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- Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to identify and manage your and others’ emotions.
- Research suggests that high EQ helps people succeed at work and in relationships.
- There are plenty of easy ways to improve your EQ right away. For example: Learn what sets you off, assign specific names to your emotions, and give people the benefit of the doubt.
The term “emotional intelligence” dates back to a scientific paper published in 1990 – but interest in the topic didn’t explode until psychologist and former New York Times reporter Daniel Goleman wrote a book about it a few years later.
Emotional intelligence (sometimes known as EQ) is the ability to identify and manage emotions – your own and other people’s. Research suggests that high EQ helps people succeed at work and in relationships, and even helps them stay healthy. (Still, while Goleman and other experts say EQ predicts performance even better than cognitive ability, others aren’t convinced.)
Psychologists say improving your EQ isn’t easy – but if you’re motivated and brave enough to find out how other people really see you, you’ll likely see positive changes.
Below, we’ve listed some of the easiest and most practical ways to start developing your emotional intelligence muscle – today.
Pick one area to improve in
Goleman recommends trying to improve one facet of emotional intelligence at a time. For example, maybe you want to get better at reading other people, or maybe you want to get better at introspection.
Writing on LinkedIn, Goleman advises asking yourself: “Where would I improve the most if I could enhance one competency?”
Surround yourself with people who don’t necessarily agree with you
Once you’ve homed in on an area for improvement, solicit feedback from others on how you can get better. Leadership speaker and author Sara Canaday told CNN that it’s important to ask people who may not share your perspective.
Canaday told CNN, “If you constantly surround yourself with people who believe just like you do, then you are hearing the same conversations, and you are not growing, and you are not learning to be open to perspectives.”
Find a ‘career mirror’
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That’s a tip from Spencer Rascoff, CEO of real-estate website and app Zillow. Rascoff previously told Business Insider that his wife is his “career mirror,” meaning she knows and understands him even better than he knows and understands himself.
Rascoff’s wife was the one who knew he was unhappy at his job in finance, and suggested he explore other options.
A close friend or family member can help reflect your emotions back to you when you’re unable, or unwilling, to see them.
Assign someone to be your ‘loving critic’
That’s Tasha Eurich’s term for “people who will be honest with us while still having our best interests at heart.” Eurich is an organizational psychologist and the author of “Insight,” in which she argues that most people lack self-awareness.
At work, a loving critic shouldn’t be your BFF, but someone trustworthy who you’re only casually acquainted with. The person should be “willing to give you the good, the bad, and the ugly about your performance,” Eurich previously told Business Insider.
Try to see things from another person’s perspective
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For leaders especially, understanding employees’ individual strengths and weaknesses is crucial.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Michael Sanger say that “brief but frequent discussions with team members will lead to a more thorough understanding of how to motivate and influence others.”
Counterintelligence expert Robin Dreeke recommends following the “platinum rule“: Treat others the way they would like to be treated. Talk in terms of what’s important to them, in a way they can readily understand, and they’ll be more inclined to give you what you want.
Give people the benefit of the doubt
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Psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error: We’re more inclined to believe that a rude person is rude because they’re a jerk, and not because they’re having a rough day. On the other hand, if we’re rude to someone else, we know it’s not because of some internal deficiency.
In a Psychology Today blog post, psychologist Relly Nadler advises accepting versus judging other people’s behavior. He writes: “Explore your assumptions before believing your assumptions. Is this judgement really true, what is my proof, what else could be going on?”
Ask people directly what they’re feeling
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In another Psychology Today blog post, psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne breaking down emotional intelligence into different components and focusing on the one that’s giving you the most trouble.
She shares an example of how to do just that: “If it’s help you need in reading the emotions of others, you can work on building your empathy by not being afraid to ask what the people you work with and live with are feeling, especially if you’re not sure, or if you’ve been wrong in the past.”
Learn to empathize without getting overly emotionally invested
Writing in The New York Times, Goleman highlights empathy as a key component of emotional intelligence: “Cognitive empathy, along with reading another person’s feelings accurately, makes for effective communication.”
On his website, Goleman describes cognitive empathy: “simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people.”
(The other two types of empathy are emotional empathy and compassion.)
Pretend to be humble
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In the HBR article, Chamorro-Premuzic and Sanger write:
“We live in a world that rewards people for hiding their insecurities, but the truth is that it is much more important to hide one’s arrogance. That means swallowing one’s pride, picking and choosing battles, and looking for opportunities to recognize others, even if you feel you are right and others are wrong.”
Know what sets you off
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In the Psychology Today blog post, Nadler guides readers in doing some introspection:
“Examine and deconstruct the last time you lost it. What caused you to get so upset? What behaviors of others got under [your] skin? What happened if you were dissatisfied with your own efforts? What were you thinking and feeling before you lost it? If you don’t know this you are doomed to repeat it.”
Understand your strengths and limitations
In The New York Times, Goleman writes that self-awareness is one component of emotional intelligence, and one sub-component is “realistic self-confidence.”
Goleman writes: “You understand your own strengths and limitations; you operate from competence and know when to rely on someone else on the team.”
Be able to name your emotions
On his website, psychologist Travis Bradberry highlights the importance of having a “robust emotional vocabulary.”
“While many people might describe themselves as simply feeling ‘bad,’ emotionally intelligent people can pinpoint whether they feel ‘irritable,’ ‘frustrated,’ ‘downtrodden,’ or ‘anxious.’ The more specific your word choice, the better insight you have into exactly how you are feeling, what caused it, and what you should do about it.”
In fact, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research on “emotional granularity” suggests that intense negative emotions aren’t inherently bad – as long as you can work to understand exactly what it is that you’re experiencing.
Pause before acting
Robin Stern, associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, shared a solid tip with CNN: Whenever you’re triggered by something, pause and take a deep breath before doing anything else.
Instead of letting your emotions control you, think about what your “best self” would do in that situation.
Figure out what’s really bothering you
Most of us have been in a situation where a coworker does something annoying and we let it slide, only to come home and lash out at our partner instead. That’s not the way emotionally intelligent people handle anger.
In a Psychology Today blog post, psychologist Emma Seppala tells readers to “figure out if you’re misplacing blame.”
She writes: “You’re hungry, tired, overworked, stressed, unhappy in your marriage, and then you assign all the blame to the first person or situation you encounter; probably someone close to you. In the process, you drive away the people you love the most – making things even worse.”
Don’t jump to judge your feelings
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The same way you should strive for acceptance over judgment when dealing with other people, you should resist the urge to automatically judge your own feelings.
In a Psychology Today blog post, psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal writes: “Try not to dismiss your feelings before you have a chance to think them through. Healthy emotions often rise and fall in a wave, rising, peaking, and fading naturally. Your aim should be not to cut off the wave before it peaks.”
Show some self-compassion
Self-compassion is all about treating yourself as you would treat a colleague or friend – that is to say, more kindly than you typically treat yourself.
According to Seppala, self-compassion can help you get ahead professionally because you’re learning from your mistakes – not just berating yourself for them.
In her book “The Happiness Track,” Seppala says one strategy for becoming more self-compassionate is replacing your negative self-talk. Instead of saying, “How could I have done this? I’m such an idiot!” you could say, “I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that’s okay.”
Pay attention to your body
Rosenthal also recommends “listening” to your body. For example, he writes, “a knot in your stomach while driving to work may be a clue that your job is a source of stress.”
Noticing physical sensations is a key component of mindfulness. Try doing a body scan: Starting at the top of your head, check in with every part of your body and notice what it feels like. That way, you can catch any simmering negative feelings before you act on them.
Don’t identify with your emotions
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Say you do the body scan and notice anger coming up. Instead of saying, “I am angry,” you might say instead, “I am experiencing anger.”
If you think about emotions that way, at least in your own head, it’s somewhat freeing. Your emotions are no longer all-consuming entities that guide your choices; they’re transient states.
As Laurie Cameron, who leads mindfulness training, previously told Business Insider, think of emotions as “passing through me like a cloud.”
Do a ‘mini-meditation’
The ability to regulate your emotions is an important facet of emotional intelligence.
On his blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker recommends doing a “mini-meditation” to get better at it:
“Next time you feel your emotions surging, turn your attention to your breath. Focus on it going in and out. When your mind wanders, return your attention to your breath. Give it 10-20 seconds at first.”
Read some fiction
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A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that reading fiction can help you become more empathetic.
As Keith Oatley, the author of a 2016 review of the psychological effects of fiction, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, told The Washington Post: “When we read about other people, we can imagine ourselves into their position and we can imagine it’s like being that person. In turn, he said, “that enables us to better understand people, better cooperate with them.”
Practice, practice, practice
Now that you’ve zeroed in on an area for improvement, solicited feedback on your behavior, tried to be less judgmental of yourself and others, and worked on being more mindful (whew!), it’s time to practice.
As Goleman writes on LinkedIn, you should “practice at every naturally occurring opportunity” – at work, at home, at the supermarket. He adds, “The more often you do it, the easier it gets.”