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The 5 Qualities of Emotionally Smart People

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We all grow up in age, yet not everyone grows up

A few years ago, about 2011, we had a difficult experience with a close senior colleague.  Sadly, it included relationships outside of as well as in work. It meant we experienced some “acting out” — or at least that’s what a colleague called it.

Later in 2013 we lost a truly amazing senior colleague to cancer, very quickly and so tragically.  Before he passed on, Si was a very successful person and family man.

Since both of these experiences we have used them to help us better develop more “whole people” as a team at ICE.  It would have been easy to allow these difficult times to react, self-feed and try to fill our voids in generally unhelpful ways. We often do this by buying things; cars, art, clothes, eating out a lot and forming new relationships.  It can lead us to completely retreat from relationships and prevent trusting in the places and the people that will help.  These difficult times can impact us by making us angry, erratic and scare everyone away, even close colleagues and friends.

I’m sure experiencing these and other difficult times helped me grow up (to be very honest I would say I’m still growing up).   A decade ago, I was sometimes more like a 4-year-old child inside the body of a 40 year-old man.  What I was missing was— and what my team used to compensate for during these years — is emotional maturity; I call it being “people smart”.

Unlike physical development, emotional ripeness isn’t something we pick up naturally. We have to cultivate it. When children throw a tantrum, we show them how to calm down, manage their ego and put their emotions in context. When an older person does the same, we shake our heads in disbelief —I wished I had learned to process my feelings ages ago.  However, the truth is that many people don’t, and some never do.

The good news is hope dies last, but for now I think the best you and I can do is to learn and set our faces to growth. For many years now I’ve been fascinated by studying emotions and behaviours in myself and others.

Here are five qualities I continue to witness in those I’d call people smart, emotionally mature.


1.They don’t run away

Most of our challenges today are emotional challenges. It’s not that you faint when giving a presentation to the higher-ups or that your heart stops pumping blood when as a leader someone comes to tell you they are leaving — it’s that the prospect of these events conjures a plethora of difficult emotions, and those emotions make you want to escape. People Smart people resist this urge.

Instead of running away and hiding, whether that is departing a physical location or escapism by drowning their discomfort in distractions like alcohol or entertainment, smart people sit with their pain. They stay with the discomfort until they’re able to identify their emotions. Psychologist Nick Wignall calls this emotional tolerance, and meditation and stillness is one of its key enablers.

None of us control our impulses, but by briefly pausing as they emerge then we can choose the thoughts that follow those impulses. We can assess our feelings, then act on them rather than getting hijacked and merely reacting to them. We can accept our feelings without surrendering to them — and that’s exactly what emotionally mature people do.


  1. They are committed to finding clarity

The reason emotional tolerance is the most important aspect of mastering modern life’s challenges is that without it, we have no chance of even figuring out why we’re struggling. 

A study looking at how well children can identify emotions compared to adults found that, surprisingly, 3- and 4-year-olds were better at recognising sadness in people’s faces than most adults. Psychologists call the skill of labelling our own feelings.

While we have a talent for it in our early years, we seem to lose this skill. Many of the behaviours we adopt from those around us, parents and other important people in our lives lead to the opposite of emotional clarity: burying our feelings beneath a pile of surface-level, easily treatable symptoms, like boredom, laziness, and even to a sense of hopelessness.

Emotionally mature people refuse to settle for anything less than knowing what they feel. They are committed to wading through discomfort until they emerge with answers they can process and support their emotional selves to resolve and take action that is helpful to themselves and others.


  1. They are humble

 Humility is lack excessive ego or concerns about status.  “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less” - C S Lewis

Once they’ve done the hard work of figuring out what’s actually going on in their minds, people-smart individuals humbly assess the issue at hand.  They are not stubborn. They don’t insist on being right after they find out they’re wrong, and they expect to find out they’re wrong often and repeatedly. They also don’t feel too bad about either of those — because they know they happen to everybody all the time.

Emotionally mature people have a sense of pragmatism — they don’t take bad events personally — and a sense of realism — they don’t think others hurt them intentionally, and they don’t assume they know what their intentions are. They have a way of not personalising.

They are prepared to be honest beyond the point where it hurts – yet still kind, like a kind of grace. Even if they stand to be humiliated, they speak their truth to the best of their ability.

They exert a great deal of empathy in working through their own feelings and support others in doing the same.

Almost all problems between people are communication problems. Sitting down with a colleague won’t guarantee a happy ending to the story, but, most of the time, emotionally mature people will be willing to try and write one.


  1. They maintain a sense of self-respect and identity

Equipped with insight on how they feel about a situation, where they might have gone wrong, and what others involved may think and feel, people-smart individuals then contrast these findings with their “what’s important to them” and their boundaries.

Questions like:

Did I violate one of my principles here? Did the other person cross a line?

Where do I want to draw my lines and what will it take to defend them?

Answering these questions requires knowing what your boundaries, values and attitudes are in the first place.  Self-respect is rooted in the confidence of know who we are and, much like knowing how we feel about any particular situation, knowing who we are means digging into our self to the deeper parts of what makes us individual and human. Some learning from Johari’s window helps explain the areas of our lives that we should and can get to know better Paying particular attending to the hidden self,  but also  the not known self; blind spot.  Try to be open to these quarters for development and growth. I promise you will uncover things that can proudly and shamelessly be held up in the world.

 Johari’s window

Emotionally mature people think about their pillars of self-worth often and make an effort to maintain them as best as they can.

  1. They take responsibility

Wow, isn’t this the difficult one! 

In our house we changed the word sorry to sausage, we use sorry for serious “putting our hands up” and think very carefully about if we really mean it. People-smart people understand the difference between taking responsibility and assigning blame, and they decide to do one instead of the other, even in the face of little control and predictability.

Our world is full of people and experiences that we have no hand in shaping. Being emotionally mature is about influencing what you can, accepting what you can’t, and learning to recognise and be at peace about the difference.  Doing so requires an understanding of the bigger picture and your part in that — and if you can’t see it, make an effort to.

You’ll ask questions like:


  • Is this fight worth sacrificing for?
  • Where will staying with your angry boss take you?
  • Can I develop with the teammate?


Asking these questions before you answer them with your actions is an essential people smart skill.

Emotionally mature people always ask, “What else could I try?” and even if the answer is “Nothing,” they maintain a sense of awareness .  People smart is knowing you’ll keep meeting new situations where you will need to practice tolerance and grace until you find clarity. It’s considering the past and the mistakes you have made, as well as the future and whether your self-image warrants sticking around and trying again.

Finally, it’s about remembering you’re a tiny part in an amazing, hopefully chaotic, sea of impermanence, thoughts are just that, only thoughts -  they come and go, and we must learn to manage them to be helpful to self and others.

Remember this, no matter what happens, you decide what to think of, feel about, and do with all the other people and experiences you engage with.

As long as you do that, no matter how old you are, you’ll always be growing up.

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