Zen Buddhism Inspired EQ: Shoshin

Simple to understand. Hard to master.

The key to developing your emotional intelligence (EQ) is continuous practice and iteration. Similar to learning a new coding language, books and Stack Overflow can only take you so far. Most learning happens by doing.

A simple, yet difficult, mechanism to practice that will help build up your EQ is something called shoshin.

According to wikipedia:

Shoshin is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner's mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

The “beginner’s mind” philosophy is exactly what it sounds like: approaching things like you are beginner. When you are beginner, what do you typically do?

  • Slow down to make sure you understand all points

  • Ask clarifying questions

  • Practice a concept, then show your steps to make sure you haven’t missed anything

  • Repeat your interpretation of a concept back to the person speaking to you

Why is this difficult?

What makes shoshin difficult to master is it can feel like it’s in direct conflict with your career and reputation.

You’re paid to know, right?

You’re likely a subject matter expert or team leader. You’re likely depended on within your team to know the answers.

If your goal, however, is to improve your team culture and your personal emotional intelligence, you need to practice asking questions even if you know the answer. Asking questions unlocks the “beginner’s mind”.

Asking questions develops EQ

If shoshin is all about beginner’s mind, and beginner’s ask questions, how can asking questions help develop my EQ?

Glad you asked! Let’s break it down.

People want to be heard

Asking for other’s opinions signifies that you care about their perspective. Asking for other’s expertise makes them feel like they are being heard. Group collaboration improves when all members feel like their voice is valuable, especially when they are encouraged by team members who are known as “THE experts”.

You may learn something new

Getting a thoughtful response from a team member may reveal something or an approach you didn’t know. Going through your emotions of being surprised or delighted from learning something new will make you crave that experience often. A positive association to not knowing is important to developing healthy EQ.

Others will emulate

The “team expert” asking questions demystifies the idea that once one becomes an “expert”, their only job is to talk and direct. This is especially important if you are trying to reinforce the “don’t be an asshole” mantra I’ve seen in a lot of organizations. Most “assholes” are driven by a superiority complex.

If you want to become a better technical leader and/or develop your emotional intelligence to foster more collaboration, remember to practice shoshin.

One thing to try next week at work

Shoshin in code reviews.

Ask team members questions referencing a pull request you authored. Share the solution you used and ask if they would have solved it differently (like a beginner).

Here are some phrases to try:

  • I think I’ve solved X and curious if you have encountered this before?

  • Can you walk me through how you’re seeing X?

  • This is my approach to X. What do you think I could be missing?

Good luck and thanks for subscribing to EQ for Devs. Most learning happens by doing.

Be sure to tell a friend!

-Fredric