With additions by Ricky Derisz

It has been referred to as “a ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering idea” at the centre of innovation in the corporate world. It’s one of the most important additions to the conversation on self-improvement and well-being in the past ten years. It’s been described as the secret of healthy relationships and a vital skill in leaders. What is this illustrious skill? Emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence (or EQ) helps us interact with others more effectively, and us being social creatures, this makes a big difference in a lot of ways, from our level of success to even how happy we are. Unfortunately, as important as emotional intelligence may be – many of us have a low EQ. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to improve your emotional intelligence and how you navigate both your own emotions and critical interactions with others.

Emotional intelligence is a vital skill if you’re looking to boost your chances of success, enhance your interpersonal relationships or step into (or step up within) a leadership role. Learn about the importance of emotional intelligence, and discover 7 ways to improve this valuable skill. Let’s begin.

What is emotional intelligence?

“Some of the greatest moments in human history were fueled by emotional intelligence.”– Adam Grant

Emotional intelligence is defined as: “The capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).”

The term is often abbreviated to ‘EI’ (emotional intelligence), ‘EQ’ (emotional quotient) or ‘EIQ’ (emotional intelligence quotient). Although emotional intelligence was introduced as a psychological theory by Peter Salovey and John Mayer in the early 90s, the concept rose to popularity due to Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best-seller, Emotional Intelligence. It’s an essential quality in leadership, success, and teamwork.

Emotional intelligence isn’t only for the workplace — away from a professional setting, emotional intelligence is linked to greater marriage satisfaction, and long-term, sustainable relationships. It’s the ability to understand, regulate, and process your own emotions, whilst understanding others. 

To further understand what emotional intelligence is, Daniel Goleman breaks this down into five components:

  1. Self-awareness: The golden rule. Without awareness, it’s difficult to gain clarity on the different thoughts and emotions you experience.
  2. Self-regulation: Building upon awareness is the ability to regulate. That means not acting impulsively or getting “caught up” in emotions, and taking time to respond from a more rational perspective.
  3. Internal motivation: Linked to intrinsic motivation, this is the ability to be driven from an inner set of values, goals, and visions. These act as guiding principles ahead of external rewards.
  4. Empathy: Naturally, someone with high emotional intelligence is able to understand and empathize with others, to see their point of view, to enquire.
  5. Social skills: Emotional intelligence doesn’t stop at the individual. It benefits interpersonal relationships, improving social harmony and bonding (an example of why EQ is so important in leadership).

What are some emotional intelligence examples? In a work setting, this could look like not feeling offended or becoming defensive when a colleague criticizes your workload. In an interpersonal relationship, it might look like remaining cool under pressure, noticing when you become angry or frustrated, and self-regulating before an important conversation.

Notice that this isn’t just one thing, but it encompasses everything that has to do with emotions and how we deal with them both in ourselves and others. An absence of emotional intelligence leads to being reactive, being at the mercy of difficult emotions, not being fully present to the needs of others, or not understanding the needs or wants of others, all of which can prevent you from learning, growing, or moving in the right direction.

How to improve emotional intelligence

what is emotional intelligence
(Luis Alvarez / Getty)

Emotional intelligence isn’t an abstract gift only a blessed few are born with, but a tangible, learnable skill. There’s no upper limit to improving emotional intelligence; it’s developed through trial and error, and very much practiced in the “heat of the moment” when faced with difficult interpersonal situations or challenging emotions.

The below practices will benefit all interpersonal situations, from high-pressured leadership situations to interpersonal dynamics:

1. Develop self-awareness

If this is the golden rule, it stands to reason that self-awareness is the foundation emotional intelligence is built upon. A big part of EQ is your ability to recognize your own emotions and to tell them apart with clarity. That includes being able to perceive emotions mindfully in the present moment and to gain a deeper understanding of the wealth of feelings you experience throughout the day, rather than numb or push them away.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to developing self-awareness. Meditation is a vital training ground, not least because it offers insight into the nature of the mind, which can then be applied to real-life situations. But it’s not the only tool in the path towards the Greek ethos of “know thyself.”

I’ve found that developing self-awareness through practices like self-reflection and journaling, provides a strong foundation for understanding your inner landscape. As an additional bonus, this helps us discern the emotions of others. 

2. Learn how to label and respect emotions

Self-regulation doesn’t mean the suppression of emotions. As Carl Jung proclaimed: “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.” The goal isn’t to sanitize emotions or not to feel anything, but to be in touch with them without being ruled by them. That consists of two different skills — the ability to “be with” difficult emotions, and the ability to label them in a way that creates a healthy distance from them.

Both of these are developed through mindfulness. Being with difficult emotions means not attempting to run away from them when they surface, but allowing them to fulfill their natural life cycle and dissipate. This involved tuning into the different sensations in the body, slowing your breathing, taking a moment to feel, respecting their presence.

The second might seem like a contradiction. To be in touch with emotions, why create distance? Well through mindfulness, you appreciate that there can be space around emotions. Labeling them, for example, “I am noticing anxiety,” creates a sense of acceptance that the emotion is present, without it becoming the totality of your experience.

3. Observe thoughts and beliefs

A great technique is cognitive distancing, which is a modern term for a practice that has its roots in many ancient philosophies, including Stoicism and Buddhism. Through self-awareness, you learn how to view your thoughts and beliefs, without mistaking them for truth. That means seeing how they appear, and choosing not to immediately act on them.

For example, let’s say your boss overlooks a vital contribution you made in a big project during a team meeting, you start to feel angry or frustrated. Through self-awareness, you notice narratives begin to form, stories in the mind that contribute to these feelings and make the situation even worse.

By becoming aware, you can step back from the loops in mind, reframe, or choose a more skillful approach. Acting upon a thought such as “my boss completely disrespected me, how dare they!” might lead to a reactive, emotional fuelled outburst. Witnessing this thought, before stepping back and reframing, gives space to choose a different approach. You might self-regulate and ask your boss for a one-on-one discussion, where you explain your disappointment in a balanced way.

In observing thoughts clearly, you develop an appreciation that they don’t have to be taken as seriously. Many are based on assumptions, insecurity, or negative ruminations.

4. Learn from observing others

emotional intelligence definition
(Hinterhaus Productions / Getty)

For this method, turn outward to work on discerning the emotions of others. I want you to visit a coffee shop, mall, or some other busy public place where people will (likely) never notice that you’re discreetly watching them. Specifically, I want you to search out two people who are having a conversation and try to discern what emotions they’re feeling as they go about their conversation.

This might sound weird at first, however, learning to read the emotions of others is an important part of emotional intelligence, and watching others converse can help you develop the ability to detect various emotions on others’ faces and in their body language.

5. Self-Evaluate by asking yourself powerful questions

Journaling was mentioned above as a tool for developing self-awareness, but what’s a practical application? One way of journaling for emotional intelligence is to evaluate your thoughts, emotions, and actions. This requires self-honesty. The blank page of a journal is a chance for the truth to surface, if you allow it.

Ask yourself powerful questions. How do you act around others? Do you lose your cool or jump to conclusions? Do you judge others harshly? Do you focus on getting your point of view across ahead of making an effort to understand where others are coming from? Do your emotions cause you to shrink or puff your ego?

Journaling in this way isn’t easy, because it forces you to confront yourself. But by exploring these aspects of yourself on the page, you’re able to create clarity, know which areas require work, and slowly start to make changes in the future.

6. Practice mindful communication

Mindful communication is the practice of being fully present to interacting with others. This includes awareness of your thoughts and emotions, and being present to the person directly in front of you. The tenets of mindfulness — non-judgment, receptivity, curiosity, and compassion —  are extended to social interactions. This applies to listening and speaking.

“Listening is one of our greatest personal natural resources, yet it is by far one of our most undeveloped abilities,” Rebecca Sharif writes in the Zen of Listening. Deep listening is a mindful practice in itself. So often we wait our turn to speak. Instead, consider, what emotions are they exhibiting? What words are they using? How else (perhaps physically) are they expressing themselves? Learning to identify these signs is a huge part of emotional intelligence.

The second effort is mindful speech. This is about being in tune with your own emotions while in conversation with another and how your words can and do impact them. Self-awareness and self-regulation play a big role here. Before speaking, consider where you’re talking from, and what impact your words might have, especially if responsible for leading a group of people.

7. Change your perspective

Lastly, practicing a little change of perspective can help you develop your emotional intelligence in a different, more indirect way. By changing your perspective, I’m referring to changing your frame of reference when interacting with yourself and others.

The way we look at ourselves and the world around us is affected by various internal beliefs. It’s the perspective we go about life with and it influences everything we do. However, if you practice asking questions like, “is there another way to look at this?”, you can often unearth a new way to see things, both within yourself and with others. This especially helps identify things you hadn’t noticed before and leads to a better understanding of what others might be feeling.

In conclusion – Developing emotional intelligence is a process

Emotional intelligence is a critical skill that helps us move about life in a more effective way, from handling our own emotions to interacting with others. Invest time into improving your own EQ to take advantage of this invaluable skill to move your life and career forward.

The benefits of emotional intelligence are far-reaching. Feeling confident in your ability to self-regulate, you’re more likely to take chances. Being aware of yourself, you’re more in tune with what you want from life. With greater empathy, you’re able to cultivate deeper intimacy in personal relationships. And, in combination, you’re more likely to successfully lead others.

There’s no exam for emotional intelligence. There’s no score or grade. Instead, it’s a skill best approached as an ever-evolving, life-long practice. Every moment in life provides an opportunity to become more aware, more compassionate, more empathetic, and more in tune with ourselves, others, and the world around us.