What is emotional intelligence and 4 ways to improve it

  • improving your emotional intelligence-min

Why do some people succeed and others don’t? Being bright, well-educated, and motivated isn’t enough to get you all the way there. So if success isn’t about being smart, what explains it? It’s not IQ, but EQ. And to improve it, you first have to understand what emotional intelligence is.

EQ refers to emotional intelligence – the ability to identify and manage our own emotions as well as those of others around us. Most important, it’s something you can train and improve through practice.

In this post, we’re going to walk you through what emotional intelligence is, how it plays out in the brain, as well as four actionable tactics you can implement to build up your EQ. Specifically, you will learn exercises to help:

  • Cultivate self-awareness
  • Develop your self-management
  • Gain social awareness
  • Maintain relationship management

As always, our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have examined approximately 30 papers in clinical psychology, neuroscience, motivation and emotion psychology, and social psychology. The end result is a comprehensive, science-backed guide for cultivating higher emotional intelligence.


What is emotional intelligence: through a story

Let’s start with a story. Jennifer was on a camping trip with her friends in Alaska. Her and her three friends are avid hikers and campers, experienced with the outdoors. One night, however, Jennifer forgot to empty her camping pack which had some leftover food from lunch. That night a large grizzly approached the tent. Scared, Jennifer started to panic, screaming for her friends who were in tents nearby. Thoughts of survival flooded her mind. Survival mode is the absence of EQ. This commotion made the bear more aggressive, now trying to break its way in by ripping apart the tent. Over the terror, Jennifer could hear one of her friends yell out, “play dead, you need to play dead!”. She remembered all of her training and in the moment, playing dead was the last thing her emotions, body, and mind were telling her to do. Somehow she did it anyway. Her control mode was the presence of EQ. Jennifer laid there quietly while the grizzly rummaged around the tent and poked around at her. Eventually, the bear got bored and moved on its way away from the camp, leaving Jennifer unharmed.

Though it’s an extreme example that you’re likely to never encounter, it’s a good lesson in emotional intelligence. The battle of EQ in the brain, its presence vs. absence, is something you experience multiple times a day. Controlling behavior against a wave of intense, often negative emotions is the crucial element of EQ. And it is what’s needed to ensure survival (against grizzlies) and success (in your profession).

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What is emotional intelligence and its function in the brain

Your brain is hardwired to give emotions all the power. Here’s how it works: everything you see, smell, hear, and touch runs through your body in the form of electrical signals that pass between the peripheral nervous system (the body) and the central nervous system (up the spinal cord to the brain).

emotional intelligence in the brain

source – Adapted from Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry

These signals eventually reach the brain’s frontal lobe, the executive system of the brain responsible for encoding complex logic and rational information. But, along the way, the signals first pass through your emotional centres of the limbic system. In the brain, emotions take precedence. On the scale of evolution, the executive system is brand new. But the limbic system is ancient. It’s hundreds of millions of years old.

As a result, the brain is thousands of times more efficient in running its emotional programs. But the efficiency and rapidity of the limbic system isn’t a good thing for emotional intelligence. It needs the executive centres of the brain to “pump the breaks” on our behaviors and actions. To have emotional intelligence is to override the dominant, default responses of our anciently evolved and (poorly designed) emotional brain. In other words, emotional intelligence is the communication between the limbic (emotional) areas and executive (rational) areas in order to facilitate a behavioral response that is more measured.

According to this, emotional intelligence isn’t about getting rid of emotions. Rather it’s about having control over them and using them to their advantage.


Four factors of emotional intelligence

The discovery of emotional intelligence in 1995 helped explain why people with average IQ can outperform those with high IQ 70% of the time; while those with high IQ can only outperform those with average IQ 20% of the time. Furthermore, it gave insight as to why IQ can only predict on average 6% of success in a given job.

If effectively managing our emotions is so important for success, why are people so bad at it? And why aren’t more people and organizations paying attention to emotional intelligence? Your logical reasoning gets hijacked by emotions all the time.

Your brain is wired to react first and think later — you have little control over this part of the process. But you can gain control over the thoughts and actions that follow the emotional reaction.

Emotional intelligence is made up of four core skills which fall under two main competencies: personal competence and social competence.

Personal competence contains your self-awareness and self-management skills. Overall, this refers to your ability to focus inward on yourself rather than your outward observations. Your personal competence is your ability to become aware of your emotions when they’re happening by managing your actions and behaviors accordingly.

Social competence is your ability to be socially aware of other people’s moods, behaviors, and the reasons for their behavior. This is more of an external observation which allows you to improve or maintain the quality of your relationships. Social competence is made up of social awareness and relationship management skills.

formula for emotional intelligence

Within each of the competencies (personal competence and social competence) we’re going to work through awareness skills first (“what you feel”) before moving onto management skills (“what you do”). This will help you to first understand how you’re feeling before acting upon those feelings.


Cultivate self-awareness

cultivating self-awareness

Self-awareness refers to your ability to accurately read your emotions and recognize their impact. It has been found that only 36% of people are able to accurately identify their emotions as they happen. Self-awareness involves self-assessment of your strengths, limitations, and self-confidence. In other words, understanding your emotions is the key to making sense of them. This will require you to spend time with your feelings to figure out why they are there and what to do with them.

Tactic #1: An investigation into the ripple effect

Take a moment to think about what happens when a droplet falls into water. The initial drop expands into ripples in all directions. Your emotions work the same way. Think of your emotions like the droplet in this example. When you have an emotional outburst it will send ripples both internally and outward to the people around you.

emotional reaction

Let’s say as a leader you express clear frustration with a colleague in front of the rest of the team. In that moment you might feel like your emotional lashing-out is directed only toward that individual and that it’s warranted. The fact is, your emotional reactivity will be felt across the team. The cascading ripples will create a team more concerned with playing it safe, for fear of reprisal, rather than taking risks and thinking creatively.

You don’t want this. Take these steps to prevent that from happening:

Step 1: Put on your scientist hat. This step is all about investigation.

  • Think of about 3-5 events where you’ve experienced an outward emotional reaction.
  • Think of both positive and negative examples.
  • Think about the details of the event. What was your tone, body language, level of loudness like? How many people were around?
  • Next, think about how this emotional reaction affected those around you.
  • What was their response? For the subsequent couple of hours, how was their behavior toward you and others?
  • Research has shown that negative emotions spread faster and for longer than positive ones. Is this what you found?

Step 2: Narrow in on your findings.

  • Research has shown that our emotions can affect those close to us a lot more than those who aren’t around us as much. This step is all about narrowing in on the influence that your reactions (both positive and negative) can have on your team and close relationships.
  • Ask three people — from closest to you to more distant — about how your emotional reactions affect them. For example, consider asking your partner, a close friend, and a co-worker.
  • To make this easier for them to reflect on, give them an example or two of situations where you’ve showed a reaction toward them or around them.
  • Ask them how this made them feel, how long it lasted, if it changed their mood, etc.

Your emotions are powerful and this activity is to help you realise the impact they can have. The better you’re able to understand how your emotions ripple outward toward those around you, the more prepared you’ll be to decide which types of ripples you want to create. This will contribute to you developing your personal-competence skill of self-awareness.


Develop your self-management

developing self-management

Self-management is dependent on your self-awareness. Remember, you need to first understand “how I feel” before figuring out “what I do.” It happens when you choose to act or not act on an emotional response.

This skill is important for directing your behavior in a positive manner. Sometimes, your emotional response to a situation can elicit high intensity emotions that cloud your judgment to the point where your best course of action becomes difficult to see. In these cases, exhibiting self-management would be seen through your ability to tolerate unstable situations as you explore your options.

This skill is more than simply resisting explosive reactions, and more about putting your momentary emotions on hold to pursue the bigger picture.

Tactic #2: Emotion vs. reason rule

Step 1: Create a rule.

Next time you get into a stressful situation or a situation where it’s imperative you make a decision effectively, make a firm rule where you grab a piece of paper and leave the room for approximately 5 minutes. For example, let’s say one of your employees keeps pushing back deadlines for a product you’re trying to release. They come up to you for the third time telling you they need a deadline pushed back even though they know the importance of the deadline. How do you react?

Step 2: Draw out a simple chart with two columns and the labels ‘Emotion’ and ‘Reason’, like so:

emotion vs reason rule

Step 3: Next, take a few moments to jot down what your emotions are telling you to do and then write down what your logical reasoning is telling you to do.

emotion vs reason rule complete

Step 4: Take a step back and take a look at the two columns. Where is your emotion clouding your judgement or where is your reasoning trying to ignore important cues from your emotions? Both of these situations aren’t helpful. You need to make sure that you have a good balance between the two.

  • In the example above, you can see that the emotional reactions of this person are aggressive while the logical items are closer to the ideal. This tells us that the emotional reaction here is not warranted. Thus it’s better to rely on the logical solutions in its place.

Completing this activity will make it much easier for you to see which side — either emotional or rational — is taking over your decision making. Again, this will help you improve your personal competence skills of self-management.

(Bonus aside: For more on these sorts of tactics that deal with your emotional and rational thinking, check out this other framework on how to train the wise mind).


Gain social awareness

gain social awareness

A major component of social awareness is empathy. This refers to your ability to accurately detect emotions from other people in order to fully understand what is going on in the situation. Research has shown that empathy levels have been decreasing over the past 30 years, with a sharp decline seen over the past 10.

Once again, remember that the first part of each competence is always about ‘what you feel’ or rather an investigation: put on your scientist hat once again.

Tactic #3: Head-to-toe technique

Small changes in body language are a big part of the understanding of how people are feeling. In this tactic we’re going to take you through the head-to-toe technique to help you become aware of how those around you could be feeling.

head to toe technique

source – global.handelsblatt.com

Step 1: Start with the eyes as you will get the most information out of them.

  • If they maintain eye contact this can signify that a person is trustworthy.
  • If they’re shifting their eyes around or blinking a lot, this could be a sign that they’re being deceptive.
  • Relaxed eye movements and attentive eye-contact can signify sincerity.

Step 2: Next, take a look at the person’s smile

  • Is their smile forced or natural? You can tell by the crinkle around the eyes. Research suggests that if the crinkle is not there, it’s most likely fake or not associated with pleasantness (i.e. real).
  • Real smiles change quickly from a small smile to one that comprises the full face.

Step 3: Now, head to the limbs. Take a look at the person’s shoulders, arms, torso, legs and feet.

  • Are their shoulds upright or slouched? A slouched posture can indicate a person is feeling insecure whereas upright can mean they’re confident.
  • Are their arms, hands, legs and feet fidgety or calm? Being fidgety can mean that someone is uncomfortable, feeling anxious or frustrated.

Step 4: take a look at their feet.

  • If their toes are pointed toward you they’re engaged. If they’re pointed away, they’d most likely like to exit the conversation.

Take note of body language when first meeting someone, during meetings or when having a simple conversation. Become aware of body language cues that indicate the opposite state of what a person is saying out loud. For example, this would be like a person acting very confident and arrogant but maintaining a slouched and inward posture. This will help you interact with them appropriately. The more you practice, the more in tune you’ll become with how people are really feeling.


Maintain relationship management

maintain relationship management

Relationship management refers to your ability to use your awareness of others’ emotions as well as your own, in order to manage your relationships effectively. To improve this skill, you must be attuned to your own (or be able to influence) the emotions of another person. This skill is very much dependent on the other three, because if you’re unable to control your own emotional outbursts, chances are you will be less effective in your relationships. In fact, research has found that self-awareness is a precursor for effective self-management.

In order to improve this skill, you need to practice bringing optimism to all relationships, including the more challenging ones. This is often the most challenging to practice under times of stress. Conflicts in the workplace tend to be the most difficult as they fester due to people avoiding problems rather than facing them constructively. This brings us into our fourth tactic.

Tactic #4: Tackle tough conversations

Let’s face it, difficult conversations are inevitable and how you handle these conversations is important for your relationship management. Here’s a way to use EQ skills to navigate difficult conversations while being careful not to jeopardize the relationship. Let’s use an example. Your employee Kayli was not considered for a promotion even though she was sure she would be. She comes to you and asks for an explanation in a defensive tone, insecure posture, and shaky voice.

Step 1: Start the conversation with an agreement.

  • Sharing common ground is important especially if you think the conversation could lead to conflict.
  • In this example you might say, “First, I would like to express that I value your work and I’m sorry you feel upset that you weren’t considered for the promotion. I would like to hear your thoughts on this and see if there is something we can do to work through this.”

Step 2: Ask Kayli to explain her side.

  • People get frustrated when they aren’t heard.
  • In this case, explain to her that hearing her frustrations and her side is very important to you.
  • By doing this, you’re showing you care and are willing to work with her to reconcile, which will deepen your relationship and trust.

Step 3: Do not think about what you’re going to say next.

  • Your brain is not good at multitasking, so use your EQ to direct your full attention to the conversation while not worrying about what you’re going to say next.
  • Try not to defend yourself. Leave your ego out of it and give her the floor.

Step 4: Help Kayli understand your side.

  • Clearly describe your thoughts, feelings, and reasons behind your decision.
  • In this case you would want to give accurate and beneficial feedback that she can work with. Remember to be compassionate.

Step 5: Move the conversation forward.

  • Offer suggestions on where to go from here.
  • In this case, you could tell her that you’re glad she came to you and that you were able to discuss things. You could also mention that you’re interested in helping her in her development. Offer some ways in which you could do this.

Step 6: Keep in touch

  • Check in frequently with the person after your conversation has finished. If done properly, maintenance after a discussion like this will keep the person satisfied with the relationship.
  • In this case, you could hold quarterly meetings with Kayli to discuss her progress and career advancement.

Use these steps to work through difficult conversations and expand your social competence through strengthening your relationship management skills.


Recap on what’s emotional intelligence and how to improve it

In this post, we explained the components of what emotional intelligence is and walked you through 4 tactics which can be used to improve your EQ functioning. Most importantly, it’s all about awareness of how you feel and what you do with that awareness. Here is a summary of what was covered:

formula and tactics for emotional intelligence