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Emotional intelligence (EI) was first referenced way back in 1964 but it didn’t become mainstream until science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ in 1995. It’s a “soft” skill. Human resource professionals look for those with a high EQ and positive psychology research shows that positive social connection is a powerful tool to increase well-being. Although it may seem easier to provide training for the so-called hard skills, improvement to emotional intelligence also happens with practice.
What Is Emotional Intelligence?
“Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense, understand, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information, connection, and influence.” – Robert K. Cooper, leadership expert, with an emotional intelligence definition
Emotional intelligence refers to your ability to recognize what emotion you are feeling and to manage that emotion in a way that allows you to use the emotion rather than becoming overwhelmed by it. It also includes your ability to accurately interpret and respond appropriately to the emotions of other people. Understanding the strengths of your own EI and being able to convey these strengths to others will also help you in achieving success in your relationships and your personal goals.
Like any new habit, developing greater emotional intelligence takes conscientious, consistent effort. Below you will find a list of 10 ways to get started.
Get Fluent in the Language of Emotions
It’s fairly common to grow up correctly showing and interpreting the six basic emotions:
Often, as a child matures, these six are discouraged. Children are taught “big girls don’t cry” or told to “man up,” giving them an implicit idea that suppressing their feelings in various situations is a mature way to behave. The problem with stuffing emotions down is they eventually need to come out; otherwise, they become negative emotions. If not expressed verbally nor given proper attention, they may manifest in physical symptoms or psychological challenges.
Worse than suppression is something psychologists call emotional avoidance; this is where rather than feeling an emotion, it is replaced with an unhealthy habit like binge eating, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, or even over-exercising. To combat this, practice feeling, then naming your emotions in a nuanced way.
Expand past the six emotions, trying to differentiate anger from disappointment and frustration and joy from happiness and excitement. Languages other than English have many words for a single emotion like love. In Greek, storge is the word for love between family, philia is love for a close friend, eros is romantic love, and agape is the love felt on the level of collective consciousness where the feeling “we are all one” exists within. Aspire to be as clear about your emotions as the Greek are about love.
Put Space Between Stimulus and Response
Part of emotional intelligence is understanding your emotions—search your memory for emotional intelligence examples. It is part of popular culture to believe that something can trigger emotion. A speaker will say, “This may be triggering to some audience members,” before discussing a tragic event. A more empowering way to think of emotions is the way of Viktor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor, who made famous the theory that between stimulus and response there is a space that the individual controls—their belief. Emotionally intelligent people know that emotions don’t happen to them, they are a response created by them.
As you start to recognize this, examining why you believe what you believe and where this belief began, you become better equipped to recognize the emotional patterns and reactions that no longer serve you. When stressful situations occur, or a powerful emotion happens, take time after the emotion has subsided to ask yourself why you felt that way. A question to use when you get stuck or feel like you don’t know is, “What do I think would happen if I didn’t feel__________?”
Practice Mindful Reflection
Mindfulness is a wonderful tool for decreasing rumination. In fact, mindfulness, meditation, and emotional intelligence have been regularly linked in scientific literature. Meditation allows you to slow down and stay present in a way that calms your physiology and sets the stage for emotional intelligence. How? Mindfulness has been shown to help you learn how to recognize the emotions of other people around you thereby increasing empathy and improve a person’s ability to use their emotions to regulate stress.
Want to increase your EI? Start a daily practice or start a 21-day meditation with Deepak and Oprah.
How You Talk About Emotional Response Matters
It is common to hear someone ask, “How did that make you feel?” Or you may say, “You make me so mad.” Taking ownership over your emotions begins by speaking about them in a way that doesn’t send yourself a disempowering message; this will help you to become more emotionally savvy. Your thoughts become reality, so put your energy toward speaking about emotions in a way that plants you firmly in the driver’s seat rather than being the passenger just along for the ride.
What Gets Measured Matters
Things like EI can seem abstract or theoretical, but in fact, there are ways to measure. Try taking this EI quiz on the Greater Good Science Center website or try the Global Emotional Intelligence Test (GEIT) based on Daniel Goleman’s work.
Flex Your Social Muscle
When you socialize and communicate with others you get to practice reading the emotional signals of others. Put yourself out there. Go to a new book club, introduce yourself to new people at a conference, or go out for a sports team. If you are already quite social but need to learn to read people better, you might try EQ for Success, a card game from Play Therapy Supply. You don’t get fit from one trip to the gym—your EQ (another abbreviation for emotional intelligence) muscle is similar to all your other muscles, it needs regular flexing.
Practice Both Compassion and Self-Compassion
Compassion is kindness, caring, and a willingness to help. Feeling empathy and being able to empathize is your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes while compassion is the reaction and action that stems from that experience. Self-compassion, according to researcher Kristin Neff’s work, involves mindfulness instead of over-identification, common humanity versus isolation, and self-kindness instead of self-judgment. It takes EI to see that compassion and self-compassion are strengths of a confident and self-assured person. To develop both traits, focus on assuming good intention where others are concerned, and being kind and patient with yourself.
Manage Stressors and Emotions in Healthy Ways
Life comes with stress. Things go wrong. You fail a test, you crash a car, you forget a birthday, you lose a job, you make a mistake—the list goes on and on. If you spend your time trying to control the waves in the ocean rather than learning to surf them, you will get tired. When people manage stress and emotions poorly they often self-medicate or withdraw socially. Instead, try an affirmation like:
I can accept feedback from others without becoming angry.
I control urges to overindulge.
I maintain my composure, even during stressful times.
Not all expression is verbal. Paint, dance, sculpt, surf. Think of action like a release valve. Emotions are like shaking a bottle of soda. If you shake a bottle then open it, you get an explosion. But if you let a little air squeeze out occasionally, you can shake it without ever causing an explosion. When you feel something, name it aloud. Notice it. Name it. And then encourage it to stay or move on depending on how it helps you or hinders you. Think of how a little anger can propel you to be more aggressive in a tennis match—under the control of an emotionally intelligent purpose, your emotions can be harnessed to help.
Pastor Joel Olsteen asked, “Are you a thermostat or a thermometer?” It’s a good thing to ask yourself. Are you taking your emotional temperature or are you controlling your emotional temperature? This refers to self-regulation, which is not the same as suppression. By turning your thermostat up and down as needed, you can develop your EI and become less volatile or rigid.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.