Reading the Tea Leaves

Certain people seem to have a sixth sense – insights that go beyond what is actually said or done. These are the people you seek out after a meeting goes south to ask, “What happened in there?” And they can tell you exactly what went wrong, who caused it, when it happened, and maybe even why. They are also the people who can anticipate others’ reactions to changes – from organizational announcements to CDC guideline updates.

I call this reading the tea leaves and it’s quite the superpower in business and in life. The phrase is borrowed from the divination practice of identifying symbols and interpreting messages in the patterns of tea leaves at the bottom of a cuppa, akin to a tarot card reading. In practice today, reading the tea leaves is the process of picking up on subtle clues combined with intuition and experience. This can be a game-changer for anticipating, understanding, and influencing human interactions that power nearly everything that we do.  

According to management guru Peter Drucker, “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” He was referring of course to the art of listening and observing. How often do you pause to read the reactions in the room – whether at a dinner party, on a video conference, in a lecture hall, or in a one-on-one conversation? Do you observe people? Where are they sitting? What are they doing? Do their eyes wander? Are they engrossed in the conversation or sneaking a quick (or not-so-quick) check of their phone? What about their body language: are they leaning forward or slouching backwards? How about micro-expressions: fleeting smiles, grimaces, raised eyebrows? Who is speaking and who is not? What sorts of words and tone of voice is being used? Does dialogue flow continuously or are there pauses? What would you have expected to be discussed that is not?

It’s amazing what you can learn when you take a bit of time to watch and listen. I’ve had bosses and colleagues who regularly sent texts or made stock trades during our meetings; this said to me that our time together wasn’t especially important to them. I’ve picked up on a smirk moving from one individual to another – likely a back-channel dialogue happening during our larger meeting. I’ve noticed when the voices of certain individuals are not being heard, and when another claims credit for an idea someone else already offered. I’ve observed an individual’s standoffish pose, arms crossed over chest, seated against the wall making clear his position without ever saying a word. I’ve spotted the eager, engaged posture of a new employee who never opens her mouth. I begin to worry when I have not heard from my daughter in a few days. I take note when the most obvious questions aren’t being asked.

The capacity to pick up on these subtle clues is called emotional intelligence (sometimes referred to as emotional quotient or EQ). In 1990, psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayers introduced EQ as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.” The concept was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman described five components of EQ: self-awareness (the ability to understand personal moods and emotions and their effects on others), self-regulation (the ability to control impulses and actions), internal motivation (an inner vision or passion that goes beyond external rewards), empathy (the ability to understand the emotional makeup of others), and social skills (proficiency in managing relationships). There are a variety of different ways to measure EQ, including self-report, observer-report, and ability tests.

Studies have shown that higher EQ is positively correlated with stronger social relationships, higher academic achievement, and better emotional well-being. EQ also plays a critical role in business and leadership. While raw technical skills and subject matter expertise are certainly essential for most jobs, EQ sets people apart. It helps them be effective in managing relationships, building trust, and leading teams. Hiring managers look for strong EQ in incoming employees, because they know that is a measure of how well they will collaborate with others. Managers with high EQ have more engaged employees and lower attrition. Goleman’s research found that 80-90% of high performers in the C-suite are differentiated by high EQ.

Over the past year, business leaders were particularly challenged to exhibit EQ, as the world faced multiple simultaneous crises: a global pandemic, racial tensions, political conflict, and more. Leaders that excelled during this trying time did so not because they followed a set playbook (because none exists). Instead, they listened to their employees, demonstrated calm under pressure, learned from mistakes, made thoughtful business decisions, and led by example.

While some people may naturally have high (or low) empathy, self-regulation, or other EQ attributes, these traits can be learned. Developing EQ capabilities can be especially challenging for certain individuals including some neurodiverse people, who may have difficulty picking up on subtle clues. (Neurodiverse individuals bring many other exceptional attributes to the workplace, including deep expertise and innovative perspectives, and they are also certainly not the only ones who may struggle with EQ.)

Through practice, one can get better at actively listening, paying attention to body language, and being receptive to the emotions of others. Often people are communicating their feelings without actually saying, “I’m nervous” or “I’m frustrated” or “I’m all in.” Did their tone of voice suddenly shift? Are they talking more or less than usual? Cue words like “honestly” or “trust me” or “truth be told” may precede statements riddled with hidden meaning. By pausing before reacting, observing others, and making an effort to see things from others’ point of view, we strengthen the EQ muscle.

Here’s one of my tricks: I try to figure out the question behind a question, to unearth the purpose of an ask. Because there almost always is a backstory, and if we take a request at face value it can often lead us down a rathole that may not have anything to do with the original intent. Let me give you a few examples. Say a senior executive poses a question or asks for a comeback: How quickly can you get this project done? Of course, we all want to meet the boss’ expectations and often the team will work hard to create a best-case-scenario response. But I always ask: Does anyone know why he’s asking the question? Do we know if the intent is to close a deal or free up resources for something else or to meet a commitment? We might speculate as to the intent, ask others, or even clarify directly with the requestor. Often with a bit of context, we get to a better answer, more quickly, that satisfies everyone.

The same approach works in one-on-one conversations. Say a mentee poses a question: Which is a better next role for me? Before answering, I’ll try to pause and consider: What’s going on here? This person probably isn’t asking me for an objective “which job is a better job” response, but rather the key words in the question are “next” and “for me.” What’s going on in the person’s life right now? What concerns might they have about the demands of the roles? What would they bring and what could they gain from each experience? And it becomes a dialogue, a two-way interchange with questions and thoughts and perspectives, that I think provides more value than a straight out answer of one or the other.

The process of looking for hidden meanings, listening for subtext, and being alert to anything that may seem off…it’s actually quite fun. There are nearly always subtle clues that help us all be more tuned in to the emotions of others and to group dynamics. Over time, and with experience to draw on, it gets easier to see what others don’t, to hear what’s not said – to read the tea leaves.

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