6 Actionable Steps to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence
We’ve all been there. Watching as a co-worker or friend lets their emotions get the better of them in tough or difficult situations. Or being witness to someone we know spectacularly misreading a room. And at some point in our lives, we’ve most likely been that person. While it’s normal to have our emotions take over sometimes, often this happens because we are low on our EQ or emotional intelligence quotient.
Generally speaking, when people talk about being smart, they’re really talking about intelligence quotient or IQ––a concept that helps measure our ability for logical information processing. But emotions are one of the most primal ways we gather information about ourselves and our surroundings. How we process those cues makes a huge difference in our lives from relationships to career trajectory. And ignoring the importance of our emotional intelligence can be profoundly detrimental.
The good news is, no matter how old you are, EQ is flexible and can be built over time through mindful action and practice.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Unlike IQ, a concept that has been formulated and widely accepted for over a century, Emotional Intelligence or EQ is a relatively new concept that has taken shape in the last three decades. Psychologists John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey first came up with the idea that emotions may have a greater role to play in how we conduct our lives. In their original paper, Mayer and Salovey gave a thorough definition:
“Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.”
It’s possible for someone to have a high IQ but still score low on EQ. For example, someone who was a straight-A student through their school years may perform exceptionally well in an academic environment. However, when they enter the workforce, even though they were hired based on their intellectual performance, they’re unable to hold a job for a significant period of time. It could be because they tend to lose their temper at work and vent out their frustration on colleagues or struggle to fit within a team dynamic. Their inability to navigate not only their own emotions but the emotions of those around them will have a detrimental impact on their career––regardless of how intellectually proficient they are.
This means understanding and developing our emotional intelligence throughout our lives can enhance and enrich all aspects of our lives. No matter what stage of life we’re in, any time is a good starting point for learning to take back control. And we’ve come up with six easy steps to help do just that.
1- Be aware of our actions
When it comes to knowing our inner selves, we think we know best. But that’s not true at all. Sometimes, the closer we are to situations, the more difficult it is to see them clearly. And this is especially true for our subconscious. Unfortunately, these hidden facets of our minds tend to come forth during times of stress or with particular triggers. Anyone who has ever had a surprising reaction or uncontrolled emotional response to situations has experienced exactly this.
One of the biggest obstacles in developing emotional intelligence is our brain’s tendency to go on autopilot. A conservative estimate puts fifty percent of our daily activities as habits. That means half of our day is done without conscious thought. Which is less work for the brain and lets us do things like walking, getting dressed, or brushing our teeth without having to be aware of every single step. But the same thing that helps us, can also lead to us automatically reacting without thinking. To become emotionally intelligent, we first have to become mindful of our actions and reactions.
There are a number of ways to develop this:
Spend more time alone. Being alone with our own thoughts is a great way to examine them. This is time we can actively look at situations we’ve reacted poorly in and figure out how to be more aware of ourselves and others in the future. Take solo trips, or schedule a specific time in the day or week when we will be our only company.
Eliminate distractions. It’s good to allow boredom into our lives. For example, don’t read a book or listen to music while on the way to the office. Instead, use this time to systematically think about our actions the day before and how we can better approach this new day. When we spend too much time surrounded by distractions, we can’t embrace the mindfulness emotional intelligence requires.
Deliberately think about our actions. This is the first step in many mindfulness exercises and works great here as well. When we allow ourselves to run on auto-pilot, we give up active control of our decisions. By taking the time to focus on our actions, we have the opportunity to notice our patterns, and the emotions tied to these patterns and actions. Start small. Take a daily habit, brushing our teeth, for example. Notice the steps it takes to walk to the bathroom. How we take the toothpaste out, which part of our mouth we start brushing, how much time we spend on the different parts of our mouth. This will help us practice being present and aware, so we can apply this systematic thinking process to larger actions and events.
2- Notice the emotions attached to those actions
All of our actions have an emotional component; whether we notice or not. And if we do notice, we tend to ignore those feelings. However, as we practice mindfulness, we also need to start paying attention to the emotions our actions evoke.
Experts suggest a hack for this. Set up timers at different points throughout our day and when they go off, immediately think about how we are feeling at the moment. Joy? Satisfaction? Anxiety or stress? Keep a log, noting these observations next to the time and what actions we’re currently performing.
If naming emotions is difficult, we can pay attention to our own bodies. Thoughts are the language of the mind but feelings are the language of the body. This means we can understand our emotions based on our physical experience of them. Perhaps sorrow is a knot in the stomach. Anxiety might be our muscles tensing. Maybe joy gives us a lightheaded feeling.
Learning to relate these bodily sensations to our emotions can help us identify them. And by pairing this understanding with timed cues, we can identify our emotions faster and more accurately in a wide variety of situations. Knowing what we feel is half the battle in terms of controlling these feelings.
3- Face the difficult emotions
Unpleasant emotions are part of life. We all have them and they can be difficult to come to terms with. They are often powerful emotions, linked with negative connotations. Things like jealousy, anger, envy, fear, spite. Feeling these emotions can lead to us making bad decisions or acting impulsively instead of facing them. And because no one wants to think of themselves as a bad person, we tend to repress these emotions or worse, blame our feelings and actions on someone or something else.
The thing is, we cannot control what we feel. Our emotions are pathways of information about the world, and they are shaped by many factors that are ingrained into us since childhood. They won’t always follow the cause-and-effect path of rational thinking, but they too hold vital information about ourselves and the world. And gaining this information is crucial for establishing control over how we react, which is our next step.
Instead of backing away from these powerful feelings, we need to mindfully and honestly articulate not only what we’re feeling, but what about a particular situation is triggering these emotions. Write the situations and feelings down, and spend time alone to really pull apart why these particular events are so vivid and emotional for us. Most importantly, when we are in the middle of feeling them, make the effort to simply allow the emotion to be present without reacting to it, or anyone around.
4- Take responsibility for our reaction
We cannot control what we feel, but we can control how we react to those feelings. If we’re feeling overwhelmed about work, taking our frustration out on a friend is a distinct action which we definitely have control over. Whatever the trigger for our emotions may be, we always have a choice about how to express it.
When we notice an emotional reaction welling up inside, it’s vital to pause and weigh our choices. Do our feelings reflect an internal value, and how can we express ourselves in a more productive manner? Can we walk away, even for five minutes to reassess our thoughts and clarify our emotions? Even if we aren’t able to remove ourselves from the situation, stopping ourselves from reacting externally while redirecting our thoughts internally can snap us out of a more volatile emotional state. In fact, this stop-and-go method is helpful in clarifying thoughts during stressful situations.
5- Practice active listening
There are two sides to every story. Once we’ve been able to identify and understand our own emotional responses, it becomes necessary to do the same with those around us. The people we interact with have their own emotional information systems and reaction patterns, and to fully develop a high emotional intelligence, we need to understand where they are coming from as well.
But that’s not always easy, as each of us views the world differently, have had different experiences, and thus have different reactions. The key to understanding where someone else is coming from is active listening.
In general, people listen to respond, preparing their own reactions instead of focusing on what the other person is actually saying. An emotionally intelligent person, on the other hand, listens to understand. The most important aspect of active listening is going into the conversation without preconceived notions or ideas. We can’t assume we know what they’re going to say, or how they’re going to feel. So instead of thinking we understand, we have to listen to learn, by being open, mindful, and present.
Active listening also involves listening to both verbal and body language of the people we interact with. We can use our understanding of our own bodily responses to help identify emotions in others. Again, we can’t know for certain that they experience emotions the same way we do, but we can use our own experiences to help make us more sympathetic to their emotional struggles. By relating how things make us feel, we show them empathy. And by letting them know there is no right or wrong, we open the door for understanding instead of judgment.
6- Examine the root cause
The final step in developing our emotional intelligence is being able to identify and examine the root cause of our emotions. Being able to identify and control our emotions are vital steps in helping us gather the necessary information. But being able to understand why situations evoke specific emotions is absolutely vital in being able to say we truly know ourselves.
If we lash out at a coworker about an error, it’s easy to attribute our reaction to stress. Maybe we fought with our spouse the night before, or have a deadline we’re worried about making. But if we dig deeper, perhaps we discover that insecurity about our job is where our reaction originates from. Most of our instant reactions have deeper roots within ourselves. While figuring out the surface triggers might feel satisfying, identifying the root cause will help ensure our reactions are manageable and controllable over the long term.
Emotional intelligence is essentially about knowing ourselves, mastering our reactions, and seeing the world through an empathetic lens. No matter how developed our emotional intelligence is, there isn’t a finite number to achieve. Growth is a constant process that goes on throughout our lifetime, with new situations and reactions allowing us deeper discovery of our emotions. Embracing this growth, while learning to use our emotions in a productive and healthy manner serves to enrich our lives immeasurably, making our EQ just as valuable as our IQ. Maybe even more.