Emotional intelligence: What is it and how can you improve yours?

You’ve always been told to leave your emotions at the door, but research shows that you should actually embrace them improve your emotional intelligence.

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Emotional intelligence isn’t just a buzzword or self-care trend that will fade away, but an important capability that’s a driver behind successful relationships, careers and projects.

It’s a simple idea, but a complex topic to understand, so Ladders took the liberty of talking to the experts to answer all your emotional intelligence questions.


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What is emotional intelligence?

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Emotional intelligence can be described as a set of five skills that we use to regulate both our own and other’s feelings, according to Marc Brackett, co-founder of the Oji Life Lab and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Brackett explains emotional intelligence using RULER, an acronym that breaks up the term as the ability to:

  • Recognize emotions in oneself and others
  • Understand the causes and consequences of emotions
  • Label emotions with precise words
  • Express emotions in regards to culture and context
  • Regulate emotions in yourself and others

Andrea Hoban, the chief learning officer and co-founder of the Oji Life Lab,  buckets those five categories into two main areas of focus, including the ability to recognize your own feelings and the ability to regulate emotions based on your own goals. In order to recognize emotions, you must be able to read nonverbal cues, have the language to regulate emotion, and have an understanding of cultural rules.

“Emotional intelligence provides you with a very clear way of understanding who you are in terms of how you relate to the world,”  Brackett said. “It gives you very specific strategies that are personalized to you as an individual.”

What is EQ?

While some call it EQ, Brackett much prefers EIQ, which stands for emotional intelligence quotient. Similar to your intelligence quotient (IQ), an EIQ instead measures your capability to recognize emotions, label them properly, and use emotional information to influence thoughts and actions.

Can I improve my emotional intelligence?

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“Because it’s called emotional intelligence, people are fearful that its not able to be developed,” Brackett said.

While some people are born with impressive intelligence quotients (IQs), emotional intelligence is a much more learned capability. People aren’t born with a pocket full of emotion regulation strategies or the language to make meaning out of how they feel. Instead, individuals learn how to process from their surroundings, whether it be their parents, friends, teachers, etc. 

Thankfully for the emotional unintelligent, Brackett argues that emotional intelligence can absolutely be improved.

In fact, Oji Life Lab has designed processes and programs to help individuals improve their emotional skills. The Oji Life Lab app puts control of your emotional intelligence right in your hands, allowing you to learn about emotions right from your phone. By providing insights and suggestions, the app helps you rid your life of negative habits and introduce positive ones.

By learning about emotions, and learning about yourself, you can improve your emotional intelligence and your relationships.

How to measure emotional intelligence

A person’s EIQ is measured using performance assessment tools that evaluate an individual’s ability to read and respond to emotions. Instead of asking people to evaluate their own skills, which produces inaccurate results, researchers ask individuals to complete assessments that evaluate their ability to identify emotions and regulate the emotions in themselves and others.

While testing emotional intelligence, Brackett and Hoban will ask people to decode facial expressions. Additionally, they will provide scenarios and ask what would be the best strategy for handling the emotions in that situation.

How to improve emotional intelligence

Not everyone has time to get their EIQ tested by experts like Brackett and Hoban, but instead, curious individuals can use tools like the emotion snapshot in which a person receives feedback from peers about how they handle emotions.

This 360 feedback system gives insights into what area one may need to improve their emotional intelligence skills.

“In no way does that marry the complex emotions you have going on internally…but it does allow someone to understand what blind spots they may have,” Hoban said.

What are the qualities of an emotionally intelligent person?

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Someone with a high EQ:

  • Is good at identifying their own emotions
  • Is good at managing their own emotions
  • Is able to identify the emotional drives of other people
  • Is good at handling other people’s emotions

Emotionally intelligent people have strong soft skills, meaning they have superior communication skills, critical thinking, and coachability.

Why is emotional intelligence important?

Emotions come into play in every aspect of our lives, even during times when we don’t feel emotional. You make decisions that impact your life every day, and emotions come into each of those decisions whether you realize it or not.

It’s critical that one learns to recognize and regulate their emotions to support the best optimal performance in that situation.

“It’s really important for better performance, higher quality decisions, healthier relationships, and a much better balance of mental and physical health as well,” Hoban said.

How do you use emotional intelligence at work?

While most people have been told their whole lives that emotions should be left at the door, “emotions in the workplace always have a seat at the table,” Brackett said.

The Yale research on emotional intelligence distinguishes four main impacts of emotions; the ability to make decisions, our ability to perform, our ability to take care of our mental and physical well being, and the ability to build and maintain quality relationships.

Hoban points at a situation in which you’re about to make a huge presentation at work. Imagine you’re just about to leave your desk for the meeting when you read an email that really angers you. While you felt great earlier, now you’re not in the best mental state to deliver a killer presentation.

“If I can have a set of strategies that I’ve worked on and that I know work to regulate these angry feelings and put me in a more positive state of mind, then I’ll walk into that meeting really ready to work,” Hoban said.

Instead of ruining your presentation, emotionally intelligent people will “execute a strategy or a practice that they know can shift them into a more helpful emotional state.”

Jen Shirkani, an emotional intelligence expert, outlined nine ways to use emotional intelligence at work.

Who needs emotional intelligence?

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Emotional skills are crucial to not only building successful relationships, but also to maintaining a happy lifestyle for oneself.

Some may think it’s only important for leaders to focus on emotional intelligence, but it’s important for each role in  the workplace to enhance their emotional intelligence.

Hoban points to the operating room, emotional intelligence is critical to the performance of surgeons and anesthesiologists alike. Additionally, a data analyst can use emotional intelligence skills to decrease their anxiety created by deadlines.

An individual in customer service must have to skills to regulate their own emotions as identify and handle the emotions of the customer.

“I can’t think of a situation where emotions don’t impact performance,” Hoban said.

How to use emotional intelligence as a leader

While a high EIQ is important for each member of a team, it’s important that strong soft skills are being exemplified at the top of any organization. Emotional skills come into play during every day of a leader’s life, whether it be a normal Tuesday or one filled with performance reviews.

In addition, leaders must be emotionally intelligent enough to realize when extroverts are overtaking introverts. During a meeting, a leader should be able to read the body language of people in the room.

While a lively discussion is great, a leader should shift attention to those who haven’t participated and make them feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts.

History of emotional intelligence

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Wayne Payne first used the official term “emotional intelligence” in his 1985 doctoral dissertation. Psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer gave the term an official definition and introduced the concept to the science world in their 1990 landmark article.

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and New York Times science writer, popularized the term into vernacular with the release of his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ.

Goleman broke up the subject into five key elements:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Self-Motivation
  4. Empathy/Social Awareness
  5. Social Skills

The concept is now studied at major universities, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which works to build awareness of the impact emotions have in the workplace and in places of education.

In 2009, emotional intelligence experts Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves published Emotional Intelligence 2.0, a self-help book that outlines 66 strategies for enhancing one’s own emotional intelligence.

While there are many self-help books that claim to help others strengthen their emotional intelligence skills, Bradberry’s work includes research and was even praised by the Dalai Lama himself.

As the term was embraced by the professional psychology world, universities began to implement the subject as a part of the research. Founded in 1987, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has grown to conduct research on emotional intelligence. Findings from said research have been used to create programs that help educators embrace and utilize emotions in schools.

Is emotional intelligence a soft skill?

Soft skills are desirable qualities that are often learned through one’s environment, rather than through formal education or training. So, is emotional intelligence a soft skill?

“Oftentimes emotional intelligence is classified as a soft skill, but I would argue that it’s harder than the hard skills,” Brackett said.

Hard skills, once learned, don’t need much fine-tuning over the years. On the flip side, emotional skills are way more complex and require continuous development. Cold, cognitive skills stick with you, but because emotions are ever-changing, so are the skills that come along with regulating them.

For example, one day you may be able to talk to a coworker calmly about a joke you didn’t enjoy, but what if you’re in a bad mood the next time you hear that joke? You may be way more reactive and require a different set of skills to handle the situation.

What is emotional energy?

Emotions are not just good and bad but actually, exist on a spectrum of pleasantness. Emotions can be evaluated as positive versus negative as well as on a separate axis called the energy spectrum.

Certain emotions, such as feeling drained or sleepy, are low energy emotions, while excitement and panic are high energy emotions. Labeling emotions based on low or high energy helps people identify what they are feeling and how to change or use that emotion in their favor given a circumstance.


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