I have a hunch successful communication pros are high in emotional intelligence (EI)—the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions and understand and influence the emotions of others. After all, it’s our job to understand stakeholders and guide our organization’s engagement with them. A Harvard Business School study found EI is a greater predictor of success than IQ, launching volumes of popular literature on the topic. Some researchers warn that emotional intelligence has a “dark side” and can be used for manipulation. Luckily, research also correlates emotional intelligence with ethical behavior. 

How do we use our emotional intelligence for good?
Acting ethically and coaching ethics begins with an understanding of the PRSA Code of Ethics. Each PRSA member agrees to abide by the code, signing a pledge to practice “professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public.” The Board of Ethics and Professional Standards offers resources explaining and exploring the code and outlining how to make ethical decisions. Familiarize yourself with the available material.

Can we grow our emotional intelligence and become better ethics coaches?
Yes. Unlike IQ, EI can be developed with practice and we can all improve. In a 2017 study conducted by the Institute for Public Relations and PRSA, entry level PR professionals rated themselves low on emotional intelligence, specifically their ability to be “in touch with their own and others’ feelings.” Whether you’re new to the profession or have years of experience, you can strengthen the EI skills of self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and relationship-management. The tips below are adapted from Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves.

Connect to emotions to identify tough issues.
Self-awareness helps us recognize ethical dilemmas. Sometimes that “gut” feeling is the first signal that something is wrong. Once you recognize that you feel anxious, angry, afraid, tense, irritated, you can start to ask “why” and uncover ethical conflicts. 

  • Build your self-awareness by allowing yourself to feel emotions physically. Do you have sweaty hands, jittery feet or a lump in your throat? Don’t shove emotions aside. Practice recognizing and labelling them; allow them to pass.
  • Keep a journal of your emotions, especially as they relate to your work. Do you naturally trust some circumstances or individuals? Are there situations that make you skeptical? Use writing to explore what triggers your feelings and what they mean.

Manage your emotions to make good decisions.
Emotions often run high and there’s little time for decision making when ethical dilemmas arise. You need good self-management skills. Imagine your organization has a crisis, there’s pressure to release information and you need to decide what to include and how to write it. Cue the sweaty palms. To make the right call for your organization and push back on the expectation you will “spin” the facts, you need to take control of your feelings. With practice, and an understanding of the Code of Ethics, you can be ready for this situation.


  • Breathe with intention. Under stress our breath becomes short and shallow, even though our brains need oxygen to process complex problems. Deepening your breath and breathing through your nose calms you, slows your heart rate and helps you focus. This is just what you need when faced with an ethical challenge. Try establishing a regular mindfulness practice to prepare for these moments.
  • Drop the self-judgment. Our brains are always at work and self-talk can seem never ending. Ethical decisions need to be made based on facts, values and the Code of Ethics. Don’t let endless internal dialogue about your short-comings or the opinions of others interfere with clear thinking. Mindfulness can also help tame these thoughts.
  • Tune in to the emotions of others to spot coaching opportunities.
    Recognizing the emotions of others is social awareness. This skill is essential to coaching around ethical issues. Emotions run high where ethics are concerned. How and when you approach a colleague or boss about ethics determines whether they feel attacked and defensive or supported and open-minded. 
  • Make a habit of noticing the emotions of co-workers. Take note of body language, tone of voice and energy level. Once you know their patterns, you’ll have a sense of when to bring up the potentially touchy subject of ethics. 
  • Listen. Tune in to what people are saying and how they are saying it. This builds your understanding of what motivates and what concerns them. When coaching is needed, you’ll be way ahead if you know their hot buttons and what drives their behavior.

Develop relationships to make coaching easier.
“The time to make a friend is not when you need one.” This favorite saying of my boss, a retired US Coast Guard Admiral, means you need to build and manage relationships long before a crisis. Ethics counsel is best given and received when there is a foundation of trust and understanding.

  • Take time to know bosses and co-workers before you bring up delicate ethics issues. Listen intently and ask a lot of questions about them personally and professionally. Demonstrate through your daily work that you can be counted on and trusted.
  • Talk about ethics. Does your boss know about our Code of Ethics and commitment to the values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness? Do you talk about it with co-workers? Take time to share a case study and discuss how your organization would handle dilemmas covered in the news. You’ll get to know their views and work through scenarios in advance.

Being an ethical practitioner and a trusted counselor is required for our profession. It takes time and constant study and practice. Fortunately, you can strengthen your innate emotional intelligence, apply it to ethics and use it for good!

Angelidis, J., & Ibrahim, N. (2011). The Impact of Emotional Intelligence on the Ethical Judgment of Managers. Journal of Business Ethics, 99, 111-119. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.consortiumlibrary.org/stable/41476172

Bradberry, T., Greaves, J., & Lencioni, P. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0.

Fu, W. (2014). The Impact of Emotional Intelligence, Organizational Commitment, and Job Satisfaction on Ethical Behavior of Chinese Employees. Journal of Business Ethics,122(1), 137-144. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.consortiumlibrary.org/stable/42921422

Grant, A. (January 2014). The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-emotional-intelligence/282720/

Goleman, D. (1998a). What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review, 76, 93-102.