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  • Writer's pictureSimeen Kaleem

Emotional Intelligence muscle – An essential ingredient in becoming an effective social change-maker

“If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” - Daniel Goleman

Having an emotional Intelligence (EI) leadership coach at Gramhal has tremendously helped us. As a new team - we become more connected, learned values and vulnerabilities of each other, became more aware, and brought our entire self to work. I would say, it put us on a path of forming deep connections and becoming a thriving team, even though we are a very new team. In this blog, I am in conversation with Bela Shah, our emotional Intelligence leadership Coach, to understand how EI can help teams connect and perform better.

Simeen: I want to start by asking you the basic question – what is emotional intelligence leadership coaching and why is it significant for social change-makers?

Bela: There is a myth that some of us have as social change leaders that our inner lives are separate from the outer work that we are committed to impacting. This myth leads us to avoid or compartmentalize many of our emotions out of fear that they will distract us and interfere with our productivity. We try to create a clean separation between our inner lives and our work. However, this is almost impossible to achieve and the results can be damaging. This is one of the most important insights I’ve had through my contemplative practice. The more I avoid or resist my emotions by trying to separate and compartmentalize them, the more they seep into my thinking and decision-making in unhelpful ways. We are human beings and we are meant to feel emotions. But it’s how we understand and channel our emotions that matters, especially as leaders in social change.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is having awareness of our emotions and having the ability to balance our emotions. At its deeper level emotional intelligence is awareness and equanimity. Step one is awareness of the emotion(s) we are experiencing, step two is being with emotions and allowing them to move through us, rather than attaching to them or resisting them, which muddies our thinking and impacts our actions.

Through increased EI, we realize that emotions have an integral role to play in our leadership, but it’s how we are able to manage and channel them that makes all the difference.

S: How did you get into emotional intelligence coaching?

B: The path that led me here began almost a decade ago, with Vipassana meditation in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, where I meditated in complete silence for ten days. I learned that being with yourself for this extended period of time without any external distractions forces us to confront our minds, see the conditioning in our thoughts, and understand how our reactions create the world we are driven to change. Through this initial experience, I felt that I had barely scratched the surface of who I am and with every subsequent silent meditation retreat, I’ve realized the power of awareness and equanimity in shaping who we are and how we show up in the world. I believe that it’s this inner journey that guided me to work with Dalai Lama Fellows, which is what led me into a style of leadership coaching that is rooted in the wisdom that we must understand and bring change within ourselves before we can change the world outside of us.

S: You train founders across the world to become better leaders – but Gramhal is trying to do something slightly different – we want not just our founder to have an ecosystem to grow, but extend this opportunity to our entire team. What do you think about this initiative and also how do you think it can help teams and early-stage start-ups like ours?

B: There is something that changes about the pace of time when you’re working for a start-up, especially in its early stages. Burning the midnight oil and pushing yourself to exhaustion is almost expected. Based on my work with social entrepreneurs from all over the world, I believe that creating an ecosystem for inner growth through reflection and practice is essential for thriving teams and long-term success.

Through coaching, founders are able to increase awareness of thought patterns and behaviors that are not serving their leadership or their teams and they also develop practices that change how they lead. In Vikas’ experience, for example, he has found that through greater self-awareness, we take ourselves out of the center, and we become leaders who give energy to our team rather than drain their energy.

Extending EI-based leadership coaching to all team members has additional benefits: The team develops a shared language around fundamental EI competencies, which creates a culture of trust. This supports them in communicating their fears and challenges with each other, which increases the team’s willingness to take risks. Through individualized coaching, team members learn to recognize unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that are fueling stress and anxiety, and they also learn how to change these so that they are fueled by self-compassion, self-confidence, and resilience. In the long run, these core leadership skills and competencies are what set apart thriving teams that are motivated and engaged from burned out or less functional teams.

S: Since we started coaching with you, I can definitely see that Gramhal’s team has become more mindful, more aware of their own and each other’s core values. We have also started seeing this journey as a shared journey, which extends beyond ourselves and joins us by a larger cause - in short – I feel, we are on a path of becoming a thriving team. How do you think we can continue this journey and how can contemplative coaching help us and other teams to become thriving teams?

B: Thriving teams are connected teams. The members understand and trust each other, which is what enables more transparent and honest communication, having each other’s back through challenges, and thriving as one whole.

In fact, a research study shared by Goleman EI found that individual high achievers do not necessarily create high performing teams. Rather, teams that are committed to something larger than their individual roles and who feel motivated to go above and beyond are made up of individuals who feel a strong connection and a sense of shared purpose with each other. This is our mirror neurons at work.

“The human brain is peppered with mirror neurons and they activate in us exactly what we see in the other person: their emotions, their movements, and even their intentions.” (Daniel Goleman, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence)

In other words, when I feel your motivation and commitment to a common goal, I respond with the same motivation and commitment. Once the foundation of connection is established, it’s essential to continue strengthening the roots through organizational practices such as one-on-one and team check-in’s, reflective retreats or workshops, and celebrating each other’s efforts and wins.

The contemplative tools and practices that are integrated into one-on-one coaching strengthen the roots of connected teams. As I mentioned in my earlier response, we try to leave our personal lives and our emotions at the door when we enter work, but it’s actually impossible to do this and our work-related decisions and actions are inevitably influenced by how we feel.

Through inner work, each team member is building a muscle and they are able to respond to challenges in the social change space. Without these muscles, it is difficult to lead in ambiguity, cultivate a positive outlook, or practice empathy for self and others. In early-stage start-ups, teams are racing against the clock and in it for the long haul. Without self-awareness and tools that support their emotional balance and self-care, anxiety and burnout can become the norm, which of course are not helpful in this super competitive space. Coaching builds resilience, both for the team and the individual team members.

S: Bela one of the most exciting sessions for me was the exercise where you helped us create the blueprint of ‘we’ and the story of ‘us’. In just these few exercises, I knew so much more about my new team members that I still don’t know about team members that I have worked with for many years. I felt this exercise tapped into an untapped power that lies within the teams. Can you talk to us a little bit more about your process and the essence of coaching?

B: Exercises such as the blueprint of “we”, which is created by The Center for Collaborative Awareness, are powerful frameworks that help to facilitate discovery, communication, and understanding between team members about each other’s working styles and needs. However, before teams can begin to create their blueprint of we, it’s essential for them to understand their individual and shared values. I recently completed a series of coaching workshops with a social change team in Kenya. Members of this team had been working together for years but it wasn’t until our workshop that they reflected on their core values, how they were or weren’t leading with these values, and how this impacted their success overall. This process also created enormous psychological safety that hadn’t existed before.

The essence of my coaching, whether I’m working with a team or an individual, is to create a safe space for personal and shared reflection through deep listening, mirroring, and powerful questions that guide them in arriving at their own insights. Contemplative practices complement the learning and growth and encourage deeper inner work. Ultimately, you feel empowered to lead with wisdom.

S: At early-stage start-ups / social enterprises the priority is about product-market fit; culture, and the team's well-being always comes later in the priority list. What do you think about this? How important is it to focus on the team and its wellbeing during the initial phase of an organization?

B: Inner wellbeing + Psychological Safety = Thriving Teams.

Inner wellbeing is essential for thriving teams, not just during the initial phase of an organization but throughout its long-term growth. Without the inner wellbeing of each team member, it is difficult for everyone to be their best self at work and contribute to the communication, empathy, and trust that is required for psychological safety.

Inner wellbeing is emotional balance, feeling good about ourselves from within, feeling confident in ourselves, and feeling good about our contributions and the value that we bring. Cultivating inner wellbeing requires us to pause, take a step back from the super-fast pace of our lives and work, and reflect on where we are, how we are feeling and fitting in the organization, how we are being challenged, how we are growing, and how we want to grow. We can take a pause and reflect like this in many ways as long as we are intentional. For example, taking time off may not be helpful in the long-run if we don’t use that time “off” to actually pause, reflect, process, and learn about ourselves.

S: Do you think you will be interested in training more such teams and startups and how can they get in touch with you?

B: Coaching individuals and teams is my purpose and my passion. The reason I do this work is because of the people that I have coached and how I have seen them grow from within through our work together. I’m particularly committed to individuals and teams who are working to create a more inclusive, just, and equitable world. If you would like to work with me, please visit me at

About the author: Simeen is Director at Gramhal. She builds processes and contributes to the verticals of communications, fundraising, strategy, and HR.


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