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Now that was a holiday. Los Angeles in the Autumn of 1998.

I needed a change of scene and I found one. It actually isn’t one of my favourite cities but it was quite a break.

One weekday I borrowed a friend’s pickup truck and drove down to Will Rogers State Beach in Santa Monica – up towards Malibu – and sunned myself for an hour or two. Watching the waves roll in. Etc.

Late morning and I decided not to be too English so retired from the midday sun. I ambled back into the lengthy car park which stretched away before me. There was the pickup and, the only other vehicle in the car park, another one two spaces away.

Now I’m writing this story to make a serious point about whether we do or do not exercise empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ) with those around us. And earlier in my career I am not so sure I always did – certainly not to the best of my ability. So I am not claiming to be a role model here.

As I approached that car I could see a couple and their children – all in baseball caps. The guy started to take their bicycles off the back of the truck. I didn’t think much of it except that they were obviously about to pedal off down that first-class cycle path along the LA beaches.

I had just walked past when he spoke to his wife. The voice. I stopped dead in my tracks. It could really only be one person.

Turning around I  looked straight into the eyes of one of the world’s biggest film stars.

And those eyes told me something. They asked me not to interrupt their quiet morning out as a family.

What I wanted to do was shake his hand and thank him with all my heart for playing the lead in Philadelphia. To say that it had been a brave decision and a good one. One that had moved me and my friends more than he possibly realised.

Instead I smiled, said ‘Good morning’ and wished him an enjoyable day. He smiled and reciprocated. And off he cycled.

I have sometimes regretted not saying what I wanted to say – but I’m sure others have said the same and that would have been about me and about my agenda. To have crashed into perhaps a rare period of solitude for him would not have been great.

When I heard him on Desert Island Discs last week this story was naturally on my mind. I would love to know if he remembered that morning (although why would he?)

And given what I now do for a living I think there is a lesson in there. Perhaps I got something right at a time in my life when I did not get everything right.

Now, 18 years later, I pose these questions:

  • Are you on your agenda or that of the person in front of you?
  • Do you empathise with what is going on for them instead of your own wishes and desires?
  • In those moments do you exercise your EQ?