What is emotional intelligence? How to improve it?

If you’ve ever read about self-improvement or people skills, you have come across this popular term. Emotional intelligence has been credited as being twice as important as IQ, enchanting everything from academic success to being better liked by others.

[ref]O’Neil, J. (1996). On emotional intelligence: A conversation with Daniel Goleman. Educational Leadership54(1), 6. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli1503_05[/ref]
  • The ability to recognize emotions within yourself
  • The ability to recognize emotional cues from others
  • The ability to use emotion productively in everyday thinking and decision-making
  • Knowing which emotions are best for specific situations
  • Applying emotions productively in the context of goal achievement

Now that we’ve defined emotional intelligence, here’s how to improve it:

#1 Accept that you have emotions

People who come to see me often say “I have no feelings.” They are mistaken. What they mean to say is “I am unaware of my feelings.”

Let’s do a little test. Check your pulse. I’ll wait…

Did you discover a pulse? Good. That means that you have feelings even if you’re unaware of them.

As you go through your day, start paying attention. Most people feel their feelings in the throat, chest, and/or stomach area. Pay attention to the various sensations you have in these areas of your body. Notice how certain feelings correspond to certain situations. Now try labeling these feelings with specific emotion words (see tip #3).

#2 Stop judging your emotions

Do you often have negative feelings about your feelings? Do you see emotions as good or bad, positive or negative?

Emotionally intelligent people are accepting of their emotions. They benefit from all emotions, even the uncomfortable ones.

Emotions are powerful forces that organize your thinking and behavior.

[ref] Epstein, S. (1994). Integration of the cognitive and the psychodynamic unconscious. American Psychologist49(8), 709. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.49.8.709[/ref]

It’s hard to benefit from your emotions if you’re too busy judging them. That’s because judgment blocks learning.

The more you can see your emotional states from a neutral perspective, the more they can guide your thinking and behavior in constructive ways.

#3 Be able to say how you feel

How do you feel right now? Can you accurately describe your emotional state without resorting to the generic list below?

Being able to describe the way you feel using precise emotion words is an indicator of emotional intelligence. Someone of lower emotional intelligence might describe their feelings using words like:

  • good
  • bad
  • happy
  • sad
  • angry
  • relaxed/calm

These words are a nice start. And you want to expand your emotional vocabulary to include a broader range of emotional experience. If you have a limited emotional vocabulary, you’re probably unaware of many of your emotions. This makes it hard to enjoy the benefits of emotional intelligence. How to improve? Expand your emotional vocabulary. I’ve put together a list of emotions to get you started. 

#4 Think rationally

At best, irrational thinking causes emotional reactions that are out of proportion to the situation. At worst, it causes you to react to situations that only exist in your mind. Irrational patterns of thinking are known as cognitive distortions.

Two of the most common cognitive distortions are mind reading, and absolute thinking.

Mind reading is when you think you know what someone else is thinking, feeling, or intending. While emotional intelligence involves taking emotional “cues” from others, it does not involve making hard conclusions about what others are experiencing. In other words, emotional intelligence involves being able to step into someone else’s shoes. When you do, see your perceptions as possibilities rather than hard facts.

Absolute thinking comes in two forms: all-or-nothing thinking (Example: I’m either a complete success or a total failure) and hard rules (Example: I must appear confident no matter what) You can overcome absolute thinking by seeing the “shades of gray” in any given situation. You can also set reasonable and realistic standards for yourself and avoid hard “shoulds” or “musts.”

Challenge your thought and speech patterns having to do with mind-reading and/or absolute thinking. For example:

  • My wife is angry at me (How do you know? Did she tell you?)
  • I must be perfect in my next interview? (Would it be life and death if you weren’t perfect?)

Just by avoiding these two common cognitive distortions, you’ll think more rationally than the average person, improving your emotional intelligence.

#5 Practice delayed gratification

We are a society of instant gratification. Daniel Goleman, an author who is almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing emotional intelligence, called delayed gratification a “master skill.”

[ref]Gibbs, N., & Epperson, S. E. (1995). The EQ Factor. (Cover story). TIME Magazine146(14), 60. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.amberton.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9510027534&site=ehost-live[/ref]

Similarly, Dr. Judson brewer linked instant gratification with anxiety in his book Unwinding Anxiety. People with lower emotional intelligence give in to their emotional impulses, whereas people who balance emotional desire with rational thought have higher emotional intelligence. How to improve? Practice delayed gratification.

#6 Put yourself in social situations

Do you avoid social situations? If so, you may be missing an opportunity to improve your emotional intelligence.

Goleman wrote in the 1990’s that children have lower emotional intelligence than previous generations. This is due to two factors: excessive screen time and few interpersonal relationships.

[ref]O’Neil, J. (1996). On emotional intelligence: A conversation with Daniel Goleman. 
Educational Leadership54(1), 6. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.proxy.amberton.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9703131647&site=ehost-live[/ref]

The children that Goleman wrote about in the 90’s are now adults. Many of them are now living a reclusive lifestyle, choosing devices over social interaction. The recent pandemic has made this tendency even worse. If you recognize yourself in this group, all is not lost. You can improve your emotional intelligence simply by broadening your social circle. You’ll learn through adaptation. Although you might not feel comfortable at first, you’ll adapt to your new environment, and become more emotionally intelligent.

#7 Keep your appointments

You won’t see this tip on any other article about emotional intelligence. What exactly does this have to do with emotional intelligence? Well, there is a high correlation among emotionally intelligent students and good attendance.

[ref]Mavroveli, S., Petrides, K. V., Shove, C., & Whitehead, A. (2008). Investigation of the construct of trait emotional intelligence in children. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry17(8), 516–526. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-008-0696-6[/ref]

Lower emotional intelligence hurts attendance and contributes to academic challenges. I believe that this same principle applies to adults in the workplace, educational settings, and even the therapist’s office. Let’s face it, we don’t always feel like doing what’s good for us. People with high emotional intelligence are able to override these feelings and do what’s best for them in the long term.

Now, we all cancel appointments sometimes. But, I want you to be honest with yourself. Are you a chronic canceller? If you are, this may be a sign of lower emotional intelligence. How to improve this? By keeping your appointments, even if you don’t feel like going. You can always change your mind about your commitments in the future. But, for right now, do what you say you’re going to do.

#8 Be a lifelong learner

Have you ever tried to learn something, got frustrated, and gave up? We all have. And if it happens only occasionally, it’s not a problem.

However, chronic frustration with learning may indicate a problem with emotional intelligence. Learning requires emotional intelligence. Your ability to learn hinges on your emotional state while learning.

[ref]O’Connor, J. (2001). NLP Workbook: A Practical Guide to Achieving the Results You Want. Thorsons.[/ref]

You’ll learn faster and easier when you are in a state of wonder and curiosity, rather than frustration and doubt.

Your ability to learn is your greatest asset. The more you seek educational opportunities, the more you’ll improve your ability to learn. And you’ll be more emotionally intelligent as a result.

Emotionally intelligent people use their emotions to guide them to a richer learning experience. For example, you can approach learning with curiosity and a willingness to make mistakes. In the emotionally intelligent individual, feelings of frustration are simple reminders to step back, take a break, and get perspective. 

#9 Match your emotional state with the task at hand

In a bad mood? Now might not be the best time to write that nasty email to your colleague. Step away from the computer. Come back when you feel better.

People with low emotional intelligence often fail to recognize that their emotional state is inappropriate for the situation. As you improve your emotional intelligence, you can recognize your emotional state, and choose activities that are best served by that emotion.

 #10 Set boundaries

For emotionally intelligent people, all emotions are useful. If you feel chronically frustrated or overwhelmed in your life or relationships, you probably don’t have an emotional problem. Rather, your emotions are saying to you “Dude, where’s your boundaries?” Feelings of frustration happen when your boundaries are stepped on. The boundary may be out of your awareness. And the function of your emotions is to tell you, “Hey, you need to speak up for yourself. That’s not OK.”

Start making a note of the kinds of situations in which you feel frustrated. What do these situations have in common? Which of your needs are not being met? Make a plan to speak up and ask for what you’re needing. You’ll feel better, and you will learn that behind every “negative emotion” is a helpful learning lesson.

#11 Control your emotions

Think back on your success as a professional. When you were at your best, how did you feel ? You probably felt excited, relaxed, confident, and other similar emotions. It wasn’t your emotional state that created your success, but it did help you mobilize your abilities in constructive ways. People with high emotional intelligence have the ability to control their emotions. Emotions can be difficult to control directly. However, the way you feel is a result of your thinking and behavior.

For example, consider the sales professional who reminds himself/herself of their failures before making a presentation. Do you think they will be in the correct emotional state to make the sale? Of course not! Now, suppose they did the opposite, reviewing their successful presentations, even giving themselves some words of encouragement like “I’ve got this!” They would go into that presentation feeling more confident. And this might make the difference between getting the sale and not.

You may or may not see yourself as an emotionally intelligent person. Regardless of where you stand today, you can improve your emotional intelligence, be more confident, lower anxiety, and get more out of life. Follow these 11 tips, and you’ll soon benefit from improved emotional intelligence. Stay tuned for more articles on this subject. In the meantime, get my book on freeing yourself from anxiety and feeling like yourself again.