Emotional Literacy: What’s the Cost?

I’ve got an announcement for you!

You know, since I started on this journey six years ago, I’ve published 312 blog posts, 52 podcasts, and 26 Bit of Beth videos. I’ve also written two books. That’s a heck of a lot of writing and content!

I have had so much fun with that, and I love sending it to you and hearing all of your feedback. But now I’m feeling something else bubbling up, and as we say in Navigating Challenging Dialogue®: grace is in the space. And so I’m making space for this whole new theme that I feel is coming forward.

It’s going to be specifically focused on leadership – such as unexpected leaders and how to step into a leadership role when you didn't think you were destined for one or that you had one. Because I know that now, more than any other time, leadership needs people of all backgrounds, all shapes, all sizes, and with all kinds of experience to step up in new ways and with new skills. I’m super excited!

To create space for this new theme to come forward, you’re going to receive these Dynamics of Self articles and the Bit of Beth videos on alternate weeks instead of both items every week. Hopefully, everybody’s going to be excited and engaged as we make the shift. I know I certainly am, and I look forward to hearing from you.

And if this change leaves you thinking, “Wait a minute, I don’t know if that’s enough of Beth for me...” then you can click here to find hundreds of articles with more than 50 podcasts, and you can click here for dozens of Bit of Beth videos – wow!



  • Defining emotional literacy (3:15)

  • The 5 parts of emotional literacy (4:35)

  • What I see from here (5:55)

  • A story of lost time and resources (7:00)

  • Did that story sound familiar? (13:05)

  • Your turn… (14:35)

Emotional Literacy: What’s the Cost?

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is not a new term. In fact, back in 1997, Claude Steiner began utilizing this word and introducing it, particularly in the counseling realm. Some people talk about emotional literacy as a connection piece to social and emotional awareness.

Emotional literacy is the ability to understand your emotions, the ability to listen to others and to empathize with their emotions, as well as express your own emotions in a productive way. Being emotionally literate is the ability to handle emotions in a way that improves your personal power and the quality of life all around you

In other words, emotional literacy helps us do our work in a way that focuses on the good of the whole.

The Five Parts of Emotional Literacy

When Claude Steiner talks about emotional literacy, he talks about handling powerfully emotional situations in a really skillful way. He breaks it down into five parts:

  • Part 1: Know your feelings

  • Part 2: Have empathy

  • Part 3: Learn to manage your emotions

  • Part 4: Have skills to repair any problems that have been created by emotions

  • Part 5: Put all four of those parts together in a way that fosters positive interactivity

How does all that sound? Does it sound like what you see happening around you with the people you engage with, the people you work with, your teammates, and your family?

What I See from Here

The more I engage and do consulting work with organizations, the more I see that the basis, the core thing, that causes us to get into conflicts, waste time, create drama and chaos, and have a strong negative impact on productivity is that people are less and less skillful in the emotional literacy realm.

So, what are some of the ways organizational time and resources are lost when emotional literacy is low?

I’m going to tell you a story, and I want you to see if you can identify places where more skill with emotional literacy may have resulted in a different outcome.

A Story of Lost Time and Resources

So there’s a team meeting happening, and its focus is: “What’s the best approach to a new project?”

The meeting is going along fine, just like it normally does. People are offering ideas and dialoguing about those ideas. But then, Jayden, who’s a pretty reasonable and steady guy and normally on the quiet side, puts forward a new idea. The energy in the meeting is about brainstorming. The discussion is lively, and the pace is fast, and his soft, tentative voice just doesn’t rise to the top.

He doesn’t often try to compete with the strong personalities in the room. But at his last performance evaluation, he was given some feedback that he needs to find his voice on the team, and he needs to have his ideas heard.

He feels pretty vulnerable doing this, but he’d decided that today would be the day. So he tries to put forward his idea one more time. But by now, the moment has passed, and the discussion has moved on down the road very quickly.

Jayden tries to interject one more time when Haley, the project manager who happens to be a really strong D on the DiSC profile – direct and driven – brushes him off with a wave of her hand and says, “Jayden, we’ve moved on from that. It has already been decided.”

Now, this is not an uncommon response for Haley because she’s really action-oriented. She likes quick decisions. She doesn’t want to get stuck in the details. In keeping with her profile traits, she’s more eager to find solutions than to spend a lot of time discussing them.

Suddenly, everyone in the room notices a shift in Jayden’s body language. He stiffens. His face is getting red, and his eyes harden just a little.

His fist suddenly tightens around his pen, and he taps it a few times – a little harder and a little louder than necessary. People make a mental note that they’ve not noticed this behavior in him before. It appears he’s trying to stifle his anger.

Jayden doesn’t realize that he has gone into fight-or-flight mode and that being shut down when he felt vulnerable and was taking a risk has triggered him. And suddenly and unexpectedly, with more energy than seems appropriate, Jayden signals that he’s withdrawing from further participation…

He responds to Haley with a short, curt, “Fine. If that’s the way you want it, that’s the way you’ll get it. My opinion certainly doesn’t matter,” and he looks down at his notes and distracts himself by shuffling his papers.

With that, the healthy dialogue in the room stops, and the meeting becomes awkward for a few minutes. Haley tries to keep moving on the agenda, but it’s as if the creative air has been sucked out of the room.

Everyone tries to give Jayden a wide berth and pretend that everything is fine, and Haley begins wrapping up the meeting by looking at the calendar to set the next meeting date.

Jayden makes his exit from the room – fast. Everyone else packs up their stuff, exchanging pleasantries but making nonverbal statements with their eyes that indicate, “This is awkward!”

You were in that meeting, and as soon as you get back to your desk, you text a teammate with, “Wow! What was that?” and then a colleague (who wasn’t in the meeting) says, “You aren’t going to believe what just happened.”

You spend the next 30 minutes trying to get into the project you were working on before the meeting, but you’re only partially focused because your phone keeps notifying you of incoming texts regarding the drama and chaos around Jayden’s outburst. And you know what? That’s way more fun than compiling data into a report, even though that report is due at 3:00 p.m. Oh, well, you can just ask for an extension. You don’t ask for one very often, and focusing truly seems to be out of the question right now.

You’re probably not the only one who is distracted. Out of the eight people in the meeting, six of them are also distracted by processing what just happened with at least one other person – and some of them weren’t in the meeting. So now, there are an additional 15 people who have been made aware of the drama and are now speculating about what happened.

Their speculation runs from “Was Jayden unreasonable?” to “Is Haley not a great leader?” (We always want to find somewhere to lay blame. It’s so much more fun and entertaining than taking a look at how we showed up in the communication.)

Did That Story Sound Familiar?

Depending on the culture and climate in your workplace, there are probably some situations like this that happen – and maybe they happen all the time. These are the places where upwards of 20 collective hours of an organization’s most precious and finite resource – time – gets wasted.

As a matter of fact, for most organizations, time that’s wasted because of a lack of emotional literacy is the largest expense on the profit and loss statement. But rarely, if ever, do we do an accounting for it or take steps to mitigate its impact.

So, as you read that story, did anything sound like what you see happening around you?

  • People having reactions

  • Dialogues not being held

  • Clarifying questions not being asked

  • People who are unaware of how their emotions show up and impact themselves and those around them.

Your Turn…

How would you rate emotional literacy in your own self, in your own world, in your own work, and even at home?

Developing emotional literacy skills is the focus of Navigating Challenging Dialogue®. So if you or someone you know would like to build more emotional literacy skillfulness, check out our Navigating Challenging Dialogue Leadership Certification and Skills Training workshops.

- Beth