Practical analysis for investment professionals
22 February 2012

Listen Up: Emotional Intelligence is Critical for Success

Do soft skills really matter as much as technical skills in terms of career success? Our career services representative, Julia VanDeren, has frequent interactions with recruiting and training and development managers, and she has heard a lot of consistency in terms of their top priority for employee development. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s listening.

Listening sounds easy, but is it? Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “We’ve been given two ears but only one mouth, and we should use them in that proportion.” Most people would agree that good listening skills include not interrupting others or hogging the conversation. Following those basic rules is definitely an important start to developing listening skills, but it’s not the whole story.

At its root, listening is not only hearing the actual words someone says but also understanding the perspectives and motivations behind the words. A good listener puts aside his own assumptions and realizes that his perspective doesn’t adequately define the terms of the communication.

In a professional setting, there are a number of factors that contribute to an individual’s perspective and influence how he or she engages with others. Functional responsibility, level of seniority, and generational identity are some obvious examples, but our individual personalities are equally important. A good understanding of behavioral style can help you improve your communication skills.

The DISC model for understanding behavioral styles is used frequently by leadership and executive coaches and is an easy one to understand and put to use quickly. Listed below are some of the basics that can help you to not only identify your own behavioral style but also get a quick read of another person’s. Understanding the styles in play can help you make adjustments to improve the effectiveness of your communication.


Individuals with this primary style prioritize immediate results and getting things checked off the to-do list.

  • Motivated by: Being challenged, overcoming obstacles, and gaining power and authority.
  • Worried about: Being taken advantage of, losing control over their environment.
  • Often are: Quite fast-paced and active, direct and confident in their communication, and fairly comfortable with risk.


Individuals with this primary style are socially oriented and prioritize generating enthusiasm and personal relationships.

  • Motivated by: Public recognition, participating in a group, and the opportunity to coach and be coached.
  • Worried about: Social rejection, losing the power to influence others, and disapproval.
  • Often are: Quite fast-paced and active, charming, persuasive, enthusiastic, and generally optimistic.


Individuals with this primary style prioritize maintaining a consistent environment, cooperating with others to accomplish tasks without rocking the boat, and avoiding unnecessary change.

  • Motivated by: A stable environment, sincere and organic appreciation of their contributions, being part of a team, and predictability.
  • Worried about: Unknown futures, inconsistent expectations or processes, and interpersonal conflict.
  • Often are: More thought than action oriented; more moderate in their pace; calm, patient, and diplomatic in their communication.


Individuals with this primary style prioritize accuracy and the highest level of quality, precise and logical processes, and evidence-based conclusions.

  • Motivated by: Their work being adopted as a standard, receiving recognition as an expert, clearly defined performance expectations, and the desire to be right.
  • Worried about: Their work being criticized, not having enough information or time to plan effectively, and, of course, being wrong.
  • Often are: More moderately paced and thought oriented; skeptical, often asking “why”; slow to respond, taking time to consider their answers by methodically weighing pros and cons; focused on maintaining particularly high standards.

To illustrate how a quick read of someone’s behavioral style can make a difference, we’ll borrow an example from our podcast on assessment tools featuring leadership coach Kassie Steegman, CFA. Imagine you’re an analyst discussing a recommendation with your manager, and she asks for more data. If your primary behavioral style is conscientiousness, you might instinctively hear this as distrust of your work. How much dysfunction might you allow to build up in this relationship if you go on believing that the manager doesn’t trust your work? But, if you’ve come to understand that this manager also has the same style, instead of hearing, “I don’t trust you” behind the words “need more data,” you can hear, “Together let’s make sure no one can poke holes in this decision.”

What a difference this understanding can make! Instead of potentially withdrawing from future interactions with this person as a self-preservation tactic or responding in a tone or manner you may regret later, you’ve come to realize you actually have a shared desire and incentive for collaboration.

So then, how can you actually demonstrate emotional intelligence in your listening skills? Here are two suggestions:

  • Form a habit of asking questions that get at the heart of the other person’s motivation (what are their goals, fears, etc.?) before you make assumptions about their intended meaning or try to frame it from your own perspective.
  • Consistently ask for confirmation that you’ve understood not only the words the other person has said but also their intended meaning. You can put this into practice by rephrasing what you’ve heard the other person say during the conversation and by genuinely seeking to learn whether you’ve fully understood their perspective.

Developing good listening skills takes time and practice and is an iterative experience, but it is a worthwhile — and lifelong — endeavor.

Julia VanDeren of CFA Institute substantially contributed to this piece.

About the Author(s)
Heather Packard

Heather Packard is the director of product development at CFA Institute and serves as the subject matter expert in leadership, management, and communication skills (LMCS). Previously, she was the managing partner at Trilogy Corporation of Virginia, where she was responsible for developing and cultivating a regional territory for telecommunications and network integration sales. Packard also served as the coordinator of collections for the Science and Engineering Libraries at the University of Virginia. She holds an BA in English and Spanish Literature from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and an MA in Spanish Literature from the University of Virginia. Topical Expertise: Leadership, Management, and Communication Skills

4 thoughts on “Listen Up: Emotional Intelligence is Critical for Success”

  1. This was delightful to read. Heather you did a wonderful job of explaining the DISC and connecting it to emotional intelligence with a very clever, concrete example.

    In my professional work I have created an innovative process called The Emotion Roadmap. It is designed to help people improve how they manage their own emotions and their emotional relationships with others. In my model, which is based on the Mayer-Salovey ability based model of emotional intelligence, I explain how behavioral style is involved in the understanding emotions stage. If you are trying to get another individual who is against your idea, to support you, you need to recognize how to get that person to move from feeling adversarial to feeling supportive, one part of your plan to change how he or she feels, is to consider his or her behavioral style. My Roadmap is designed to identify what people are feeling, consider what would be ideal for them to feel, understand how to move them to the ideal feelings and then to pick the best strategy or option possible, based on your emotional planning. This is very consistent with what you have written.

    Your example is elegant and useful. I hope others appreciate what you have shared.

    Nicely done!

    Warm regards,
    Chuck Wolfe

  2. Heather Packard says:

    Thanks so much for your comment! I’ll have to credit Julia, my co-author, who is certified in DiSC assessments, with the clever example.

  3. Elena says:

    Useful insights. Huge thanks. Any idea of research on listening skills in relation to star signs? Not joking. I mean it.

    Europe, Bulgaria.

  4. Flora Akinbo says:

    Just learning to use it, thanks.

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