How to develop your emotional intelligence
4 ways to get smarter about perceiving and managing emotions in our pandemic-shifted world
If you need a new car, you can go to a dealership or order one online. Want to stock your house with fresh produce? Then a trip to a local grocery store or farmer’s market is probably your best option. But if you are trying to develop something with greater depth, like build your emotional intelligence, it is going to take more than a few clicks into a shopping cart.
Unlike book smarts or deep analytical thinking, emotional intelligence (EI) is about a person’s ability to perceive and manage their own emotions while recognizing the emotions of others. EI became a huge buzzword in business circles following the publication of the 1995 bestseller Emotional Intelligence by psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote that emotional intelligence can matter more than your IQ.
These days, many leading organizations view emotional intelligence as an essential leadership skill. But don’t characterize it simply as another best business practice. Having strong EI is going to improve all aspects of your life. Best of all, anyone can increase their emotional intelligence. You just have to be committed to the process.
“Everyone, even the worst person you know on this planet, has emotional intelligence,” said Caroline Stokes, Certified Executive Coach and author of Elephants Before Unicorns: Emotionally Intelligent HR Strategies to Save Your Company.
“It’s just that their scale may be different and incompatible with yours. As human beings, we all want to do well in life,” she continued. “People have different approaches, beliefs and values; there is no right or wrong. It’s how you want to evolve and make an impact in the world that will make you happy, satisfied, and successful.”
Defining EI as the emotional operating system that our brain works on, Stokes says that an individual’s emotional intelligence can either help or challenge them in being successful with relationships, decision-making, problem-solving, stress management and a multitude of other factors. Not exercising your EI muscles can hold a person back or cause them to get stuck.
A Never-Ending Journey
Unlike reaching the last episode of a streaming show or gobbling down the remaining morsels of a cookie jar, there is no end when it comes to developing your emotional intelligence. Honing this skill is a constant process. You can appear to relate well with others but may struggle internally or find it difficult to make decisions. Even if your EI scores are off the chart high, there will still be areas to improve.
“Our brains are constant learning machines, and we need to always work on learning, understanding and adapting as the world changes fast,” explained Stokes. “It behooves us greatly to understand where we are, what our dances are with people around us, and how we operate so that we get better at what we do and create a much better life.”
As the world has shifted following the COVID-19 health crisis, economic turmoil and civil unrest, developing your emotional intelligence can help a person better deal with what comes next.
“Post-pandemic, our world will have changed so significantly,” added Stokes. “If people think that we’re going to be returning to normal, whatever people’s normal is, they’re going to be very disappointed.”
“We need to learn how to adapt to potential situations and demonstrate flexibility, which in EI terms which means understanding that things are going to change,” she said. “Not coming to terms with that means we are going to be unhappy. It’s a bit like wartime. With the COVID virus, we don’t know when everything is going to be solved. But when it is solved, things could be dramatically different.”
Stokes cites numerous changes that have already pervaded society. People are much more careful with personal interactions, whether they take place virtually or in real life. It might take years for some individuals to feel like they are back on solid ground. We have to grow in ways that are uncomfortable, embracing flexibility in order to find peace with the status quo. Building healthy, productive personal and professional relationships will require demonstrating acceptance, compassion and empathy.
Want to develop your emotional intelligence during uncertain times? Here are four ways to get started:
1. Choose curiosity.
No matter what is happening in your world, you get to pick your attitude. When it comes to improving your EI, even if you’ve struggled with this area in the past, approach the process with an attitude of curiosity. Identify where you stand with your emotional intelligence, what needs to be focused on and be willing to change.
2. Chart your Wheel of Life.
Okay, so this term might sound like a game show concept complete with clues on a letterboard. But the Wheel of Life is a simple, easy-to-use diagram that allows a person to pinpoint, on a scale of one to ten, what their level of satisfaction is with different areas — like health, career, family life, relationships and more.
You can download a sample Wheel of Life chart online for little or no cost; just search for the available options. The first time I encountered this diagram and filled it out back in 2013, my pattern looked like a sunburst with rays of high scores in areas like relationships and travel in contrast to low scores in career and finances.
Be honest with yourself when you complete the chart since it provides important data points about what is missing in your personal and professional life. Think about why your scores are low in certain areas and what you can do to gain more satisfaction and self-knowledge. Then use those insights to plot your course moving forward.
Because of the work I’ve done using this tool as a starting point, today my Wheel of Life chart looks more like a bicycle tire, with mostly high satisfaction scores dispersed evenly across the outer rim.
3. Actively seek feedback.
Think about who you have created a psychological safety net with in your personal and professional life, people you trust. Asking these individuals to provide you with honest opinion feedback about a circumstance, behavior or decision allows you to grow and improve. Just be fully open to receiving the insights you requested.
“That can be painful as hell, but you’ve got to get comfortable with receiving uncomfortable truths in order to move forward,” noted Stokes.
For example, let’s say that during a staff meeting, you announced a team restructuring without explaining what the changes meant to those most impacted. If a co-worker responds to your request for feedback saying, “you sprung that news abruptly and didn’t think about how people could be scared about losing their jobs,” don’t get defensive.
Instead, acknowledge their input by asking, “so if I spend more time anticipating the reaction of others, and giving more reassurance about this development, would that make it better next time?” That approach lets people clarify what they mean while reinforcing that you value their unvarnished insights.
4. Invest in an emotional intelligence assessment.
Stokes uses the Emotional Quotient Inventory 2.0 (EQi-2.0 from Multi-Health Systems which assesses areas such as self-perception, stress management, interpersonal relationships, self-expression and decision-making. You can work with a professional to administer the test, helping to interpret results.
Hiring a certified coach or therapist trained in conducting these measurements, and other tools like a 360-feedback assessment, can be a great investment. These individuals can help you develop a robust plan for increasing your emotional intelligence and overall well-being, creating multiple accountability checkpoints along the way.
How have you improved your emotional intelligence?