We all have that friend who seems to move through the world with total ease. She flawlessly navigates conflicts with her roommate or partner, takes feedback at work in a positive and healthy way and always makes everyone around her feel pretty damn good. The secret that makes people like this so successful? Emotional intelligence.
The concept became part of psychologists’ vocabulary back in the ’90s and it is basically a whole new way to think about what it means to be intelligent. “Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, manage and use your emotions to function in a balanced way out in the world,” says Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, a therapist in New York.
It sounds deceptively simple but it can be really challenging for some people. Possessing emotional intelligence means having the ability to identify what you are feeling — a process that, let’s be honest, can be tricky in and of itself. Are you really pissed off at your friend for blowing you off while she was studying for her grad school finals or are you actually feeling jealous or insecure that she is working towards something she is really passionate about? Once you have pinpointed and appropriately labeled what you are feeling, emotional intelligence becomes a skill wherein you “use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior,” says Franklin Porter, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York, and then manage or adjust your emotions to adapt and ultimately achieve your goals.
That same process also applies to your ability to understand the people around you. “The central tenets of emotional intelligence are your ability to recognize, understand, and manage your own emotions, as well as the ability to recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others,” says Porter.
Why Emotional Intelligence is So Important for Your Personal Life
“Emotional intelligence is critical in our personal lives because emotions will inevitably come into play in most of our interpersonal relationships,” says Porter. The inability to understand your emotions or to express them is often at the root of the fights and frustrations that complicate otherwise great relationships.
When someone lacks emotional intelligence, one of two things likely happen: They get passive-aggressive and angry, or they have trouble understanding and supporting the people around them.
Any time you feel intensely, ask yourself what you are feeling.
The former is often the most recognizable. “When your feelings are bottled up, they invariably leak out in unconstructive ways,” says Porter. Or, they eventually blow [off] like the top of a pressure cooker. “An otherwise innocuous remark could be the kindling that sparks the fury of pent-up anger, eliciting a harsh response seemingly out of nowhere,” Porter says.
Here is an example: “If you are upset at a friend for forgetting your birthday but you respond by ignoring her calls, then you are not exhibiting the highest degree of emotional intelligence,” says Hendrix. It is passive-aggressive, and probably will just leave you feeling worse about the whole situation — now not only are you hurt she forgot your birthday but now you are not speaking and it has become “a thing”. “Emotional intelligence is a very important skill to have personally because being able to be aware of our emotions and regulate them affects our relationships,” Hendrix says.
In this situation, the emotionally intelligent response would be to “answer your friend’s call, tell her you were hurt that you didn’t hear from her on your birthday and explain why,” Hendrix says. “Your friend might respond with an honest ‘oops’ and you would both feel better and move on.”
The other way emotional IQ can be particularly powerful is in understanding others. “An example would be the ability to recognize when a partner, who may be venting about a perceived injustice, maybe coming from an emotional place and seeking to be understood and supported,” Porter says. “All too often, a partner may have difficulty recognizing or understanding that need, and so offers a solution rather than a hug.”
It is easier said than done — but that is why they call it intelligence.
How Emotional Intelligence Can Help Your Professional Life
“Most people spend more time with work colleagues than they do with friends or family,” says Porter. “In my practice, I’ve heard countless accounts of a job being intolerable, not due to the nature of the work but rather to conflict-laden, sometimes toxic relationships with one or more colleagues.”
Enter emotional intelligence. “If you have a high emotional IQ, you are able to use and manage your emotions and help those on your team manage theirs as well — but you can’t take anyone where you haven’t been yourself,” says Hendrix. Say your team is annoyed that your boss never sends feedback until the 11th hour, leaving you all in a scramble to make changes. Resenting her is going to be less effective than having a neutral conversation about how you can all work more productively.
Emotional IQ at the office can make or break a job for you. “Emotions invariably underlie work conflicts,” says Porter. “The ability to address them, both by the expression of one’s own and demonstrated effort to understand those of the colleague, can go a long way to defusing tension.”
How to Improve Your Emotional IQ
There is not a single situation in life that does not require some level of emotional intelligence. The good news is, even if you are not the therapist of your friend group, you can improve your emotional IQ with a little practice.
“Any time you feel intensely, ask yourself what you are feeling,” says Hendrix. If you are not sure, you can literally Google it. “Look up a list of feeling words on Google and choose a few that resonate until you get the hang of it,” Hendrix says.
When we are upset about something, we tend to create a story around it — i.e. my male colleague cut me off in a meeting with the CEO because he is sexist. “Ask yourself the story you are telling yourself about the negative emotion, what you feel because you are telling yourself that story and challenge this story if there is a chance it might not be accurate,” says Hendrix. Journaling can really help with this, adds Porter. Finally, it is important to validate your emotions. “Why wouldn’t you be upset your colleague cut you off in a meeting with the CEO,” Hendrix says. (Working with a trained therapist can be especially helpful here.)
After you go through this cycle, “take a feeling pulse to see if maybe your upset is not affecting you as intensely,” Hendrix says. “Wash, rinse, repeat.”
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