Jason R. Waller
Two Words You Can Use to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence
They can create the space for connection and reflection.
I won’t make you scroll looking for them: the two words are “I notice.” And why are these two short words so powerful? How have I used them to create space and improve my own relationships and emotional intelligence? For that, read on.
Use “I notice” to create healthy space
I learned these two amazing words from my clients. I saw how they, when they were really aware of their emotions and feelings, would almost talk like a scientist about them.
“Oh, it’s fascinating; I notice I’m getting a bit sad thinking about that.”
They used this posture, this way of looking at emotion and thought, to engage with curiosity.
I tried it myself. Whenever I was in a difficult conversation, I tried starting off with the phrase “I notice.” Instead of telling someone what I was upset about or what was bothering me, I told them what I noticed was making me upset or what I noticed was bothering me. E.g. “I notice I’m feeling frustrated that I haven’t had a lot of time for me today.”
Sharing about your experience with the words “I notice” does two things.
First, it creates some objective space between you and what you’re feeling. This makes it easier to say what’s really happening — to you. Instead of falling into a rant on how annoying the boss is or complaining about the situation, it invites real reflection into the conversation. “I notice” forces you to step back and answer the question of what you notice. And in this case, it might be “I notice that I want to complain about my boss and the situation.”
Second, this objective space makes it easier to hear (and engage with) what’s happening for you. Imagine your friend telling you “I’m angry with you.” Now imagine them saying “I notice that I’m feeling angry with you.” We might not phrase it in exactly this way, but you get the idea. In the second instance, it’s often easier to hear because it feels less like an accusation. It feels more like an invitation, a discussion.
Use “I notice” to invite others into that space
It might sound like “I notice” could create unhealthy distance between us and our feelings, encouraging us to intellectualize or numb them. In fact, it’s the opposite. Unless you are already a master at identifying and expressing your emotions, “I notice” is a powerful little tool that can encourage you to do just that.
In the example above, most of us would be a lot more comfortable with saying “I notice that I’m feeling angry with you” than “I’m angry with you.” Usually, we don’t come out and say “I’m angry with you.” We change our tone or posture with an expectation they’ll notice, or bid for engagement in a passive aggressive way, or just pretend like everything’s fine. Most of us are pretty bad at just saying what we really think or how we truly feel.
“I notice” doesn’t give us an out, but it does give us a tool to share in a nonviolent, less confrontational way. By putting a bit of space between us and our emotions, we can feel more comfortable sharing honestly with others. It’s about taking more ownership, not less.
When I’m coaching leaders on practicing vulnerability, this is often where I start. It can be hard to share “I’m feeling anxious” with your team. Although I don’t believe it is, it can feel like showing weakness. “I notice that I’m starting to feel anxious about our next project” can feel strong, powerful. It puts us in the driver’s seat of our emotions and lets us communicate them to others with authority.
When we practice sharing our experience with others in this way, it can also invite a more complete story. I was role playing with a client recently and she said (to her partner), “I’m so upset with you.” I invited her to try on the words “I notice,” and she expanded to say “I notice I’m feeling really angry right now, and I don’t want to be. I want us to be close and I miss you, but what you said really hurt me.” Sometimes, a little bit of space allows us to take a step back and share a more complete view of what’s happening. In the earlier example, it could be “I notice that I’m starting to feel anxious about our next project — here’s what I think we should do…”
One final thought here: “I notice” isn’t just for conflict and hard conversations. “I notice” can empower us to share joy, happiness, hope, etc. and invite others to engage in it in the same way. “I notice” can give us permission to celebrate and appreciate. For many of us, this can be the harder side of emotion to lean into and embrace.
Use “I notice” to make space for inward reflection
These two little words aren’t just for connecting with others, but also with ourselves. You don’t have to be with others to notice a feeling and call it out. Try it right now — what do you notice you’re feeling?
When my clients reflect in this way, they often comment that they feel like a scientist. Some of them even imagine wearing white lab coats and carrying clipboards. And as scientists, they’re allowing themselves to be curious. “I notice that I’m starting to feel excited, I wonder what’s so important about this to me?” “I notice that I’m feeling overwhelmed right now, I wonder what that’s telling me about what I need?”
The exercise of “I notice” isn’t about stepping away from our emotions, quite the opposite. It’s stepping toward them, out of curiosity and wonder. You get to teach yourself that emotions aren’t things to be avoided, but things to be embraced. You get to teach yourself that your emotions are not your identity — although they are yours, you are not them.
Beyond just emotions, “I notice” can help us identify and relate our thoughts and sensations, too. “I notice that I’m still thinking about my last conversation with my boss” or “I notice a tightness in my stomach.” These can all (emotions, thoughts, sensations) help clue us into what’s happening to us in the present moment, what we’re attuned to.
These two teensy weensy words “I notice” pack a big punch. They can help us create healthy, objective space and step back a bit from a loud emotion. With that bigger space, we can invite others to hear us, engage with us, and connect with us. And in that bigger space we can also connect with ourselves, getting curious like scientists about what’s happening in our emotions, thoughts, and sensations.
Try saying “I notice” the next time that you need to share how you’re feeling or or thinking in a difficult conversation. You can also set up times to practice noticing your own physical and mental state. Try wrapping it into an existing mindfulness routine or setting an alarm or calendar invite to practice “noticing.” One of my favorites: try tagging this in as a habit loop to every meal you eat. Every time you put food into your mouth, set that as a reminder to yourself to check in on what you notice in your emotions, thoughts, and sensations.
Good luck on your journey.
Originally published in Mind Cafe