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For those who grew up believing that hard work and good grades were the surest path to success, it may come as a surprise that emotional (not intellectual) intelligence is among the strongest predictors of success. But why is it so important, and how do you develop emotional intelligence?
What exactly is emotional intelligence?
If you needed someone to listen to you, who would you call? Chances are, that person has high emotional intelligence. We all know people who seem to know exactly what to say to make us feel better — or even seem to be able to articulate our feelings better than we can.
But emotional intelligence is more than just having and expressing empathy or sympathy. At its simplest, people with emotional intelligence don’t assume that everyone will interpret or respond just like them.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand feelings and how they shape thoughts and actions. People high in emotional intelligence (often referred to as a high EQ) are able to perceive their own feelings as well as that of others. They can anticipate how their actions may affect other people. Equally important, they also have a greater understanding of the series of emotions and actions that might have led the person in front of them to be where they are at a decision. They can also use this understanding of their own and others’ emotions to make decisions about what actions to take, recognizing that different people will react differently.
From a personal thriving perspective, people with high emotional intelligence have the ability to examine the root of their own negative feelings, reframing and working with them instead of becoming overwhelmed. People with high emotional intelligence are comfortable using many different strategies to understand and regulate their own emotions, but they are also open to experiencing them.
The characteristics of emotional intelligence
It's no secret that some people are inherently talented at communicating with others. You may know someone who has always been sensitive, empathic or had a knack for understanding how people feel. However, although it's possible to have naturally high emotional intelligence, most experts believe that several characteristics of emotional intelligence can be improved or taught.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman first described the key characteristics of emotional intelligence in his 1995 book on the topic. After years of continued research, he distilled his original model into four main attributes, or “ingredients,” for emotional intelligence.
4 ingredients of emotional intelligence:
1. Self awareness
Can you describe what you’re good at, what you need to work on, what triggers you, or how you’re feeling right now? The ability to assess and express your emotions, strengths, and weaknesses is at the core of self awareness. Self awareness is strongly related to self confidence. Those that understand their feelings, motivations, and strengths are more confident and more likely to take chances.
2. Self management
A large part of self management is emotional control, which has obvious implications for the workplace. People tend to dislike working with individuals who are prone to emotional outbursts. These effects are magnified at work, but are no less damaging in personal relationships. Emotionally volatile relationships can become dangerous, and numerous studies have documented the ill effects of emotionally inconsistent parenting.
3. Social awareness
Ever walked into a room and immediately known that something was wrong? That “vibe” you read is social awareness at work. The information you receive while interacting with others is important in helping you determine how to behave — and how that behavior will be received. You may not be consciously paying much attention to it, but in any conversation you make dozens of small adjustments to your tone, speed, volume, gestures, and pitch based on the cues you receive.
4. Relationship management
If you’re responsible for leading or managing a team, relationship management is possibly the attribute that is most directly related to your success. This trait is about your ability to inspire, motivate, encourage, and influence others. Effective teamwork is highly correlated to relationship management. Because this skill is so critical, many organizations prioritize training in this area of emotional intelligence.
Why emotional intelligence is crucial for professional success
Emotionally intelligent people are certain to find need for their super-power in nearly any field. That's because their ability to regulate their own emotions — as well as understand the emotions of others — makes them skillful communicators. It’s no surprise that they are the people that everyone else wants to have on their team. Whether you're working with clients or in a research lab, with a large team or small, everyone benefits from an increased level of emotional intelligence
Emotionally intelligent people can make others feel good about themselves, which helps them to build relationships quickly. Because other people feel comfortable around them, they tend to have an easier time asking for and receiving help. Communication skills are critical in leadership roles, which makes those with high EQ more likely to be considered for management roles.
Emotional intelligence is valuable in other less obvious ways in a modern workplace. It helps a team leader manage and direct the emotions of their teams in problem-solving and developing solutions to new opportunities. It helps them understand what will motivate or demotivate others and use that to mobilize others: will they respond to a purpose-focused argument, an incentive, or the technical challenge? Does your peer respond to burning platforms or compelling opportunities?
Although those with high emotional intelligence are often considered “natural leaders,” they tend to do well in any role. One study found that of the highest performers surveyed, 90 percent of them displayed high EQ — while of the lowest performers, 80 percent had low EQ.
If you want others to see you as a competent leader, developing your emotional intelligence is key. However, increasing your EQ can have a direct impact on your personal and professional success in more than one way.
7 skills that improve when you develop emotional intelligence:
- Listening. People with high EQ are great listeners. They are able to understand what is — and isn’t — being said.
- Communication. Those that are emotionally aware use more specific language to describe their feelings. This makes it easier for them to ask for and receive help.
- Relationship building. Because people love to be around those with high emotional intelligence, they have an easier time developing relationships. They intrinsically understand the needs of others.
- Resilience. Since high EQ people are more aware of their emotions and triggers, they tend to manage stress more effectively and have a more consistent emotional baseline.
- Conflict resolution. Unsurprisingly, a better handle on emotions and how your actions impact others leads to smoother conflict resolution.
- Decision making. Higher EQ often means a deep connection to values. This makes decision-making easier and more intuitive.
- Leadership. Because they seem more emotionally stable, better able to utilize feedback, and skilled in working with others, emotionally intelligent people are often standout choices for leadership roles.
4 ways to develop emotional intelligence
How do you learn to develop emotional intelligence? If you tend to shy away from people, have difficulty communicating, or had negative experiences in the past, it may seem difficult to learn how to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace. Those who aren’t comfortable with examining their own feelings and the emotions of others tend to default to feeling threatened — which makes it nearly impossible to be vulnerable.
A coach can be an invaluable partner in this development process. Coaches can provide an objective opinion of where you may benefit from developing communication skills and how those efforts will align with your long-term goals. The next time you meet with a coach or a trusted partner, try this one-question emotional intelligence test from Inc:
In what situations do I find that emotions work against me?
There are many ways to answer this question, and many angles to consider it from. At work, you may be paralyzed by impostor syndrome, while at home, you may have a difficult time communicating with your spouse. Carefully considering this question will help you determine where you’ll make the biggest impact in improving your emotional intelligence.
4 strategies to improve emotional intelligence
1. Build self-awareness
One of the key attributes of emotionally intelligent people is the ability to recognize and manage their own emotions. By far, the single most important thing you can do to build emotional intelligence is to develop an awareness of how your feelings and triggers drive your behavior. This kind of work isn’t easy, and can even be painful. Working with a coach or therapist can help you understand yourself with compassion.
Action step: Label your emotions as specifically as you possibly can. Instead of settling for annoyed or angry, try disappointed, frustrated, threatened, anxious, or apprehensive. Does another “label” feel more true?
2. Embrace constructive conflict
Conflict is rarely comfortable, especially in the workplace. We tend to unilaterally see it as a negative. However, constructive conflicts can foster camaraderie, reduce groupthink, and encourage growth. Reframing conflict as a necessary part of a thriving workplace, and recognizing that the other party may not perceive it as negatively as you do, can help you feel less threatened when it arises. For example, for some people, friction and disagreement is a sign of respect for you as a professional, taking ideas seriously, and the importance of the stakes. Conflict is a means to reach better answers.
Action step: Practice taking responsibility. Many people shy away from conflict and feedback because they don’t want to feel as if they did something wrong. However, conflict doesn’t have to be about right or wrong. It is about seeing a situation through another perspective and learning from it. Without focusing on blame, you can always decide to be part of improving a difficult situation.
3. Withhold judgement
It’s a common adage that we judge ourselves on our intentions, while we judge others on their actions. When something happens at work that doesn’t go the way you’d like, take your gut reaction “to trial.” Did this person really do something to you, or are you just concerned about the outcome? How can you understand the decisions they made in a different way?
Action step: Ask yourself, “Under what circumstances would I have made the same decision?” Changing perspective and putting yourself in the driver’s seat will help you build empathy and regain your sense of control.
4. Become a world-class listener
Emotional intelligence, like any other skill, benefits from practice. Work with your team to roleplay potentially difficult situations and how you would respond. Talking through these scenarios in a neutral setting will inevitably provide insight into the real concerns your team has. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it does make for more compassionate leaders.
Action step: The next time you’re in a conversation, notice if you’re listening for understanding or listening to respond. Challenge yourself to hear what the other person is saying, and then respond by rephrasing back to them. By listening carefully, you may catch more than what they said.
Developing emotional intelligence is about more than feelings or being a good listener. As you grow more comfortable with communication and understanding how emotions drive behavior, you’ll find yourself less frustrated, more resilient, and better able to embrace conflict when it arises. Learning to be at home with a variety of experiences and perspectives is at the heart of improving emotional intelligence.
BetterUp Staff Writer