Understanding Emotional Intelligence |

6 min read
Jacqueline Munguía/Unsplash

Source: Jacqueline Munguía/Unsplash

Chances are you’ve spent a lot of time and money getting smarter and smarter. You’ve studied, paid attention in classes, and researched. You’ve taken tests, written papers, and read so many books and articles that you’ve lost count. You’ve been focusing on getting more and more intelligent in your chosen areas. And now, you’re likely much smarter than you were a few years ago, even if you’re not convinced you are.

But what about your emotional intelligence? How have you been building this area? You likely haven’t taken courses on the topic or been told by professors, bosses, or mentors to work on it. You may not even be entirely sure what emotional intelligence is. The reality, however, is that most employers value emotional intelligence more than they do the technical skills you gain from school. In fact, the World Economic Forum (WFE) 2020 Future Jobs Report says that emotional intelligence is one of the most in-demand skills. Plus, a study of 42,000 people by TalentSmart found that those with high emotional intelligence make $29,000 more a year.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is your ability to notice and appropriately label your own and others’ emotions and your ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. Let’s break down what this looks like. Let’s say you have a colleague with high emotional intelligence. When you have a team meeting, they’re good at reading the room. They match the emotional vibe, and instead of making inappropriate jokes when it’s tense or being loud when others are quiet, they ask questions about safe topics like weekend plans or the weather. You notice them taking a break when they seem stressed and how they’ll go for walks or retreat to their office to think or do focused work. People seem to gravitate to them for help, support, or advice.

Emotional intelligence consists of three key ingredients: self-awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal skills. We’re aware of what we’re thinking and feeling, we know how to calm ourselves down when necessary, and we’re good at understanding how others might be thinking and feeling. You might find that you’re better in one of these areas than another, or you might realize that you’re really not sure how you stack up. But no matter where you think your strengths and weaknesses are, if you want a true assessment of your emotional intelligence, you’re better off asking trusted people for their honest opinions.

What’s Your Emotional Intelligence Level?

To get a sense of your emotional intelligence, ask others how good you are at identifying your own emotions. Do they think you communicate your emotions well or that you tend to shut down and leave others to guess? Ask for their observations on how you handle stress or intense feelings. Do they think you get stressed easily and quickly, or do they see you as someone who’s able to de-escalate themselves fairly well? Ask them how well you read others, including them. Do they think you’re good at noticing how they’re feeling, or do you tend not to really notice or even ignore what others are going through?

Four Ways to Build Your Emotional Intelligence

If you’re finding that you’re not so great in the emotional intelligence department, it’s OK. Just like how you’ve improved grades in classes or learned new material at school, you can do the same here. Keep in mind, though, that this isn’t about mastering it and being done. Emotional intelligence is an ever-evolving skill. We don’t just learn it and move on. We’re constantly working on it, growing and improving along the way.

Here are some ways to bolster your emotional intelligence:

  • Start journaling. Research shows that when people journal, they experience fewer negative emotions in response to stressful life events (Ford et al., 2018). Journaling is a great way to learn about yourself, to reflect on your thoughts and feelings, and to build the self-awareness portion of emotional intelligence. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy (although it can be if you want!). Just make sure you’re handwriting it rather than typing (it’s slower, so you have time to process what you’re thinking and feeling as you go).
  • Practice observing others. Notice what others might be feeling, thinking, and perceiving and make private guesses. You can do this in public with strangers by people-watching at a restaurant (just don’t be creepy about it) and guessing what might be going on internally with them. You can also do this with people you know by observing them at home, school, or work and then asking questions to see if you’re close. Perhaps your roommate is slamming kitchen cabinets, so you consider what this means (anger or frustration) and what you know about why they might be feeling this way (they just finished an exam, or they had a performance review at work). You make a private guess about what’s going on and ask if they’re upset and want to talk. (If they do, you can see if you were accurate or not. If they don’t, you’ll have to wait until they’re ready to share or until you have more information to see if you were right.)
  • Work on managing your stress levels. Self-regulation is a key element of emotional intelligence, and that means being able to calm yourself down when frustrated, angry, upset, or stressed. Download a free meditation app. Add a daily guided meditation or breathing exercise to your morning or bedtime routine. You’ll learn skills that will help during times of high stress or intense emotions.
  • Get extra support. If you find that you really can’t figure out what you’re thinking or feeling, are told by others that you lack interpersonal skills, or really struggle to calm yourself down, you might need professional support. You can look for a local therapist on Psychology Today. If you’re a teen or young adult (or you have one in your life), it’s never too early to get started building emotional intelligence with my book The Emotionally Intelligent Teen.

Building your emotional intelligence will help you at work, school, and with your relationships. Investing in this area will have a huge ROI in every area of your life and will create improvements you didn’t even know you needed.

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