Advice

How to increase emotional intelligence: 5 powerful secrets

Emotional Intelligence. Another “it” theory of the moment. The media’s panacea of the week. Another great thing we all need — that nobody seems to be able to clearly define.

I swear I’m going to do a book of psychology buzzword mad libs (“My mindful grit is emotionally intelligent due to the oxytocin in my mirror neurons”). But I digress …

Here’s the thing: emotional intelligence is real — but that vague 2-sentence summary you read in an inflight magazine isn’t accurate and won’t give you what you need to improve this curious little skill set.

So what is it really? (I’m so glad you asked.) It’s a concept that John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire and Yale professor Peter Salovey came up with in the early 90’s that was subsequently studied and popularized by Daniel Goleman. Here’s Mayer’s definition.

From Harvard Business Review Guide to Emotional Intelligence:

From a scientific standpoint, emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.

Now most of the work on emotional intelligence has been done around its effects in the workplace but it’ll quickly become obvious how it can improve most any area of your life. And, for the record, yeah, EI does work.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

In a 1996 study of a global food and beverage company, McClelland found that when senior managers had a critical mass of emotional intelligence capabilities, their divisions outperformed yearly earnings goals by 20%. Meanwhile, division leaders without that critical mass underperformed by almost the same amount. McClelland’s findings, interestingly, held as true in the company’s U.S. divisions as in its divisions in Asia and Europe.

And what’s most interesting about EI is that as you move up the corporate ladder its importance increases dramatically.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

When I compared star performers with average ones in senior leadership positions, nearly 90% of the difference in their profiles was attributable to emotional intelligence factors rather than cognitive abilities.

Research has shown EI has 5 component parts. Let’s learn how to develop each one so that we can leverage its tremendous power to achieve global domination improve our lives at home and at work …

1) Self-awareness

This one is first and that’s not random. Self-awareness is the most essential of emotional intelligence skills. Why?

Because without this guy you’ve got no way to evaluate what skills you have, what you lack and what you need to work on. You’re flying blind. So what’s the formal definition?

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest with themselves and with others. People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance.

Want to know the best shortcut for identifying if someone is high in self-awareness or not?

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

One of the hallmarks of self-awareness is a self-deprecating sense of humor.

To make fun of yourself — and get a laugh — you have to know yourself and how you are perceived.

So how do you increase self-awareness? Get feedback. You don’t always see yourself accurately. And this friend or that friend doesn’t always see you accurately. But if you survey five or ten pals, you’re going see some very accurate trends.

From Insight:

… other people generally see us more objectively than we see ourselves. Psychologist Timothy Smith and his colleagues powerfully demonstrated this in a study with 300 married couples in which both partners were being tested for heart disease. They asked each participant to rate both their own and their partner’s levels of anger, hostility, and argumentativeness- all strong predictors of the illness- and found that people’s self-ratings were infinitely less accurate than those of their spouses. Another study asked more than 150 Navy officers and their subordinates to rate the officers’ leadership style, and found that only the subordinates could accurately assess their bosses’ performance and promotability.

(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

So you see yourself more accurately. That’s great, but we all know someone who is aware they’re a jerk — and yet keeps acting like a jerk. So what do we need to complement our new self-knowledge?

2) Self-regulation

I love when people say, “I’m very emotional. I must have very high emotional intelligence.” Sorry, being very emotional doesn’t make you high in EI; it just makes you a drama queen.

However, being able to regulate your emotions is a big part of EI. People who are wise and warm don’t impulsively respond to things or act without thinking.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

Biological impulses drive our emotions. We cannot do away with them — but we can do much to manage them. Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, is the component of emotional intelligence that frees us from being prisoners of our feelings. People engaged in such a conversation feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.

People who can self-regulate make better decisions, are more resilient, and act with more integrity. (They also tend not to eat an entire box of donuts in one sitting while obsessively checking Instagram, but this finding has yet to be supported by the literature.)

Mindfulness is an excellent, science-backed way to self-regulate. And while a full explanation of it is wayyyy beyond the scope of this post (you can get more info here) a little “mini-meditation” can be a big help.

Next time you feel your emotions surging, turn your attention to your breath. Focus on it going in and out. When your mind wanders, return your attention to your breath. Give it 10-20 seconds at first.

Neuroscience says even a little bit can calm those feelings and get your head on straight.

From Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body:

As these stressful thoughts were presented, the patients used either of two different attentional stances: mindful awareness of their breath or distraction by doing mental arithmetic. Only mindfulness of their breath both lowered activity in the amygdala— mainly via a faster recovery— and strengthened it in the brain’s attentional networks, while the patients reported less stress reactivity.

(To learn the 3 secrets neuroscience says will make you more emotionally intelligent, click here.)

So you know yourself and you can control yourself. But what EI component allows us to actually accomplish something with all that personal power?

3) Motivation

Yup, motivation is a part of EI. But we need to put a spin on the definition. Chasing money or promotions isn’t a sign of emotional intelligence. EI means having an intrinsic desire to achieve and accomplish things.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

Plenty of people are motivated by external factors, such as a big salary or the status that comes from having an impressive title or being part of a prestigious company. By contrast, those with leadership potential are motivated by a deeply embedded desire to achieve for the sake of achievement.

So how do we boost motivation? Track your accomplishments. Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard found that the single most motivating thing is progress in meaningful work. So when you move the needle forward, take note.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.

Keep a list of everything you’ve accomplished today where you can see it. When I spoke to bestselling author Josh Kaufman, he said a “did-it” list is one of his primary productivity tools.

(To learn how to be more motivated — from motivation master Dan Pink — click here.)

So the first three parts of emotional intelligence are about self-management. The next two are about how to deal with others. So where do we start?

4) Empathy

You’re familiar with the word — but this one is actually a bit tricky.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. Skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.

So why is it tricky? Because it’s a balance. Too little — or too much — can cause problems.

From Harvard Business Review Guide to Emotional Intelligence:

Those whose sympathetic feelings become too strong may themselves suffer. In the helping professions, this can lead to compassion fatigue; in executives, it can create distracting feelings of anxiety about people and circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control. But those who protect themselves by deadening their feelings may lose touch with empathy.

Don’t worry; there’s a solution. The research says there are actually three distinct types of empathy:

  • Emotional empathy: “You feel awful? Then I feel awful too!”
  • Cognitive empathy: “I understand that you are feeling awful. That must suck.”
  • Compassion: “You feel awful? I feel for you. How can I help?”

All three have their place. You want friends and family to have emotional empathy. You want someone to really feel what you feel when you’re down or to be thrilled with you when you’re up.

However you don’t want your surgeon crying so hard about your tumor that they can’t perform the operation. You want them to have cognitive empathy.

And we can all do better with more compassion. With compassion we feel for, not with. And this drives us to want to help, while not emotionally impairing us from helping. Compassion is what we want to focus on for EI.

So how do you increase it? By using “Loving-Kindness Meditation.” Yes, with a name like that you’d expect it to be taught to you by woodland fairies. Relax. Research by Emma Seppala at Stanford shows it works.

The best instructions I’ve found (that have no scientific jargon or mentions of elves) come from 10% Happier, the excellent book by Dan Harris:

1. This practice involves picturing a series of people and sending them good vibes. Start with yourself. Generate as clear a mental image as possible.

2. Repeat the following phrases: May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease. Do this slowly. Let the sentiment land. You are not forcing your well-wishes on anyone; you’re just offering them up, just as you would a cool drink. Also, success is not measured by whether you generate any specific emotion. As Sharon says, you don’t need to feel “a surge of sentimental love accompanied by chirping birds.” The point is to try. Every time you do, you are exercising your compassion muscle. (By the way, if you don’t like the phrases above, you can make up your own.)

3. After you’ve sent the phrases to yourself, move on to: a benefactor (a teacher , mentor, relative), a close friend (can be a pet, too), a neutral person (someone you see often but don’t really ever notice), a difficult person, and, finally, “all beings.”

Don’t get too worried about details. It’s not a magic spell and this ain’t Hogwart’s. You can customize it. The important thing is wishing others well and expanding that feeling from those you feel strongly about to a wider and wider circle of people.

(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)

Four out of five. Not bad at all. And number five actually assembles those prior four together to turn you into a Voltron of emotional intelligence…

5) Social skill

Social skills means the ability to build rapport and manage relationships — with a goal in mind.

That doesn’t make it Machiavellian. Think of the concepts of “leadership” or “parenting.” Both are relationships, but both also have a purpose greater than merely enjoying the other person’s company.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

Social skill, rather, is friendliness with a purpose: moving people in the direction you desire, whether that’s agreement on a new marketing strategy or enthusiasm about a new product. Socially skilled people tend to have a wide circle of acquaintances, and they have a knack for finding common ground with people of all kinds-a knack for building rapport.

So how do you build EI social skills? Luckily, this one is easy. Seriously. Not that becoming socially adept is simple — it’s actually quite complex.

But that said, if you have made big strides in the first four, this fifth component of EI tends to grow on its own without much effort.

From HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence:

Social skill is the culmination of the other dimensions of emotional intelligence. People tend to be very effective at managing relationships when they can understand and control their own emotions and can empathize with the feelings of others. Even motivation contributes to social skill. Remember that people who are driven to achieve tend to be optimistic, even in the face of setbacks or failure. When people are upbeat, their “glow” is cast upon conversations and other social encounters. They are popular, and for good reason. Because it is the outcome of the other dimensions of emotional intelligence, social skill is recognizable on the job in many ways that will by now sound familiar. Socially skilled people, for instance, are adept at managing teams-that’s their empathy at work. Likewise, they are expert persuaders-a manifestation of self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy combined.

(And if there are specific elements of social skills you want to work on: here’s how to make friends, to get people to like you, to network, to read people, and how to be someone people love to talk to.)

So work on the first four components of EI and then spend more time with others, facing new challenges. Self-aware, self-regulated, motivated people with empathy mostly just need practice to build their social skills.

(To learn 6 rituals from ancient wisdom that will make you happy, click here.)

Alright, your EI burns so bright I’m gonna need sunscreen. Let’s round it all up and learn the final critical point that will help you be more emotionally intelligent…

Sum up

Here’s how to increase emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: “I should have posted this earlier in the week. When I’m really busy with super-important stuff or, um, when I see a cute puppy video on YouTube, I know blogging gets delayed.”
  • Self-regulation: “You need to cool it with the puppy videos, Eric. Next time, we only watch the tiny Husky puppy howl like a little wolf once, and then we do a mini-meditation and get back to work. Seriously.”
  • Motivation: “I have an Excel spreadsheet of puppy videos watched, mini-meditations done, and how often the blog posts have been completed on time. More posting, more meditating, fewer howling, insanely cute puppies.”
  • Empathy: “I’m not going to beat myself up about this. The post still got done. I’m happy with it. And that puppy video was really cute. I’m showing some self-compassion here. Also, I’m including the puppy in my Loving-Kindness Meditation today. May the little guy live with ease.”
  • Social skills: “Enough about me and my addiction; how are you?”

So what’s the final thing you need to know about EI?

Balance. We need to work on all of the skills and then we need to make sure they work together. Does this sound like I made a hard process even harder? Don’t worry.

You don’t need to score 100% in any component. In fact, you don’t want to. Like I said, too much empathy can be a problem. It can lead to emotional fatigue. By the same token, John Mayer, one of the originators of EI, says too much self-awareness can even be a problem.

From Harvard Business Review Guide to Emotional Intelligence:

In fact, too much self-awareness can reduce self-esteem, which is often a crucial component of great leadership.

So improve all the components and then focus on finding the balance between them that works for you. You don’t need to be perfect at any one of them. The symphony is more about how the musicians play together than how great any one of them is.

Knowing yourself, controlling yourself and motivating yourself. Feeling for others and having the skills to connect with them. This is what allows you to accomplish great things at work and to give your loved ones what they need.

(Even if what they need is just an adorable puppy video.)

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