OPINION21 November 2019

Spark of gravitas: Growing your research career with emotional intelligence

Opinion UK

If researchers want their work to make an impact, they must first make a connection, writes Sinead Jefferies.

Emotional intelligence brain emotion empathy_crop

One of the most important things I have seen that makes a difference to how a researcher grows in their career is that often indefinable spark of gravitas. It’s not about research, presentation or assertiveness skills. It’s about a sense of self and empathy with others.

I recently had the immense privilege of talking about this to a room jam-packed with young insight professionals. They were attending a conference organised by MRS with content entirely by or for those in the early stages of their careers. I spoke about some of the most important skills for interacting with emotional intelligence and how to build your own outward confidence to give others confidence in you. 

Why is this important? If we want our work to have impact, to effect change, we need to be more than researchers – we need to be influencers. Increasingly, the most passionate young researchers I speak to tell me that what they love about this industry is the possibility of making a difference. And it’s pretty hard to make that difference if we don’t inspire belief and trust in what we have to say.

“Really know your stuff, inside and out”

Knowledge is absolutely key. Regardless of level, if someone invites you to a meeting, you have a reason to be there. But it’s up to you to make sure that you are completely on top of your particular area of expertise. And if you are, be confident in that. You are the subject matter expert. Your ideas and experiences are completely valid.

“Know more than your job description”

Do your homework. Read around the subject matter. See what the latest thinking is on a particular topic or sector. You might not have years of experience, but you can be the person in the room who has thought more deeply about the topic and looked into the latest research more than anyone else.

Think of your job description as the hygiene factor. Your ambition is the only limit on how far you can take yourself beyond that. Read widely and keep up to date with what’s going on in the world. Don’t be afraid to make your experience relevant – particularly if it’s a topic where you’re much closer to the target audience than your boss and the clients.

“Don’t be shy to give of yourself so that people feel a connection”

So much comes from the initial connection you have with people. Make yourself present – even a simple comment about the weather or trains will make sure people know you are there in the room.

Having a personal point of view shows you’re connected with the subject matter and have thought about it from your own perspective. This isn’t licence to tell a string of anecdotes, but if you’re presenting about pizza and you had a rubbish pizza last night, mention it if you can do so in a light-touch and relevant way.

You have impact through people feeling they make a connection with you as a person.  Don’t be shy to give of yourself. That’s what gives people a sense of trust and authority – they feel you are genuine. 

And put your phone away!

“Be considered and measured”

Particularly when you’re still learning, be happy to listen more than talk. Yes, it’s important to have a point of view and be confident in that, but don’t think that impact comes from always being the voice that’s heard.

It is vital to learn to understand the cues – when to step back and when to come forward.  Body language is critical; your own, to demonstrate you are actively engaged, but also that of other people. Learn to read when people are genuinely hanging on your every word and when they are ready to move on or bursting to ask a question. You can only get that by actively looking at others in the room.

It can add to your credibility to sit back, think and provide a measured response rather than having an instant, nervously trotted-out answer.

“Be comfortable in your own skin”

People talk about the importance of authenticity in leadership, but authenticity is for everyone. Do things in your own style. Make things your own.

Confidence is not about transforming yourself into a performer who can hold an audience in the palm of your hand. It’s about finding a style that allows you to be you, to do things in a way that’s your own, but with strength and positivity and belief.

Look at other people you admire and see what you can learn from them – but don’t try to be them. Think about whether there are elements of what they do that you could borrow.  Use whatever tools and techniques you need to allow you, as an individual, to shine. This will help you exude confidence, whether in a showy or a quiet way. The important thing is for people to look at you and think ‘this person really knows their stuff’.

My three key points to help you engage more effectively and become an influencer with impact:

  1. Knowledge, knowledge & more knowledge: The more you know your stuff, and let people see that, the more they’ll believe you’ve got something worth listening to
  2. Recognise yourself as an individual and be comfortable with that: If you try to turn yourself into something you’re not, people will see through it. And you won’t be comfortable, which means other people will also feel uneasy
  3.  Listen – with your eyes, your ears, and your gut: Tune into your audience. Look out for their spoken and unspoken signals, and respond to those. We all appreciate being listened to.

With thanks to the following, all of whom gave of their time to share their views on the topic with me, and whose quotes headline the key sections above: Liz Lamb, Asda; Claire Rainey, Telefonica UK; Nick Bonney, Deep Blue Thinking; Ian Wright, Transport Focus; Amelia Torode, Fawnbrake Collective.

Sinead Jefferies is a consultant at Watermelon


4 years ago

This is a great read Sinead - makes so much sense. Glad you got to share this with the younger insight professionals. Thank you

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4 years ago

Great article Sinead, I have been working in the sector since 1996 and still find ways of refining my EQ every day. Thank you for sharing. Regards Glyn

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