A big part of being more effective in the work you do involves developing your emotional intelligence. I recently read this article by Larry Kim that suggests 5 “hacks” to sharpen your emotional intelligence, and one of them involves being more “definitive” as a way to display higher EI. Specifically, Kim discusses how using passive voice (e.g., “the report was submitted…,” “changes were made…,” etc.) can cause others to see you as weak and as relinquishing ownership of what you should rightfully own. On the basis of emotional intelligence and other factors, I agree!


According to Daniel Goleman, who helped popularize the concept in the 1990s, the 5 elements of EI are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Empathy
  5. Social skills

Kim touches on self-awareness when he recommends you keep an eye on how others are perceiving you. If you say “the meeting was cancelled” instead of “I cancelled the meeting,” those listening could easily interpret one of two things: (1) You didn’t have control of the meeting or the decision to cancel it. (2) You’re trying to distance yourself from your decision for some suspicious reason. Neither interpretation shows you in a good light.


Keeping an eye on how others are interpreting the language you use is important for self-awareness and emotional intelligence. But keep in mind that habitually using passive voice also affects how we perceive ourselves.


I see it all the time in the coaching I do, which so often revolves around the issue of ownership. A client can start talking about a situation they’re having trouble dealing with at work, and it often revolves around the people who they perceive are creating the situation. They’ll often tell the story in passive voice. I’ll listen and acknowledge the pain they’re experiencing, but as a coach, I’ll want to move them as quickly as possible to whatever part of the situation they’re willing to own and do something about.


I’ll often call out clients who use a lot of passive voice. “I was told that…” “It was decided that…” “It wasn’t addressed…” I’ll ask: Who told you? Who decided it? Who didn’t address it? Articulating exactly who’s taking the actions in the stories they tell helps them identify what parts they own and what parts they don’t.


The cases where they don’t own the action (maybe they weren’t the one who “decided it”, for example) naturally beg the question: OK, so what did you do as someone else owned that action? And more importantly, what will you do now? In other words: What part are you willing to own?


And yes, passive voice can be imprecise and unlear too. But even if you’re not swayed by the “language clarity” argument, then cut down on your passive voice for the sake of owning what you need to own. Others will see you as stronger, yes, but more importantly, you’ll reinforce the idea that you can—and should—own the circumstances of the work you do. So go out and “do” rather than having it “be done to you.”



Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.