Coaching with emotional intelligence


There is a ‘chicken or the egg’ question when considering Emotional Intelligence or quotient (EQ) as a coaching tool. Must a coach be emotionally intelligent to be effective as a coach? Can EQ models be applied to coaching?

Our aim in this article is to share insights into the second question and explore how EQ models can be used to coach the client effectively. Let’s review three different cases:

Self-awareness: Bhaskar coaching Sai – a CXO with spots

Self-Awareness is knowledge of oneself and of how others perceive one. It is demonstrated by having a deep understanding of strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives and recognising the effect of one’s feelings.

The CXO, Sai, whom I began coaching in June 2019, perfectly demonstrates the importance of self-awareness.

Six months earlier, Sai had joined a sizeable billion-dollar organisation spread across forty countries. His candidature was referred by none less than the current CEO of the organisation. They had worked together in another organisation twelve years prior. When I was called upon to coach Sai so soon after joining the organisation, I was surprised and curious. The chemistry meeting between us was smooth; Sai wanted to know about the coaching process and how we would ascertain progress.

To begin with, we decided to use a 360 degree feedback tool. While most of the respondents mentioned his technical excellence, they also had scathing remarks on his EQ. They described him as rigid, curt and abrasive. He did not allow others to speak and argued in leadership meetings, much to the embarrassment of the CEO and the country head.

As Sai read the report, his facial expression started to change. His scowl was unmistakable. He remarked defiantly, “None of these people know me well. They have interacted with me only for six months; how can they reach these conclusions?” I challenged him, “What about the remarks from the CEO?”

We had also agreed on the Hogan Development (HOGAN HDS) Survey, which evaluates 11 forms of interpersonal behaviour that can cause problems at work and in life. Behaviours associated with elevated HDS scores can be strengths, but they may also derail relationships and careers if overused. Individuals who understand their performance limitations have more successful careers. I shared Sai’s report with him. It indicated a high-risk score on ‘excitable’, which meant he lost his cool and reacted angrily under stress.

Both instruments identified the same challenge. Sai became more defiant, and it became apparent to me that his level of self-awareness was low. Even with his brilliant technical skills, his lack of self-awareness could get in the way of his success. About 55 per cent of the team had left ever since he joined. He believed they left the organisation because of compensation issues rather than his leadership style. However, most of the exit interviews revealed that his team members could not handle his abrasive behaviour and had decided to move on. It was clear that Sai could be dominating, insensitive, arrogant and listened only to himself (especially under stress). He was beginning to reveal a self-serving bias that did not help him nor those around him.

While his self-awareness level was choking him, my challenge was to help him figure out how not to get derailed.

Self-management: The journey continues

Self-management is about managing one’s behaviour as emotions start to hijack us and the decision-making process. It requires placing momentary needs on hold to pursue larger and more important goals.

In the case of this CXO, the emotional hijack was happening more frequently and with an increasing number of people. He was struggling to be in control.

Sai practised several self-management strategies to start managing his emotional triggers positively. Methods included: being ‘in the moment’ – pausing, breathing and thinking; seeking feedback from mentors he trusted; and listening to employee exit interviews. His demeanour started to soften over the subsequent two sessions, and he was amenable to move forward. Some of our conversations were about the following questions:

What do people say or do that makes you angry?

How can you slow down?

What would you like to say ‘in the moment’?

What do you need to believe about the other person ‘in the moment’ to keep it safe?

Social-awareness: Sandeep coaching Kabir, the new managing director

Leaders with high social awareness have a highly sensitive radar with keen insight into interpersonal and organisational dynamics. They are strong on empathy, astutely read the political environment and know how to build coalitions.

The board of directors approached me to work with Kabir, the new managing director (MD). My brief was to help him land the new role. He was heading a key function in the global position and was now earmarked to land the India MD role. Sponsors and stakeholders’ expectations of the appointment were collected. There was concern. Two earlier MDs had lasted just two years, and things were not the way they should have been.

In my first interaction with Kabir, I asked, “What is the goal you want to pursue?” Kabir responded, “Sandeep, everything is sorted”. I asked him what he meant, and he explained his thinking and plan to change the company with great enthusiasm and charm for the next 50 minutes.

When I asked, “Where is your team in this plan of yours?” he responded that he had already set a meeting and would lay out the plan for them there. I probed further, asking questions such as, “What if they don’t agree with your plan? What is the scope to change the plan?” His answer was, “Very little”. He was clear that he was not there to make friends or give people comfort to do their own thing. His attitude set off a ‘social-awareness’ alarm in my mind, and I could sense that he was walking into a minefield. We spent 20 minutes going over the natural consequences of him taking this path. He sensed the repercussions quickly and chose to modify his approach. He decided to have one-on-one conversations to listen to any concerns that any of the team had with his plan.

As you may see, social awareness is not about agreeing with what others have to say, but about listening.

Relationship management: Sandeep coaching Ashok – the boutique offer

While working with a large consulting organisation, I had to face a classical coach’s dilemma. I was coaching one of the directors, Ashok, who looked after a vertical that could become a practice area. Ashok was in an excellent position to become a junior partner in the firm.

The managing partner (one of the stakeholders) was very enthusiastic and a robust advocate of the prospect of my client growing to the next level. The client had a dotted line relationship with the global practice head. When I connected with the latter, I asked him a core stakeholder question, “Will you sponsor my client to the next-level role?”. After a pause, I heard a quiet but firm “No”. The stakeholder explained that “networking is a core skill as a partner”. Based on past experiences, the stakeholder did not believe Ashok was ready.

To Ashok’s credit, he acknowledged the reasons behind the stakeholder’s perception. We then set out to improve Ashok’s relationship with the practice head and to build the latter’s confidence in his capabilities. Three months into the process, on our eighth coaching session, my client says, “Sandeep, I need help from you to evaluate an option that is now available to me. I have an offer to become a partner in a boutique firm, where my dream of being a partner and my own master can come true?”

So here is the problem statement: The client needs to become a partner in the current year. His managing partner (country head) requires him to be ready for the next-level role. However, his practice head (in the US) does not believe he is ready.

While using relationship-management skills, the coach’s job is to drag attention away from a binary, ‘either/or’ thinking towards ‘and’ thinking. The questions I used in the conversation were:

How can you create solutions that satisfy your needs and those of your firm and stakeholders?

What can you do to be fair to your current role and your future options?

If you were mentoring yourself, what would your advice be?

The outcome of this conversation was that Ashok decided to approach the India managing partner and map a transition into the next role within the firm (or as a plan ‘B’ outside the firm). By taking up the offer from the boutique-consulting organisation, he effectively bought time for the next six months to make the right choice for him.

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The authors

Sandeep Budhiraja, ACC is an executive coach. He is the chief evangelist at and executive director at the BYLD Group. He works with leaders to realise their potential, and has helped leaders land the roles they wanted and deserved. An active mentor coach, he currently mentors more than 75+ coaches who have ACSTH training in India, Europe and China.

Bhaskar Bhattacharya, ACC is a leadership coach and talent-management professional with 20+ years’ global experience of organisational and leadership development aligned to strategic corporate goals, across diverse industries and in over 30 countries. Over the years, he has partnered with senior leadership to enable the greatest possible results through people. He has also led large-scale change-management initiatives across multiple countries, training, and mentoring initiatives, and provided value through enhanced organisational effectiveness.

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