictionary definition.

People with high emotional intelligence understand that “I apologize” avoids that issue and leverages emotions positively as a result.

2.    “Thanks for understanding.”

Say, “thanks for understanding” instead of “I apologize” (or “I’m sorry.”)

Bear with me here; I put the the this example right under the “I apologize” section  a reason.

People with high emotional intelligence understand that apologies can be important. But, using apology language when you don’t actually mean to apologize invites confusion — and can actually cheapen the value of apologies you do intend to give.

So, when you’re delivering disappointing news, especially news that involves what you’re willing or not willing to do, offer thanks instead of regret. Examples:

  • “I won’t be able to pick you up at the airport after your vacation. Thanks for understanding.” 
  • “I’m flattered that you asked me to go on a date with you, but I am going to decline. Thanks for understanding.” 
  • “We value your business, but we’re not going to be able to reduce the price as you requested. Thanks for understanding.”

I’m sure you can imagine how people reflexively switch out “thanks for understanding” in favor of “I’m sorry.” Heck, I’m the person writing this article and I’m tempted to do it!

But, people with high emotional intelligence recognize that offering regret along with a demurral suggests that you might be persuadable, which is probably the opposite of the signal you’re trying to send.

Plus, people with high emotional intelligence understand that any time you can end a conversation with an expression of gratitude, you’ve ended it well.

3.     “Say a little more (please).”

Credit for inspiring this phrase goes to one of my favorite college professors. In short, this is a brief, all-purpose, 4- or 5-word mechanism (depending on the “please”) that communicates interest, concern, and respect.

It especially works when the other person in your conversation has a bit of trepidation, wondering whether you really want them to share with you or not.

  • A friend tells you about a great idea she has; does she have implied permission to keep describing it? (“Say a little more.”)
  • A work colleague describes a challenging project he needs help on; are you willing and eager to hear him out and help? (“Say a little more.”)
  • Or else, perhaps my favorite: You’ve completely lost your train of thought, or you’ve been unable to follow the thread of something another person clearly wants you to understand. (“Say a little more.”)

One final point on this one: The word “little” is important.

People with high emotional intelligence understand that you want to be encouraging, but not open-ended. Give the other person permission, but not unlimited permission.

4.    “I don’t know.”

This phrase has deeper meaning than it might first appear, and it’s largely geared toward defending against your counterproductive emotions, as opposed to other people’s emotions.

Imagine you’re asked for advice. Or guidance. Or to make a decision. People with high emotional intelligence understand that the request can bring with it an implied judgment — or else, maybe a test.

In other words, when someone asks for advice about X, there’s a subtle challenge that can arise, in that you can feel yourself being judged based on how effectively you do (or don’t) respond to the request.

  • “I’m trying to decide what kind of car to buy; what do you think?” (Also: Do you know anything at all about cars?)
  • “I came into a bit of a financial windfall and I’m trying to decide how to invest it.” (Also: Are you financially successful? Yeah? How much?)
  • “There’s someone I met that I’d really like to go out with, got any ideas?” (Also: Do you have any positive experience at all with romantic relationships?)

We don’t like to admit that we can fall victim to feeling status rise or fall based on our perceived confidence, but it happens to most of us. And that leads to a temptation to offer advice or opinions even when we don’t have fully formed ones.

People with high emotional intelligence understand that this is all about a power game that nobody really wants to play to begin with. Being willing to respond, “I don’t know,” takes some of that power back. 

5.    “Can I have a minute?”

Let’s end on this one for today: a super-powerful phrase that combines silence, understanding, and agreement, and it does so in two contexts.

  • First, it carves out time for you to think more deeply about whatever is going on in the conversation. Whether you’re simply confirming your understanding, or else formulating the perfect, emotionally intelligent thing to say next, you’ve bought time. 
  • Second, it leverages what I call the four-second rule, which involves the natural awkwardness that everyone feels when a conversation involves silence. It’s even more potent, because by proactively stating that you’d like to take a minute, you’re also seizing control of the pace of the conversation.

Add to this the fact that you’ve phrased your intention to take a time-out as a permission-seeking question, and you’ve added another level of connection. You’re not just saying “wait;” you’re bringing the other person on board, but doing so in a way that’s very hard for the other person to say no.

This last example is so powerful that it leaves me once more thinking about the 2,500-year old debate, dating back to the time of Socrates, about whether it’s moral to teach people rhetorical techniques, since you don’t know whether they’re use them for good or bad.

Because as I write in my free e-book, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, emotional intelligence doesn’t mean simply being nice to people.

Instead, it’s about leveraging emotions — both yours and other people’s — to make it more likely you’ll meet achieve goals. And maybe just as important, to be more aware of when other people are using it, too.  

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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