8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders

Practice emotional intelligence by incorporating these simple, powerful phrases into your leadership vocabulary
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Emotional intelligence is a must-have soft skill for leaders, and it’s not hard to spot the ones who possess it. People are drawn to high-EQ leaders. It’s apparent in the ways they interact with colleagues. You can even hear high emotional intelligence in the words they use every day.

“Emotionally intelligent people want to know that their boss is emotionally intelligent, as well,” says Jonathan Feldman, CIO of the city of Asheville, NC. “That usually translates into wanting to see some self-awareness. Phrases like ‘I was wrong,’ ‘Oh, you’re right,’ and ‘I fell short on that one by not doing XYZ’ help employees know that.” 

Emotionally intelligent leadership: 8 powerful phrases

As you work to become more self-aware of your own emotions, think carefully about your word choices with colleagues. Here are eight more phrases you can start to incorporate into your leadership vocabulary today to connect with and relate to your team members in more meaningful ways. It’s not just lip service, either. In his 1995 best seller, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman argued that emotional intelligence outweighed cognitive intelligence as the best predictor of business success.

Luckily, emotional intelligence is one of those leadership skills that improves with regular practice. These simple yet powerful phrases are a great place to start. 

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

“Tell me more.”

Emotionally intelligent leaders typically possess another valuable soft skill: communication know-how. They also understand that it can be challenging for others, and they’d never make assumptions based on a colleague’s words. “Tell me more about that,” or “What did you mean when you said/did that?” is a judgment-free way to get clarity, says Dr. Neeta Bhushan, emotional health educator and author of “Emotional GRIT.” When leaders use these words, they are operating from a place of curiosity and compassion instead of judgment, she says. 

“The phrase ‘can you say more about that’ demonstrates a desire to better understand what the other person is saying or trying to get at, but is non-evaluative,” adds Drew Bird, founder at The EQ Development Group

“How do you like to be communicated to?”

High-EQ leaders also don’t make assumptions about how others like to receive communication from them. For instance, some people might appreciate face-to-face conversations while others prefer a simple text message. Emotionally intelligent leaders want to know about those preferences so they can adapt their communication style for each individual on their team. 

“Emotionally intelligent leaders know how to communicate with empathy. And they recognize that in order to do so, they have to get to know the other person and to ask how they like to receive their information,” notes Colin D. Ellis, author of “The Conscious Project Leader.” “As humans, we all like to receive communication in different ways, and high-EQ leaders will always ask.”

[ Improve your communication and other soft skills: How to build soft skills: 10 must-read books. ]

“I appreciate you.”

Giving feedback is one area where emotionally intelligent leaders shine. Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile, says his go-to phrase is, “Looks good.” 

"I know it sounds simple,” he says. “My team works day in and out to create products and work they're proud of. Sometimes things can get hectic with multiple projects and priorities, so I try to make sure everyone knows they're acknowledged and doing a good job even for a quick second. It's something so small, but I know my team appreciates hearing their hard work is worth it." 

It’s not just for the team, though. Effective leaders who use this phrase build stronger relationships and deeper trust with their colleagues, which is a good thing for everyone involved. “Showing gratitude and acceptance is a surefire way to have positive engagement and employee satisfaction,” says Bhushan. 

While it's nice to hear “good job," putting some context around it makes it even more meaningful, says Bird. “Helping people to understand why you are grateful makes it more meaningful than simply saying thanks,” he says. Bird suggests the phrase: “I really appreciate you doing that because [add the actual impact of their actions].”

“What are your thoughts?”

Feedback is a two-way street for high-EQ leaders, says Ellis. “Emotionally intelligent leaders are inclusive by nature and never stop looking for opportunities to bring the thoughts and views of others into a discussion,” he says. “They recognize that they are not the smartest people in the room and look for ways to elevate others.”

“I have a different perspective.”

High-EQ leaders don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Instead, they use disagreements as opportunities to start a dialogue and find common ground. 

“The phrase ‘I have a different perspective’ is a more emotionally intelligent way to say ‘I don’t agree,’” says Bird.  “Having a different perspective simply means you have an alternative view of this opportunity or challenge.”

When those alternative views lead to conflict, Bird suggests the phrase: “It makes me [insert emotion/feeling] when you ...” This language demonstrates that the leader has given thought to what is happening, and enables the other person to hear the impact of their actions, says Bird. 

[ See our related article: How to have tough conversations: 8 tips. ]

“Are you OK?”

For most people, creativity ebbs and flows. Some days we’re firing on all cylinders, some days we need a few extra cups of coffee just to get through the workday. Emotionally intelligent leaders know this and give their employees the benefit of the doubt. They also check in to make sure employees are OK.

“There are times that people are not able to be the best, most productive versions of themselves. In times such as these, the response of emotionally intelligent leaders is not to berate them for missing a deadline or allowing the quality of work to slip. It's to ask them, in an empathetic way, whether they are OK,” says Ellis. “The wellbeing of other people is uppermost in their minds, and this is just one way that they show it.”

[ Is your team exhausted during this time of remote work? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

“I hear you.”

Empathy, as Ellis notes, is a hallmark of emotional intelligence. Bhushan agrees. “Showcasing empathy is the number-one way to show emotional intelligence, to demonstrate that you hear the other person and that you don’t have any hidden agenda driving your actions,” she says. 

Phrases like “I hear you” and “I understand” are useful in bringing the language of empathy into your vocabulary, she says. 

“I’m sorry.”

Emotionally intelligent leaders aren’t afraid to admit when they are wrong. “Apologizing, in an honest way, demonstrates a high level of emotional intelligence as it shows a modesty and humility that followers really appreciate,” says Bird. 

That humility is key, notes Ellis: “Humility is a key behavioral trait of emotionally intelligent leaders. They have the self-awareness to know when they've said something or acted in a way that upset or undermined another human, and are determined to correct it as soon as possible,” he says.

Emotionally intelligent leadership in a pandemic

Especially now, when team members are grappling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and preparing for what's next, it's important not to skip the parts of leadership like personal relationship building, as Janele Lynn, owner of the Lynn Leadership Group, recently noted.

“The novelty [of remote work] has really worn off. The new normal has become just normal, and we’re not necessarily thinking about how to help our people navigate the adjustment, but instead, we’re focused on just getting our jobs done,” Lynn says. “This can cause us to let some of the more time-consuming parts of leadership fall to the wayside.”

However, she notes, it’s more important than ever for leaders to continue to build EQ-enabled relationships to foster productive and energized teams. (For more tips from Lynn on how to do that, see our recent article, Emotional intelligence: 8 ways to improve yours in 2021.)

As you work through this difficult time with your team, the phrases outlined above can help. While they won’t magically grant you high emotional intelligence, they will help you become a more empathetic, effective leader. And once you learn to recognize your own emotions through self-awareness, the benefits may help with your relationships outside of work, too.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

This article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated to include additional information.

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  


You can say "I disagree" without compromising emotional intelligence. Some people actually prefer that sort of directness as opposed to something like "I have a different perspective" which can come across as evasive or phoney.
I think too much "pussy-footing around" should be avoided because an environment without any sort of conflict is avoided can feel alienating. Disagreement (kept within the matter at hand) enables people to know where they stand and engenders a sense of belonging.

I grew up in a culture where differences were often handled with passive aggression. "I disagree" can be heard as "you're wrong" in such social groups and can even feel shocking. A high EI looks with curiosity to how others might react. The softer versions suggested in the article makes it easier to disagree without escalating conflict to a level where no one hears each other and true conversation and connection are lost. Again, this varies greatly by culture and the sensitivity of the individuals. Hence the emotionally intelligent thing to do is pay attention to how your words are landing, how the other is hearing you.

Thanks for your reply. What you are saying fits with my experience. I think I was generalizing too much in my previous comment. I'm not always as emotionally intelligent as I like to think I am.

As someone who has struggled with EI, remember that change is difficult, and you will almost certainly encounter some setbacks and maybe even comments from colleagues about the changes you’re making in your communication style. Remember your goals for making these changes, and do not be discouraged. Rather, look forward to the time when your goal is realized and your relationships are strengthened. You’ll be glad you made the effort!

It saddens me to say that I can't imagine, not in a thousand years, any of these phrases coming out of the mouth of my current manager. Never happened, probably never will.

Good article!

Good read..and thease are phrases can bring and can change a lot to motivate team in many aspects ..

I had only one emotionally intelligent leader during my corporate life. I am still friends with him to this day! How did he do it? He simply treated me like he cared about me & also encouraged me by letting me make my own decisions.