Do you find yourself unable to control yourself when you’re angry, afraid, or sad? Do you feel like you can’t control yourself and live on impulse? Have you heard other people complain that you’re insensitive and hard to work with, and have those comments hindered your career?
If you answered yes, then you may have low emotional intelligence. Learning how to manage your emotions better can lead to better self-control, more focus, and improved relationships. You can start improving your emotional intelligence today.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to understand and manage their own emotions in addition to the emotions of others.
This kind of intelligence is said to involve three skills:
- Emotional awareness. You can identify the emotions within yourself and other people.
- Emotional utility, or finding the value of emotions to better work. This is especially true in creative fields or areas that require a lot of problem-solving.
- Emotion regulation. You can manage your emotions when necessary, and help others regulate theirs.
A study from 2010 found that those with high emotional intelligence can be a strong indicator of job performance in that emotionally intelligent people are better workers.
This could be due to the fact that those who are emotionally intelligent tend to be better at working even when they aren’t feeling very well. They also tend to understand the emotions of others and serve to better the emotional atmosphere by shaping the emotions of the room to be more positive and constructive to work.
Conversely, those with poor emotional intelligence tend to detract from a workplace environment. If they worked up at the poor drivers on the way to work, they might let that affect their performance. They might offer up excuses such as “I’m just not feeling very well, I need to take a break or just take it easy for the day” at such minor annoyances.
They might also react emotionally in ways that hinder workplace performance. These people could pick open arguments with their coworkers and try to get their way. They could also be conflict-avoidant and scared of emotions that they harbor resentment for the company until that resentment hinders their performance.
There’s a difference between talking about what upset you and getting upset at just talking. When you can calmly describe what’s frustrating you instead of getting emotional, you tend to benefit the argument and facilitate solutions. Otherwise, getting emotional, for the most part, stunts productivity and alters how other people feel in the workroom.
What’s Needed for High Emotional Intelligence
You should be able to identify emotions as they happen in both yourself and other people.
For example: Let’s say you’re in a meeting with your coworkers and your boss. One of your coworkers is highly talented at speaking completely in monologues without ever getting to the point, and you feel it wastes everyone’s time while you all sit there too polite to listen.
At the meeting, your coworker starts talking, and you can feel it’s going to be another broad waste of time. You feel your body starts to heat up — and not from sweating. Your mood dips and your skin feels like it’s being stretched full of hot air. In your mind’s eye, you’re telling your coworker to please stop talking (but in a more crass way).
An emotionally unintelligent person would respond to the coworker in passive-aggressive or downright hostile tones without realizing it. The air in the room feels tense, and everyone feels like they’re on edge as the meeting continues.
Emotional intelligence would allow you to say to yourself, “This man annoys me, and I’m feeling annoyed, but I’m going to find a way to steer the conversation in a more productive way without letting it get me too upset.” That person recognizes that they’re angry and what has angered them, but they continue on without it obstructing them.
The takeaway: Pay attention to yourself and how you feel. When your normal baseline gets thrown off, try to figure out what you’re feeling and why you feel that way. You not only become more aware of the emotions in yourself but how you could affect the emotions of others.
Feeling empathy is a psychological gift humans have. When someone feels anxious, then you share that anxiety and can see why the other person feels the way they do. Because you see their perspective, you can think of ways to alleviate the negative emotions another person feels.
People with high emotional intelligence also have high empathy. They can see how their behavior from the perspective of other people and make themselves better for it. It’s also the best way to figure out ways to use emotions for a greater purpose.
Let’s use the classic example of the opening sequence of Disney Pixar’s movie Up. The first ten minutes of the film are regarded as holding some of the most concentrated sadness in animation history. But it wouldn’t have been so impactful had the creators not have high empathy and emotional intelligence.
Seeing two people fall in love then, having one of them die, then seeing the surviving party live their life in sadness really tugs on the viewer’s emotions. And the music, lighting, and animation style drive home the point.
Thus, not only does empathy in emotional intelligence gives an individual more self-control and improve their relationships, it makes them a better creator too.
Emotionally intelligent people find ways to calm themselves down when they feel upset. Some people are born with naturally high tolerance to their emotions and thus rarely succumb to their emotions. But there are other ways to learn emotional self-control, which we’ll get to later in this article.
Signs of High Emotional Intelligence
If you see some of these traits in yourself, you probably already have high emotional intelligence. If you don’t, then you might find it beneficial to learn what it takes to have emotional intelligence.
You Think Before You Speak
This sentiment is especially true when you feel a highly charged emotion like anger. Those who can take a second to pause and collect themselves while in the throes of hard emotions show sky-high emotional intelligence since it’s hard to maintain such composure over yourself.
You Have a Wide Emotional Vocabulary
You know what anger, sadness, fear, shame, humiliation, and other emotions feel like in the moment.
This means that you can tell the ways in which emotion affects your behavior as your feeling it, so you’re not asking yourself, “Huh, I was really snarky and rude this night. I wonder why that is?” You know why.
Not only can you feel such obvious emotions, but you can feel subtler shades of emotion as well. When someone makes a rude comment about you, you know when you feel indignant and that you typically respond by being too attentive and agreeable to people’s needs.
You also know when you’ve reached your stress limit for the day and that you shouldn’t push through for a couple more hours just to get some extra work done. You know when you feel this way that you have to take a break, eat some food, and watch some television, for example.
Assertive yourself requires a lot of elements that some people are too afraid to feel. It requires discomfort, first of all, especially if you’re not naturally assertive. It would feel more comfortable to let other people do what they want and for you to accommodate.
It also means being comfortable with potentially upsetting people, which involves high self-esteem and confidence. You might feel like you’re crossing boundaries, even when you’re most likely asking for perfectly reasonable things.
Those with high emotional intelligence have the capacity to ask for what they want and communicate their feelings to others to benefit a relationship or situation.
If you find yourself sweeping your emotions under the rug and just doing what other people want to do, you might have low emotional intelligence.
You Know Your Triggers
A trigger is anything that makes you feel a strong emotion. When you come across your trigger, you know how to handle the emotion caused by it and how to take care of yourself.
You Take Responsibility for Past Actions
It takes vulnerability and honesty to acknowledge when you’ve made an error in the past — especially an embarrassing or damaging one. That’s why it’s easier to blame other people for your mistakes and to play a victim.
But those with high emotional intelligence know that blaming other people for your behavior leads to worse outcomes than taking ownership. It takes strong confidence, empathy, and integrity to do so.
You Can Talk About What Upsets You
Talking about what upsets you means you can identify what the cause was and articulately convey how and why you felt that way. If you can have a mature conversation about what upset you in the past with the person who upset you, you show high emotional intelligence.
You’re Not Easily Offended
Those with high emotional intelligence let mean comments roll off their back since they know that a negative emotion elicited from a bad comment doesn’t dictate who they are as a person.
In short, emotionally intelligent people don’t take things too personally. They understand how something negative makes them feel, but they don’t equate that feeling to them as a whole.
For example, though someone might have said your speech was bad, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad speaker. You might have just had a bad day or didn’t prepare as well as you could, and you can take it as motivation to improve in the future.
Emotional Intelligence Exercises
Here are some practical things to do to improve your emotional intelligence.
Take Stock of the Emotional Intelligence You Already Have
Talk to friends, family, or a therapist to get a sense of where you lie on the emotional intelligence spectrum. You could also take an online emotional intelligence quiz, such as this one from the Institute for Health and Human Potential, but just know that these kinds of quizzes only give you rough estimates to the emotional intelligence you have.
You might not like hearing the news that you have low emotional intelligence, which is precisely why you need to continue on in this journey of self-improvement and controlling your emotions. Even those with high intelligence can better their skills through practice.
Meditation has become immensely popular in not only the self-improvement community but across the general public. There’s a meditation for anxiety, depression, lowering stress, but traditional meditation has you only sit down and focus on your breath.
Focusing on your breath sounds easy, but it’s a lot harder to do in practice. Beginners to meditation find that their mind wanders around and gets sucked into random memories or thoughts you have so you no longer focus on your breath. But the point of meditation is to identify when your mind wanders and to pull it back to the focus you started out with.
By doing this, you train two muscles. The first is focus, so you can stay on task even when your brain pulls you in different directions. The second is mindfulness, allowing you to recognize what your subconscious is doing and how it differs from your conscious goals.
After meditating for a while, you might find that there’s a slight lag between something happening and your response to it.
In that slight lag, you have the power to think, even for a second, how you should respond.
In meditation, that might include pulling your focus back to your breath. In a tense situation, this means recognizing you’re angry before you begin to speak.
Meditation is a great way to train mindfulness and allow you to identify your thoughts and emotions as they come. Through time, you’ll find that you’re no longer at the whim of these mental factors and can gain some control over them.
Keep a Log
There are most likely things you want to use your emotional intelligence for, whether it’s waiting to calm down before speaking or being more aware of your emotions.
Therefore, keep a log of the emotional intelligence traits you want to grow. Try to grow a skill every two weeks. For example, you may want to grow patience before speaking.
At the end of each day, jot down the times you waited a moment before deciding to speak. You might not have much to say in the first few days, but after a while, you’ll become more cognizant of your actions while in the moment. After a while, you’ll remember to think before speaking and then actually do it.
It won’t happen overnight. In fact, you might have to prolong the period in which you track a skill. Give yourself time and patience as you grow. No matter what, don’t stop logging your emotional intelligence self-improvement. Keeping a record is the best way to track your growth and ensure you’re on the right track.
Count to Ten When You’re Distressed
One of the best things to do in a stressful situation is to step away for a second to count to ten.
Let’s say you’re in a fight with your partner, and things are escalating. Emotions are rising, and the tension is growing. But before you let your feelings get the best of you and say something hurtful, you remember that you can control your emotions.
When you feel yourself getting upset, take a moment to count down. Counting down brings your focus back on your conscious brain over the emotional one (your emotions can’t count down from ten). It’s one of the best ways to put yourself back in the right mindset and see things from a calmer perspective.
According to Dan Johnston, a behavioral scientist at Mercer University School of Medicine, in an article on WebMD, counting down from ten provides the two most crucial items for emotional management: time and distraction.
Counting down from ten or a greater number distracts you from what bothered you, so you break the momentum of your emotions and stop them from escalating. In addition to that, time — the healer of all wounds — allows you to return to the situation after the brief break with a fresher perspective.
When you’re caught up in a situation, though, it’s easy to forget where you are and the techniques available to help you calm down. That’s why meditation is important — it aids you in building the mindfulness necessary to let you remember yourself in a stressful situation.
Emotional Intelligence Activities
Imagine Successful Situations
Set aside 15 minutes and jot down a few scenarios you really want to improve in. A few ideas include catching yourself when you feel your voice raising when you talk to your kids, as well as finding the motivation to push through periods of immense lack of motivation.
Now lay back in a chair and close your eyes. Imagine realistic situations in which these scenarios come up and what you can do to be better when they occur. To avoid yelling at your kids, imagine yourself closing your eyes and breathing deeply three times.
To push through a lack of motivation, imagine doing a few push-ups, taking a short break, then forcing yourself to get back to work.
There’s evidence that visualizing successful situations make us more likely to achieve them in the physical world. We’re visual creatures and tend to have strong imaginations.
When a guitarist imagines practicing a song — including the hand placement for chords and feeling the strings under their fingers — that musician is more likely to play the song better than those who didn’t mentally practice.
You can apply the same principles to improve your emotional intelligence. Staying consistent and visualizing situations in which you practice emotional awareness and management helps you achieve successful results in real life.
Find Your Core Self
Those who show symptoms of low emotional intelligence — letting their emotions get the best of them, lacking emotional awareness in themselves and other people — might have issues in their center that cause them to act that way.
Trauma can make people act in strange ways as a coping mechanism. The mental wounds from child abuse can force some people to act selfishly and only think about their concerns while causing other people to have no assertiveness.
And such traumas can fragment your sense of self, which obstructs how you treat your emotions. You can’t go through life trying to control your emotions when your emotions try to tell you that you’re not okay. Emotions are the only language your subconscious has to try to speak to you.
So if you find that you simply cannot master some aspects of emotional intelligence, try spending time with yourself and really reflect. Figure out how past behaviors could have caused you to have the emotional landscape you do. By healing old wounds, you can give yourself a greater sense of peace and calm, which can translate to better emotional intelligence.
Those with past traumatic experiences have a unique relationship with emotional intelligence. These people tend to have better emotional self-control since they might experience triggers in situations they must continue to work or perform a certain way.
If you’ve gone through rough patches in your life, find ways the ways these experiences impact your emotional intelligence. Then find the ways you can grow and improve from the emotional level you’re at.
Become Fog to Improve How You Take Criticism
Fog is absorptive and opaque. You know things are there in fog, but because you can’t see it, you can’t draw the connecting link. That metaphor can help you improve how well you accept criticism.
This activity is for those who can’t take criticism well, as it can evoke strong defensive emotions in you. It will also require some role-playing, so have a good friend or family member help you along.
Brainstorm some situations in which you could be criticized. This includes being late, not understanding the directions sent in an email, someone calling you stupid, and so forth.
Your friend should say the following in a convincing manner: “God, you’re late again.” “You’re so stupid for making that same mistake again.” “I can’t believe you didn’t understand what that email said yet again.”
Instead of becoming defensive and retaliating, become the fog. If you throw a rock into a fog, the fog will not throw a stone back. It will absorb the stone and remain unchanged, and you can do the same.
So your response to your friend’s statements should be. “Yes, I’m late.” “Yeah, I’m stupid.” “Yes, I made a mistake.”
You accept the criticism, but you don’t take it personally. You don’t have to agree with it. They’re just words to absorb in the fog. Criticism doesn’t have to mean you should retaliate and attack the criticizer. Let the words roll off your back if you don’t agree with them.
When it comes to constructive criticism, find the items you like and politely decline to use the items you don’t like. Constructive criticism is crucial to improve. Non-constructive criticism can also be a tool to help you regulate your emotions.
Maintain Eye Contact With Someone
Again, grab someone you trust and a timer. Set the timer for five minutes. Now, face that person and don’t look away until the timer beeps.
That’s right. You’re going to look at someone for five minutes. You can blink — you don’t have to dry your eyeballs out — but you can’t look away.
You might notice that you both will start awkwardly smiling at first. It’s quite ridiculous what you’re doing just looking at someone like that. You might also try to pull funny faces at each other to get the other to laugh, but that might signal trying to distract yourselves at the discomfort you feel.
Making direct eye contact makes us feel connected to the person we’re looking at. To others, it could make you feel vulnerable, and there would be nothing you’d like to do more than look away and protect that part of you.
But when you look at someone, you can’t hide. You’re right there, burning into their retinas. It requires openness in you. It’s a type of trust exercise stating that you’re not going to look away and leave the other hanging.
Try it for yourself. You might be able to stand in front of a stage and deliver a speech, but maintaining five minutes of eye contact makes you feel the most exposed and vulnerable you’ve felt in a while. Don’t hide from that feeling. Instead, use it to become more comfortable with uncomfortable emotions
Emotional intelligence requires maturity, honesty, and the ability to reflect on your actions. By understanding what it means to have emotional intelligence and how it can improve your life, you can better use these exercises to build your emotional intelligence muscle.
Don’t expect changes to happen quickly. By staying dedicated to your growth, your present self won’t be able to recognize the person you become.