Interviewsand Articles


Shabbir Latif: Emotional Intelligence

by Richard Whittaker, Jan 14, 2012



A friend suggested I might find a conversation with Shabbir Latif interesting because of the work he was doing around emotional intelligence. I find the whole idea of emotional intelligence, which one hears mention of in recent years, intriguing and important. And so I took advantage of the suggestion and contacted Latif. We met at his home in San Jose.

Richard Whittaker:  So you work with emotional intelligence?

Shabbir Latif:  Yes. I do workshops, coaching, and whatever. Generally there are many parents and teachers who are frustrated and burned out because of the toxic environment that somehow is created by the way the teenagers behave or act out. So I work with teenagers, parents and teachers to help them construct a creative and less stressful learning environment. That’s my goal. And I’m trained as an advanced practitioner for emotional intelligence.

RW:  One didn’t hear this term “emotional intelligence” maybe 15 or 20 years ago. So can you tell me a little about what it means? And where did this term come from?

SL:  The term was introduced in the early 1990s by Peter Salovey and John Mayer. Then Daniel Goleman wrote a book called Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More Than IQ. That book became famous in about ’95. And now a lot of study and research has been done and people realize why it is so important.
     Emotional intelligence is described as, first, basically being able to be aware of your emotions—and, second, then being able to use them. Because there is a reason why emotion comes up. It’s not just a good or bad emotion. There is some message that the emotion bring out. This is important, because emotion drives your actions and thoughts a lot of times. And the third part is how and why would you want to use it?
     So there are three parts to that emotional intelligence definition. It’s how you know yourself, how you manage your emotions, how you use them and then have a purpose to use them rather than just act without having a meaning in your life, so to speak.  
     When I talk about emotions, one metaphor I use is a car: the decision-making part is the steering and the brakes. And the engine gives the power to the car. So in emotional intelligence you have both thinking and emotions involved.

RW:  So in the car analogy the engine represents the emotions.

SL:  Yes. And if the engine conked out and you just had the steering—which represents your decision-making—and the brakes, you wouldn’t go anywhere. You can’t even get out of the bed. At the same time, since your car has an engine and if your steering wheel and the brakes have conked out, the car is just going to take off wherever. So it’s a great metaphor when I talk about emotional intelligence.

RW:  Yes. I mean this sounds good, but when you try to control the emotions, that’s not so easy, is it?

SL:  No, it’s not. It’s really more about managing it. And the first part of managing the emotion is being aware of it, knowing what you’re feeling. Where are you feeling the emotion in your body? And what is the reason that message is coming up? What is the message behind it?

RW:  So you have to ask yourself that, right?

SL:  Exactly. And it’s not something that, just tomorrow when I teach you, it’s going to come up. You have to use a daily practice that allows you to increase your awareness.

RW:  First of all, become more aware.

SL:  Yes. And now, even mindfulness is becoming more popular. Actually there’s a lot of research about how your brain actually changes when you practice mindfulness.

RW:  So first you become aware. And then?     
SL:  And then being able to use it, to make a choice from that. And to figure out that your actions are going to affect something, that there is a purpose in there.

RW:  What happens if you suddenly are very angry. And okay, I’m aware of it, but the impulse is so powerful.

SL:  Yes. So you know. It’s like training yourself. If I want to go play football, I am going to get beaten up like hell unless I build my muscles for whatever position I’m playing.

RW:  So what are some of the training techniques?

SL:  Mindfulness is one. I use a very simple mindfulness technique. I use my watch’s hourly timer, and when that hourly beep comes I basically stop and ask myself what thoughts were going through my mind. What was the emotion I was feeling when the beep happened? And then, basically, I scan my body from top to bottom and notice any sensation without making any judgment.

RW:  This is an interesting thing that a lot of people might not know about, the scanning for sensation.

SL:  Yes, right, right. So this is a very simple tool. Then obviously it matters how much you want to get into it and how fast you want to improve your ability or awareness. You could take a 10-day course in Vipassana and regularly practice. I practice one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening.

RW:  So one of the tools is mindfulness. And that’s cultivating a kind of inner look, a sort of listening to yourself. And also trying to find the sensation, along with your thoughts.

SL:  Yes. A researcher, David Rock, published a book called, Your Brain at Work. He says there’s a part of the brain that’s like a conductor of a symphony. And you can develop that part of the brain that looks from outside, that allows you to monitor your thoughts and stop them or modify them. And it takes practice to develop that part of the brain.

RW:  So you’re saying there’s a function of the brain that has the capacity to stand back and observe and this can be cultivated, right?

SL:  Yes, if you want to be emotionally intelligent. So emotionally intelligent people have developed that somehow.

RW:  How did you get interested in this subject?

SL:  It’s a long story. I was an electronic engineer at one time. I needed to earn money in order to come to this country. I needed to have a visa and it was an easy way to get that. So I was searching for something like this for a long, long time.

RW:  Something like what?

SL:  Something other than what I was doing, something I would do, not out of fear, but because I really wanted to do it. And it was a long journey. In my searching I was driven by Mahatma Gandi’s message that says, “Without devotion, action and knowledge are cold and dry and may even become shackles.”

RW:  Wow.

SL:  I connected with that. I felt like I was in a shackle. And I had to get out of it. So I was trying for a long time. The other thing I learned from him is that if you want to be happy, find what your passion is, and find somebody else who has needs and match them.

RW:  Oh, that’s interesting.

SL:  So I was searching. My passion at that time, and still is, was quite a bit more about outdoor adventure. So I started looking for that. You know, going scuba diving and hiking and camping and backpacking and all that stuff.

RW:  Okay.

SL:  So I thought, hey, I need to match that with somebody’s need. So while I was thinking about that, I went to this Longs drug store. This high school kid was a clerk. He put this little bottle of medicine I bought in a bag. I said, “No, save the bag. I’ll just put this in my pocket.” I gave it back, and he just crumpled the bag and threw it in the garbage.
      I realized that’s just the level of his awareness. So I thought about that. And I realized I would love to use my outdoor skills and passion to raise awareness in high school kids.
     Then I met this guy out of nowhere who said, “You’ve got to check out the Inner City Outings program, which is part of the Sierra Club. They take inner city kids on outings.” So I joined that. And I had this very inspirational moment on one of the trips.
     I was taking this group of kids raftng. They were from a group home and were wards of the court. And before the rafting trip started, there were two girls who were just miserable. They didn’t want to come and they were rude, using four-letter words, you name it. Then on the first day of rafting, when I was passing by during lunch, they stopped me and said, “Shabbir, this was the best thing that ever happened to me! Nobody has ever done anything like this for us. Thank you very much for doing this.”

RW:  Wow.
SL:  And that night I found a note on my picnic table that said, “Shabubu, this was a fantastic day!” I thought, wow! I did something, and what happened, I don’t know. But at the end of the trip, we do a circle. We ask everybody what was a memorable experience and what would you like to change if you do it again. When these girls’ turn came, one of them got up and said, “You know, everything was just amazing! Nobody has ever done this for us.” And she looked at the leader and said, “By the way John, I am sorry for being an asshole.”

RW:  Wow.

SL:  So I thought, wow, how can I do more of this? You know, taking people outdoor is one thing, but is there a way of doing it more purposefully? Not long afterwards I learned that there’s a field called recreation therapy or therapeutic recreation. San Jose State has courses in that. So in 2003, basically, I jumped ship and got my master’s in therapeutic recreation in 2004.

RW:  That’s great!

SL:  My passion in there was working with youth. I specialized in something called experiential education and adventure and wilderness therapy. So my internship was backpacking in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest and canoeing in the boundary water for six weeks with 10 kids.

RW:  You’re probably familiar with the term “nature deficit disorder.”

SL:  Yes.

RW:  That’s kind of a real thing, actually, isn’t it?

SL:  Yes. It definitely is. Actually there’s another deficit disorder called “meaning deficit disorder.” That’s from Victor Frankl who wrote Man’s Search For Meaning.

RW:  Yes, yes.

SL:  But anyway, I started working with kids and I did several trips in Oregon with Catherine Freer. And what I found was that the kids came and then they went back to that same negative environment.
     I thought it would be great if I had the framework where I could work with them all year round. And have—you know, in adventure therapy they use something like rope courses and other things to kind of bring out these emotions in the kids.

RW:  What is a rope course?

SL:  They have developed specialty rope courses where kids climb up and then walk on the rope. They’re belayed to make sure they’re safe. And there are a variety of activities. They go climb this 30-foot pole and stand on it and jump from it to touch a ball, and stuff like that.

RW:  It sounds exciting.

SL:  They’re real experiences and they’re tied in with emotion. Then how you deal with it reflects your behavior in life.

RW:  So things become revealed in these activities. And then you can look at them.

SL:  Right. And there are very simple activities on the ground, too, that we do in many cases. So those are part of a professional field called adventure therapy and wilderness therapy. There’s an organization called Association of Experiential Education. There are conferences and people talk about all this.
     So I thought I needed a long-term framework. And at that time I read Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence. I found out there’s an organization called Six Seconds. It was actually founded in a high school in the East Bay. It’s a non-profit and their purpose is to train trainers to promote advancement of emotional intelligence.
     But in the meantime, I had to work. So I got a job working in the Salinas Valley Psychiatric Program inside the Salinas Valley State Prison. I felt like this would give me a chance to practice and learn the therapeutic aspect. And while I was working there I started training myself outside with this emotional intelligence. So I took the basic course  run by Six Seconds.

RW:  And Six Seconds was operating in alignment with some of Daniel Goleman’s ideas?

SL:  Yes, and they have developed their own model. Actually Solavey and Mayer are the original ones who developed many of the tools. Daniel Goleman is a researcher. He has developed a consortium of research and has done a lot of things. I don’t know if he has developed tools, but now there are assessment tools that actually measure your competencies and tell you where you are in emotional intelligence, so to speak.
     I like the Six Second model. They have three categories. They refer to them as “know yourself, choose yourself and give yourself.”

RW:  All right. So now you’re working in the prison?

SL:  No. I quit in June, after five years.

RW:  What are some of the highlights for you from those five years?

SL:  Well, the problem was that it was very hard to manage the stress generated from the staff and the administrators. It was really a chaotic environment partly because there were too many people involved. There’s the administration. There’s California State government, you know, budget and all that. There’s a court system. Coleman Court is now overlooking the mental health services of the prison system. There’s hospital licensing getting involved. So they would all get involved and all of them came up and developed certain rules.

RW:  So there’s a challenge negotiating through the bureaucracy.

SL:  Exactly.

RW:  And not even counting working with the prisoners.

SL:  Exactly. It was a challenge, because you planned everything and were ready to work and somebody says no, you can’t do that. Today is a lockdown. Sorry.

RW:  Would you talk about some of the things that happened between you and prisoners? There must have been some memorable things.

SL:  Oh yes. There are many. So the frontline of defense as far as mental health is concerned, is getting medication consistently. That was the first thing. Then there were psycho-educational groups and stuff to help them. So the prisoners who kept advancing would become mentors. And many hardened criminals actually became mentors. That gave them purpose and changed their lives. That was the inspirational part of it. I mean some of these people, when they came in, were just messed up, psychotic and all that, and suddenly they’re stable. They grow…
     But the problem is that a lot of times they would go back to the same negative environment of the prison. Then you’re lost.

RW:  When you left after five years, were you frustrated? Is that part of the reason you left?

SL:  No. The problem was that I didn’t see myself grow anymore. And I couldn’t really make anything better than what it was. That’s number one. And number two, I always wanted to work with the youth, as I said. Because now I had a framework around emotional intelligence where I could use it all year round.

RW:  Did you learn some things working in those five years with people, do you think?

SL:  A lot. I think one of the things is how the situations that you see are not really what bothers you. It’s what you tell yourself about the situation.

RW:  In your own mind?

SL:  In your own mind. That underlies how the situation affects you. I grew a lot, because there were a couple of groups I ran. One was the Epictetus Club.

RW:  Oh, wow.

SL:  Epictetus was a Greek philosopher. There was a club run in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Somebody named Jeff Traylor was there and he wrote a book called Epictetus Club about the experience of the inmates there.

RW:  Well, let’s stop for a minute there with Epictetus. Wasn’t he a Stoic philosopher? 

SL:  Yeah almost 2000 years ago.

RW:  But the wisdom of Epictetus is what you were…

SL:  The wisdom is still valid. Exactly. 

RW:  Can you quote just one thing from that wisdom?

SL:  It’s not the situation that upsets us. It’s what we tell ourselves about the situation that upsets us. Epictetus said that.

RW:  Wow.

SL:  And the inmates really benefitted. Actually the person who ran the group—the fictitious name in the book is Zeno. But he was a real inmate. He used to live in the Death House. He used to run this Epictetus Club in the execution room.

RW:  Oh, my gosh. Wow.

SL:  Jeff Traylor joined as a counselor, because they needed a counselor. So he wrote a book based on that experience and some other experience in the Marion Correctional Facility. The book is awesome. I basically ran the group using that book. And obviously the inmates really connected with that. I think the other program I ran was called Breaking Barriers. It was developed by another inmate whose name is Gordon Graham. He was in Walla Walla Prison for 17 years and when he came out, he took some courses that really benefitted him and then he said, wow, this is what I need to take back to the prison.
     So he and others developed Breaking Barriers. That’s now very well-used inside the prison. It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy. And actually one other person was involved with that, David Lewis. He got shot. He was in Palo Alto. I went and saw him. There is an organization he founded called Free at Last. I visited him and asked if he would visit us. So he visited several times a year.

RW:  At the Salinas prison?

SL:  At Salinas. It was very inspirational. I mean inmates would really connect. You know? David Lewis had been in Folsom and Soledad, and he was a gang leader and drug addict. And he completely changed. He got a California Peace Award. The United Nations invited him to go start this program in Tanzania and Kenya and other places. He really made a difference until he got shot several years ago.

RW:  If people in prison could go through this inner transformation and come out on the other side they could have tremendous force, or tremendous something.

SL:  Yes, much more, because their step is so huge. I saw it in David Lewis. I saw it in Gordon Graham. I mean these people have done amazing stuff.

RW:  So in a way, there is this odd resource in the prisons, if only some of these people could be turned around in some way.

SL:  What you’re asking is, is there a formula you can keep applying? A lot of it I think, is when the “aha!” moment happens. You have to have these people at the right time. So the formula, because of the fact that it comes from inside, is a slow process. You can’t really apply it to everybody.
     How you motivate is the key. One other reason I left is because it was frustrating and disappointing when an inmate would get mentally healthier and their thoughts were changed, but they would go back to the same negative environment. So a lot of them would say, “This doesn’t work in this prison culture.” For a lot of them, the stay in the psychiatric program was like a vacation from that. They didn’t want to go back. After we were done, we had to send them back. One guy came back and said, “Look, I was doing well. But you threw me back into this prison without any support. What do you expect?”

RW:  Right.

SL:  So he started biting himself. 

RW:  Just so he could get back?

SL:  Just so he could get back.

RW:  Wow. So when did you leave that prison job?

SL:  Just last June.

RW:  So this is really recent.

SL:  Very recent. I’m trying now to develop my career in business promoting this emotional intelligence. Mostly I want to help youth, but I still want to earn my living. A lot of times just working with youth organizations, there is limited amount of funding.

RW:  Right. Are you pondering whether or not you can start your own organization or program?

SL:  That’s what I am trying right now. But again, the problem is I’m not a marketing and sales kind of person. Right now, I’m interested in volunteering at California Community Partners for Youth, CCPY. They work with at-risk youth in San Jose. And they follow very much my philosophy of working with kids. They have made a lot of difference. They train mentors. So I feel like I am going to benefit. And I am going to make a difference there, too.

RW:  I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier and that is about using the emotions—how do you use your emotions?

SL:  So let me define these three categories: know yourself, choose yourself and give yourself. According to the Six-second model, know yourself has two competencies. One is emotional literacy and second is recognizing your reaction patterns.

RW:  Okay, so what is emotional literacy?

SL:  Emotional literacy is being able to label emotions, being able to recognize them.

RW:  In yourself, primarily?

SL:  And even in others that you are looking at. And number two, is knowing the functions of emotions. Why is it that I’m feeling that? That’s emotional literacy. And what they have found (David Rock, in Your Brain at Work) is that recognizing and labeling emotions calms down your amygdala, which is a part of the brain that activates in intense emotion like anger. Labeling an emotion calms that down and activates your frontal cortex, which is kind of a decision-making part of the brain. And reframing your situation also does the same thing. So those are tools that you can learn. Just carrying a card with the names of the emotions can help, taking it out and saying, “Oh, I can see that I’m feeling this. Just naming the emotion calms down your amygdala so it’s not so intense.

RW:  And this develops another part of your brain also.

SL:  Yes. So those are the competencies for knowing yourself. The “choose yourself” catagory, has four competencies. One is consequential thinking—being able to look at cost and benefit right off the bat, before you make an action. The second part is managing your emotions.

RW:  So how do you do that?

SL:  For example, if you divide your emotions into intense-unpleasant for things that you don’t like, you can manage to bring the intensity down of that emotion, whatever the unpleasantness is.

RW:  How do you bring the intensity down?

SL:  For example, by labeling the emotion. And you know, breathing exercises are a great exercise. Right? Just exercising physically can bring it down. Taking a walk. Whatever works at that time to bring that intense negative emotion down. And it doesn’t necessarily have to happen immediately.

RW:  Each of these categories tends to involve the others, it seems to me. So all of them depend on some kind of development of each of them.

SL: Right. Sometimes you are strong in one and that may help you improve with the other ones. Or if you’re not conscious about it, the weaker one that you want to include may take over. 

RW:  In the “choose yourself” part, there were four competencies. And we were going to talk about the third one and the fourth ones. The third one, I think, you said was…

SL:  Intrinsic motivation.

RW:  And the fourth one would be extrinsic, or what?

SL:  No. The fourth one is “exercising optimism.” So the opposite side on “intrinsic” is extrinsic. And sometimes you need both. You know, you have to use extrinsic to sometimes get the space where you are more intrinsically motivated. 

RW:  Now the intrinsic aspect involves knowing your own values and your own motivations. Is that right?

SL:  Yes. Knowing what are you passionate about? What is your purpose? What kind of things will make you feel more autonomous versus where you are going to let your freedom go or be compromised.

RW:  And in the heat of emotion, there’s a real problem there. How do you come into contact with these other things, the deeper values? It’s hard to remember in such a moment.

SL:  I agree with you. So that’s why, again, regulating or managing emotion comes into play. So knowing your reaction pattern comes into play, because once you know, then it helps you to prevent. Or if you’re in the heat of it, then you’ve got to learn how to have the skill of managing that emotion.

RW:  So a big part of helping people grow in emotional intelligence, is the teaching that is taking place outside of the emotional reaction itself.

SL:  Right. The skills are all learnable. A lot of times it’s not a quick process. It’s a slow process of developing yourself.

RW:  Like know yourself, what Socrates told us we needed to do. I mean that’s a big, big thing.

SL:  Yes. This is not something necessarily new.

RW:  Understanding the intrinsic parts of oneself is really about knowing yourself.

SL:  Exactly. So the way I look at it, it’s an action-oriented model where the first part, “know yourself” is the “what”—what is driving me and what is stopping me? And the second part of it is the “how.” So how am I going to use that and make a decision? How will I act? And the “give yourself” part is “why”—so what, how and why.
     Again, it goes on in a circle. It’s a spiral. You know, sometimes I may be in what and how at the same time. You know?
     It’s good to operationalize this very subjective experience in terms of very distinct skills. But at the same time, you operationalize so that you can assess them and you can build on that. Then you can assess the overall subjective concept, but eventually when you are living it. You are living it all mixed up.

RW:  Yes, exactly. And you mentioned a minute ago in the “what” part—what stops me?

SL:  Yes. Which is the reaction pattern, knowing what is it that drives me. The emotion drives us. And the emotions also drive us in a direction we don’t want to go.

RW:  Well, that’s a major point. When you are faced with people you’re trying to help, part of it is bringing some of the things about themselves into consciousness. Because what stops me? Often it’s something I’m not really even aware of.

SL:  Right. The things are in a blind spot. Or the other way I put it is we become comfortable in doing something. So I use a metaphor that fish do not know anything about the water. They have lived in it for so long. So you’ve got to sometimes jump out of the water and be in an uncomfortable situation, try something, and then you learn. Hey, this is what makes me feel uncomfortable.

RW:  So how do you do this when you have someone in front of you and you begin to see some of their problems, and they’re not so aware of them?

SL:  Basically the idea is to have a set of inquiries. You ask them questions. And a lot of times, the answer may not be there right now. And I may not know what the answer is. And so then you’ve got to let them go with a question and see if the answer comes. For example, several times I have left early from networking events when I really had time to network more. So what is it that makes me leave? I may give myself the reason that well, you know, I am tired. I need to go home. My wife is waiting and all of that. 

RW:  Right.

SL:  Or it may be that I am really uncomfortable to talk to strangers. And nobody else would know that except me. So a lot of times, especially for youth, a lot of unrelated activity comes into play that brings out certain fears and inhibitions. Then you can ask them. Hey, do you do this in your life? And what is it behind it? And then they come up and say, you know what? I’ve always done that with my parents or my siblings, because the way they treated me, or I felt like I was not deserving, or whatever it may be. So sometimes I’ve done this where I’ve gone with kids into the wilderness or I’ve done rope courses and stuff where you really challenge them in something. And a lot of their fears and inhibitions come out in the way they react. Something there is happening even in their life.

RW:  Well, that’s interesting. You put them in a condition brings some of these behaviors to the surface. And then you can engage them around that.

SL:  Exactly. And sometimes you do role play. And then that role play will bring out something. It is a slow process. Not everybody may get something from an activity. There may be just one or two people. If you have formed a habit for years, it’s going to be a slow process. That’s why the earlier you start this, the better it is.

RW:  Now tell me a little bit about that part “exercise optimism.”

SL:  Seligman had a neat way of describing what optimistic people do and what pessimistic people do. It’s how they look at success and failure. There are three categories that he divides it into. One is time “temporary or permanent.” Second is “pervasive and local.” And the third is “personal or external.” So an optimistic person when they fail, they will say that the failure is temporary, it’s local and it’s not personal. What that means is that yeah, I failed today, but that’s okay. I made a mistake and I can recover from that.

RW:  Yes.

SL:  And the second part is, yeah, I failed in this particular area, but it doesn’t mean that I’m going to fail in my marriage or in other parts of life. So it’s not’s pervasive. And the third part is that I wasn’t skilled enough to handle this particular situation. I can learn and I can get better at it,

RW:  I don’t take it so personally.

SL:  Exactly. And while the pessimistic person will go the other way, “Oh man, I am always doing this. I am going to keep on doing this.” Just because they did bad in one part or one subject, means that I am going to be a failure in life.

RW:  They generalize it from the local to make it pervasive.
SL:  Right. And it’s me. I’m a failure.

RW:  I mean this would be a tremendous gift if one could help a person move away from such a view to this more realistic view, really.

SL:  Yeah, Seligman has some exercises. And basically it stems from the idea that you help the person look at that situation and really ask them the question and evaluate what is the truth in it? And what is the fallacy in it? So that evaluation basically helps them see—that’s the coaching part that comes in.

RW:  Let’s move on to this last part, the third part, “Give yourself”

SL:  Right. And the give yourself has two competencies. One is empathy and that’s a learnable skill. And the second competency is having a noble goal or purpose. So that’s why this category is called “why.”

RW:  Can you actually help people acquire a noble goal?

SL:  Well, you know, a noble goal doesn’t have to be big. It’s very simple. It’s helping your sister or helping somebody, another student in the class or providing opportunities. For example, if somebody is better, to tutor somebody. 

RW:  That’s great that you framed it that way. Okay. So there’s a place where you’re asking why should I grow in some kind of emotional…

SL:  Why should I make that decision?

RW:  Yes.

SL:  You know, the decision overall of transcending myself.

RW:  Yeah. Have you seen when you get someone to try, let’s just say, an experiment with a goal that transcends themselves? For instance, I’d like to help my friend. Are there unexpected consequences of a positive nature that come for the person who does that?

SL:  It’s a long-term thing. So basically it’s if they realize how they are feeling after they accomplish that. They can learn that if things are not going well, this is one way to feel better.

RW:  Someone is actually going to feel better if they help someone else.

SL:  Yes. And so being able to—again here come emotional literacy—being able to say what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that. They will remember that by helping this person, I felt good.

RW:  And do you find that people do feel good?

SL:   I think so. For example, I volunteer for the California Community Partnership for Youth. They use kids who have finished the first year as mentors or leaders for the newcomers. And that helps them see how they have benefitted from the program. They feel better because they’ve got something. And they feel like they are returning that. So what they have gotten is not free. They are paying forward for something that they already received from other mentors.

RW:  And there would be something intrinsically positive in one’s feelings.

SL:  Exactly. So here the intrinsic motivation comes in, too. The noble goal also creates the emotions that make you want to do it even though there may not be extrinsic rewards. That’s how they’re inter-connected, so to speak.

RW:  And of course in a long-term sense, people’s lives are going to improve if they start helping others. They will start having more and healthier relationships and the related benefits go with that. But that may take a little while before they start to realize, wow, things are kind of different.

SL:  Right. And sometimes it happens very abruptly. Sometimes something drastic happens in your life. And you suddenly help somebody and realize, hey, you know, things aren’t as bad as I thought. Today I went to visit this school that I am going to do a program in, New Leaf Academy. They had a guest speaker, Stanley. For 40 years, he was a guitar player. And he suddenly got a bad case of meningitis. The next day he was in the ambulance. He had a 10 percent chance of living. And he basically lost part of his fingers. To make a long story short, he was miserable. Then he suddenly got a call from a school principle, “We need a teacher’s aide. Would you be a teacher’s aide?” And he jumped on it. He became a teacher’s aide. And when he saw the kids faces when he helped them it lightened him up. And now he actually plays guitar, by the way.
     So by finding these people to help, it gave him a new life. And that actually fed back to his guitar playing. So now he really plays an excellent guitar. That’s a great example, but that needed a serious abrupt change. Sometimes that happens.
RW:  That reminds me of Victor Frankl again, who survived the most horrendous conditions in a German concentration camp by helping others.

SL:  Right. And he wrote that others who survived, survived because of the same reason. Because it gave them meaning in their lives.

RW:  It sounds to me like there’s an art to all of this—trying to help people grow in emotional intelligence and self-awareness. What do you think?

SL:  Yes. There is no linear way. I tell stories. I bring speakers. There are certain things, and certain philosophies you follow. For example, one of the first philosophies is that the wisdom lives within us. And somehow they have to connect; the message has to come from inside oneself. So “advising” doesn’t work.

RW:  This is a big thing because how can you give someone a shift of their understanding? Really, how can that be done?

SL:  Right. And again, I don’t know. Each person comes out differently. And it may not happen exactly when I am working with them. It may happen three years later. Who knows?

RW:  Yes, something might suddenly light up a year later or six months later. Suddenly it lights up and oh, wow. Now I understand that.

SL:  Right. They have to come up with the “aha moment.” I just provide the material that may make it possible for them. And a lot of it is through inquiry. So what works for you, what has strengthened you, what do you think may be stopping you? All are questions I need to ask.

RW:  So am I right in feeling that for you, this is a deeply rewarding sort of enterprise?

SL:  Yes. What’s interesting is, it’s not’s only deeply rewarding because I feel good that they’re becoming better, but it’s therapeutic for me. I feel I’m learning and growing in this emotional intelligence the more I help people grow their own emotional intelligence.

RW:  That’s a beautiful.

SL:  Yes, because I think I’m constantly growing. I’m constantly finding aha moments myself.

RW:  Maybe that’s a principle, almost a metaphysical principle, that if I’m sincerely trying to help others not only are others being helped, but I am being helped. This growth can happen in every direction.

SL:  Yes, exactly—if I am being authentic. By helping others, I am changing my own brain pattern, my own neuron paths. And by using this model and by asking these questions, I am listening also to that. My brain is listening to that. So you’re right. Absolutely.
You can learn more about Shabbir at 


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the West Coast editor of Parabola magazine and the founding editor of works & conversations  


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