We all have different personalities, different wants and needs, different experiences that shape us, and different ways of dealing with things.
If a coworker interrupts someone in a meeting to share her exciting idea, one person might respond by shrugging it off, while another person might lash out. Still another might stay silent, but let it ruin their whole day.
That's where emotional intelligence becomes so important.
Each emotion a person feels contains valuable information about that person's preferences, needs, and experiences. But all too often, these emotions are hidden or overlooked -- or both.
In a world that frequently favors speaking over listening and thinking about oneself over others, it's really hard to pay attention to our own emotions, let alone the emotions of others. But if you don't, you'll miss out on the valuable information emotions can teach us, and the meaningful relationships you can build as a result.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is a form of social intelligence. Someone who has high emotional intelligence is able to recognize and monitor their own and others' feelings and emotions, to engage with and navigate them, and then to use that emotional information to guide their own thinking and action.
I like to think of emotionally intelligent people kind of like detectives. Every time they interact with someone, they're able to uncover the emotional pieces that are missing from what a person actually says out loud. Then, they're also able to use that emotional information in an effective way, like to become a better manager, a better teammate, or a better friend.
There are many, long-lasting benefits to making efforts to increase your emotional intelligence. For one, studies have shown that emotional intelligence can be more important than raw skill in many cases. Perhaps most importantly, having high emotional intelligence can help you create and maintain more meaningful relationships -- both at work and in your personal life.
The good news is, no matter your personality and emotional tendencies, there are things you can do to increase your emotional intelligence. To help you understand how, check out the tips below.
9 Tips for How to Become More Emotionally Intelligent
1. Observe your own emotional tendencies.
Not only can emotionally intelligent people sense the emotional needs of others, but they also know themselves very well because they're able to understand, manage, and effectively express their own feelings. You can only learn to manage your own emotions if you learn to recognize them in the first place.
This is easier said than done, of course. Start by going about your day and paying attention to how you feel, and what specific situations make you feel that way. What's your emotional state when you wake up in the morning? How about when that guy cut you off at an intersection on your way to work? Or when your coworker brought you a coffee -- and even remembered how you like it? How about when your boss rejected your idea in front of your coworkers?
Next, ask yourself how all these feelings connect with your behavior. Throughout the day, did they impact your communication with others, your productivity, or your overall sense of well-being? The better you become at recognizing and understanding your emotions and behavioral impulses, the better you'll be at managing them.
2. Don't judge yourself.
As you become more and more aware of your emotions, you might find you're judging yourself for them -- especially when experiencing a negative emotion, such as anger or sadness. But remember: Every emotion you have, positive and negative, is a useful piece of information that can teach you something about your own needs and preferences.
If you're quick to judge how you're feeling, you'll have a lot of trouble being honest with yourself about how you feel, which is totally counterproductive. Allow yourself to feel those emotions in the first place -- that way, you'll be able to better manage them and recognize them in others.
3. Learn to control your negative emotions.
Managing your emotions effectively is a big part of increasing your emotional intelligence. The hardest part of this tends to be managing your negative emotions. But doing so is important, as it helps you avoid letting negative feelings cloud your judgment. This will make you a better decision-maker because you'll be able to look at a problem and find a resolution in a calm and rational way. It'll also help you become more receptive to feedback and able to use criticism to improve your performance.
The key is to let yourself feel those negative emotions, but practice deciding how to behave once you feel them. For example, let's say you're driving and someone cuts you off at an intersection. Your initial reaction may be surprise, followed by anger. But you have a choice here: You could lay on the horn and yell out the window, "Who do you think you are?," or you could shrug it off -- because, let's be honest, the ten seconds it added to your commute didn't really affect your day.
Remember: How you react to things is your own responsibility. If someone hurts your feelings and you react by yelling at them, then that's your own doing. They didn't "make" you yell at them -- it's you who can choose whether to control your emotions, not them.
The next time you feel a negative emotion strongly, take a few moments to experience that feeling and let it wash over you. Then, take a deep breath and make a conscious decision about how you want to behave in response.
4. Learn to express difficult emotions when necessary (and appropriate).
Part of being emotionally intelligent is knowing when to share your emotions with others. After all, being honest with others about how you feel encourages trust and helps people feel comfortable opening up to you. It's all about choosing your moments; namely, sharing how you're feeling without hurting anyone.
So, when is it appropriate to set our boundaries and let people know where we stand? According to Preston Ni in Psychology Today, these moments "can include exercising our right to disagree (without being disagreeable), saying 'no' without feeling guilty, setting our own priorities, getting what we paid for, and protecting ourselves from duress and harm."
5. Take a genuine interest in what people are saying.
As you consciously observe how you're feeling, begin practicing recognizing and acknowledging how other people are feeling. In other words, practice empathy. Empathizing with others is one of the most powerful parts of being emotionally intelligent, and it'll help you get closer to others, gain their support when you need it, and have an easier time smoothing over conflicts.
The best way to uncover how someone else is feeling is to become an active listener. This means really, truly paying attention to what people are saying. This is really difficult for a lot of people -- especially those who've been taught that listening and deferring to others is a sign of weakness, and that speaking is better than listening.
The first step to take an honest look at your listening skills. Are you a naturally good listener? Or do you tend to spend most of the time someone else is talking thinking about what you're going to say next? A lot of people don't even know they aren't good listeners until they make a conscious effort. Then, make the decision to listen closely and carefully in every conversation.
6. Ask relevant questions.
Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. While you shouldn't jump in with questions every time your conversation partner stops talking, you should ask relevant and clarifying questions to demonstrate you've been paying attention, to show the person you're interested in the conversation, and to dig deeper into what they're telling you.
To dig deeper, you might use a questioning technique called funneling. Funneling means asking a series of questions that become more restrictive at each step. Here's an example:
"Tell me about your last week at work."
"Which projects have you spent the most time on?"
"Did you run into any challenges on those projects?"
"What have you done so far to mitigate that challenge?"
"How can I help you get closer to overcoming it?"
The first questions are open and allow for broad answers, and at each step the questions become narrower and more focused. This is a great technique for gathering a lot of information about a situation so you can put the puzzle pieces together.
7. Pay attention to body language.
Body language is another clue to uncovering how someone is feeling. Everyone communicates in ways that are nonverbal, like posture, facial expressions, and body movements. When you're conversing with someone, take note of how they use their body when they speak -- and treat it like the useful information it is. You might even acknowledge it by saying, "I get the sense that this makes you unhappy. What's causing that?"
You'd also do well to observe how your own emotions manifest themselves in physical ways. For example, that tightening in stomach might be caused by stress or anxiety. Those high energy levels might be an indication that you're really excited about something. (Read this blog post to learn more about master body language.)
8. Take responsibility for your actions.
Humility, like empathy, is a powerful part of being emotionally intelligent -- and one key way to be humble is to take responsibility when you screw up or hurt someone's feelings.
Some people might think acknowledging when you did something wrong is a sign of weakness or lack of self-confidence, especially when you didn't mean to. But taking responsibility for your actions shows people you're self-aware, honest, and committed to being a team player. Plus, people are a lot more willing to forgive and forget if you make an honest go at making things right. In the end, this'll have a positive impact in all areas of your life.
To increase your social intelligence, you'll need to practice becoming more self-aware, transparent, adaptable, socially aware, empathetic ... the list goes on. There are plenty of other ways to improve that aren't on this list, but it's a start -- and something you'll want to continue working on for the rest of your life. The more you practice, the more you'll reap the benefits.
9. Practice open-mindedness.
In general, being narrow-minded is an indication of lower emotional intelligence. Think about it: Open-minded people are more willing to listen to other people's points of view and try to understand them by putting themselves in the other's shoes. As a result, people are more willing to trust them with true thoughts and feelings because they aren't worried about being judged. Open-minded people also have a strong sense of self because they don't confine themselves by their own beliefs.
One way of practicing open-mindedness is to observe how others react to situations and compare it to how you would react in that same situation. If they react differently than you would, think about why this is -- and try to see it from their point of view.
As you become better and better at this, you'll likely find that challenging your beliefs and allowing yourself to explore new ideas will benefit you both professionally and personally.
What tips do you have for becoming more emotionally intelligent? Share with us in the comments.
Originally published Jan 10, 2016 8:30:00 AM, updated September 19 2017