As COVID-19 continues to rock the US, small business owners are facing a special challenge: The forecast remains grim, and that triggers negative feelings like fear and anxiety.

For example, according to a poll by nonprofit organization KFF, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States said that worry and stress over the virus has negatively impacted their mental health. And of course, for business owners, there is the added stress of adapting to a changing marketplace, maintaining income, and taking care of employees.

So, what can help you and your people to cope?

One method is to use your emotional intelligence–a valuable skill which can help you exercise leadership in a way that inspires your people.

You’ve probably heard of emotional intelligence, which many today refer to as “EQ.” But what is emotional intelligence, exactly? What does it look like in the real world? And how can it help you and your business?

Let’s break it down.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. I like to describe it as “making emotions work for you, instead of against you.”

Emotional intelligence is made up of four general abilities:

Self-awareness is the ability to identify and understand your emotions and how they affect you. 

Self-management is the ability to manage emotions in a way that allows you to accomplish a task, reach a goal, or provide a benefit.  

Social awareness is the ability to accurately perceive the feelings of others and understand how those feelings influence behavior. 

Relationship management is the ability to influence others through communication and behavior, in order to get the most out of your connections with others. 

Everyone possesses these abilities to a certain degree; however, the key to building your EQ is to first identify your personal traits and tendencies. Then, you need to develop strategies to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. 

This is especially relevant now as the pandemic tends to intensify emotions–both yours, and those of your workmates. So, what does emotional intelligence look like in real life? And how can EQ help you in the day-to-day of running your business? 

Here are a few examples:

Remember that these are not normal circumstances

You might read the above sentence and think: “Well, duh. I figured that out months ago.”

But here’s the thing: There’s a huge difference between recognizing the truth of those words and applying that truth to your everyday life.

For example, you might say, “These aren’t normal circumstances.” But then, in the course of your day, you get frustrated when you have to take time out for your kids, who are now being homeschooled. Or you feel defeated that you have to spend hours trying to solve a COVID-related problem and don’t get anything else done on your task list. Or, you feel overwhelming anxiety about, well…


But why do you feel this way? It’s because even though you’ve recognized the truth of the words, you’re already forgetting the point.

So, repeat after me:

These. Are. Not. Normal. Circumstances.

For example, imagine you receive an email from a major client. They were already late paying their latest invoice, and now they’re asking about adjusting the payment terms. 

You probably want to scream. You probably want to write an email that second, telling them to forget it, telling them to pay up, for the last time—because you’re dropping them as a client. After all, you’ve been in business too long to work with people that give you this many headaches.

But before you write the email, you take a pause. 

You go for a walk. 

You think things through.

It’s true. You have been in business too long to put up with overly troublesome clients. But is that really what you’re dealing with here? After giving it some thought, you might realize that you’re in danger of making a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion. 

Truth be told, this happened to me several weeks ago. And while the client wasn’t perfect, I definitely overreacted—partially because of my own stress due to the pandemic. Was I really going to drop a valuable client when some of my fellow business owners are folding because they’ve lost 90% of their revenue basically overnight?

So, I reminded myself: These are not normal circumstances.  

It’s not about the saying. It’s the doing. But when you’re in a difficult situation, saying the words out loud can help remind you that things aren’t normal. That you have to do things differently than you might otherwise. And that taking time to pause—especially before making a major decision—is more important than ever. 

Listen to your people

You’re likely already communicating regularly with your employees. This is invaluable during a crisis, when your people need to speak about their feelings and their situation more than ever.

But opening the lines of communication is only the beginning. The truly hard part comes next: 

You have to pay attention.

It’s tempting once your people begin sharing to interrupt and share your own experience, or even to help them figure out how to solve their problems. But as good as your motives might be, this type of response is often counterproductive. 

Instead of jumping to conclusions or thinking of a quick response, focus on understanding. 

Don’t say, “You shouldn’t feel like that!” Instead say, “I’m sorry to hear what you’re going through.” 

Don’t ask, “Aren’t you overreacting?” Instead say, “Thanks for sharing. Tell me more.”

Once you draw the other person out, it’s time to move on to the next step.

Show empathy

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person, to share their thoughts or feelings. 

Of course, this is much easier in theory than in practice. Why? Simply put, because we tend to rush to judgment.

For example, let’s say one of your people is sharing details with you regarding their personal situation. Maybe they’re struggling with a problem that you don’t see as that big of a deal. After all, you have a broader perspective than they do. You might compare their situation with that of another colleague you’ve spoken with. 

“They think they have it tough?” you ask. “Jenny’s problems are much worse. And she’s got three kids.”

Or, you might relate their situation to your personal circumstances. “They’re worried about their next paycheck,” you think. “I’ve got to worry about my income, their paycheck, and everyone else’s paycheck, too!”

These thoughts are destructive. Why? Because even if you don’t voice them, the fact that you’re thinking them will come out—either in your tone or your body language. And even if you have a good point, how likely do you think the other person is to understand that point at this moment in time? If you voice it, they’ll only roll their eyes and see you as the uncaring boss who doesn’t get it. Or worse.

There’s a better way. Remind yourself of the following:  

Empathy begets empathy.

If you can make a person feel understood, you’ll build trust. You’ll also motivate your partner to  reciprocate your effort and support you.

So, how can you inspire empathy?

Remember that just as each employee has individual circumstances, the way they respond to those circumstances will be different. Rather than concentrate on each person’s situation, focus on their feelings.

For example, if they are anxious or overwhelmed, think of a situation that makes you feel the same way. Then, ask yourself: 

What do I appreciate when I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed? How would I want someone to speak to me? What would help?

Once you’ve found a way to connect with your employees’ feelings, you’re ready to…

Take action

Begin by reassuring your employee that you’re on their side. Then, ask them directly if there’s anything you can do to help. This will go a long way in establishing trust. 

If they don’t have any ideas, thank them for being so open and let them know you’ll take some time to think it over. (The last thing you want to do is to promise too much or overcommit due to being in an emotional moment. That’s only going to add to frustration later on.) 

If you come up with an idea, avoid giving the impression that you have all the answers. Letting employees work from home or giving them an advance on their pay isn’t going to solve all their problems. But if you can afford it, it may be just what they need to bridge a difficult gap.


What’s worked for you, or even for others, may not work for that person. But don’t let that stop you from trying to do what you can.

COVID-19 is presenting business owners with situations they’ve never faced before—but this is an opportunity to let your emotional intelligence shine. As you move forward, remember:

1. These are not normal circumstances.

2. Listen to your people.

3. Show empathy.

4. Take action where you can.

Do these things, and you’ll build a culture of trust and strengthen the relationships between you and your people.

And that makes your business stronger, too.

Justin Bariso Justin Bariso is an author and consultant who helps organizations think differently and communicate with impact. His book, "EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence," uses fascinating research, modern examples, and personal stories to illustrate how emotional intelligence works in real life.
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