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How to improve emotional intelligence in 11 steps

It's the sign of a good leader to wonder how to improve emotional intelligence.

Ever notice how some people seem to have an uncanny ability to read the room? They are masters at making others feel comfortable and utilize their understanding of people to guide their interactions in professional and personal settings.

Various studies over the past 25 years have shown a correlation between emotional intelligence and success, indicating that effective leaders and star performers have high levels of emotional intelligence, which encompasses how they navigate social situations, manage behavior, and make personal decisions. 

A research team at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations explored “What Predicts Executive Success?” and concluded that harsh Machiavellian leadership tactics hurt the bottom line, while self-aware and socially skilled leaders delivered better results with more engaged teams.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a concept coined by Salovey and Mayer in 1990 and then popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book that describes the ability to not only understand and manage your own emotions, but also understand the emotions of the people around you. 

It is composed of 5 main elements:

Self-awareness 

Self-awareness refers to the ability to recognize your emotions and understand the potential impact of your behavior on others. 

You are introspective and able to step back and evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and try to unravel how your emotions affect your interactions with others. 

A person with self-awareness understands the role their emotions, communication style and subsequent behaviors plays on their own relationships.

Self-regulation

A person high in emotional intelligence excels at not only identifying their emotions (self-awareness), but also managing (self-regulating) those emotions as well. 

They take the time to consider the impact of their emotions and behaviors on others and how this could affect their relationships going forward. 

Empathy

Empathy describes the ability to identify and understand how another person is feeling and imagine yourself in that person’s situation. 

In addition, empathy entails acting on this information. 

Empathetic people make an effort to make someone feel better. They are open to viewpoints beyond their own and avoid making judgments.

Social Skills

People with effective social skills excel at communicating with others and are known as team players. They thrive when cultivating relationships and are genuine in their interactions. 

Individuals with great social skills make others feel valued and understand the importance of sincere connections both in business and personal interactions.

Motivation

Emotionally intelligent individuals have a firm sense of the intrinsic motivation that drives their decisions. They are motivated by internal rewards like a sense of purpose or accomplishment, and they understand this about themselves and others. 

Why is learning how to improve emotional intelligence important?

Emotional intelligence is often seen as essential for effective leaders and reflects intentionality in communication with others. You are actively making an effort to connect with people and meet them where they are at emotionally.

Leaders with emotional intelligence demonstrate resilience and understand that every great undertaking will have ups and downs. Dr. Goleman published What Makes a Leader in the Harvard Review and discusses how leaders with empathy improve companies in important ways since empathy opens communication channels by tearing down walls. 

How to improve emotional intelligence in 11 steps

1. Active listening

Make a conscious effort to be an active listener in conversations, where you not only avoid interrupting people, but also take the time to hear their message and pay attention to their body language as well. 

Too often, people spend so much time thinking about what they will say next, that they fail to be attentive listeners.

If 'reading between the lines' by paying attention to tone and body language doesn't come naturally to you, you might be highly motivated for 'neutral communication'. Jump into the F4S app to see how you stack up, and learn how you can strategically increase your motivation for 'affective communication'.

2. Track your reactions for a week 

Spend a week tracking your social and professional interactions. Keep a few notes on what you were feeling and how people responded to you. Can you see links between your emotions and the reactions of others?

3. Look for emotionally intelligent role models

Think about a person in your life who seems in touch with their emotions and remains even keeled when faced with challenges or frustrations. Ask them for advice on how they roll with things even when they are tempted to get swept away in a whirlwind of emotions. 

4. Envision scenarios with consequences

Give yourself a few minutes to process stressful situations (if possible). Think about what you are tempted to do/say and what the outcomes would be. Consider a calmer approach and envision a better outcome.

5. Practice mindfulness

Find ways to control your stress levels whether that’s meditation, yoga, walking, breathing exercises, or other activities. By remaining calm, you will be able to think more clearly and better assess and respond to an array of social situations.

6. Maintain perspective 

The person with high emotional intelligence sees a bigger picture and does not automatically catastrophize minor interactions (a co-worker does not say their usual friendly hello one morning) and jump to negative conclusions about the relationship with that person as a whole (he does not like me). 

Those with emotional intelligence have feelings like everyone else, but they also know that not everything is about them. 

Their co-worker may be worried about a family member or have other things on their mind and may not have even realized that they ignored someone or seemed different. 

An emotionally intelligent person learns to give people the benefit of the doubt and not take things personally. 

7. Build your resilience 

We all have bad days and are not expected to be robots unaffected by the stress life throws at us, especially during these unprecedented times. However, someone with emotional intelligence has the insight to recognize when they are stressed and then consider how it’s not the stressor that matters, but their reaction to it that makes a difference. 

  • Consider your past successes. 
  • Trace your journey for each of those wins and think back to adversity you have overcome in the past as a reminder of what you are capable of achieving now. 
  • Need help connecting with your sense of resiliency? Find tips in our guide on How to develop grit (and the 1 critical ingredient that makes it work).

8. Engage in Exercises to improve your Empathy 

Even if empathy does not come naturally to you, it’s a skill that can be developed. Here are some exercises to help:

  • When someone on your team is going through a hard time, think of how you would feel if you were in a similar situation. What kind of support would you want in that situation? Consider the other person’s needs and act with sensitivity.

  • Be genuine in your concern. People can tell when you are merely going through the motions. Remember, you would want sincere concern if the situation was reversed. See 4 types of interpersonal communication (that will make you more likeable) for tips.

  • Don’t make assumptions about how someone is handling something. We are all unique and have our own way of experiencing the world. Just because someone is not reacting in a way you think they should, does not mean they are any less affected by their circumstances.

  • When a person is in distress, even if it’s the person in front of you at the grocery store, ask if there’s something you can do to help.

  • Read more fiction. This will allow you to inhabit the inner world of the character and consider how another person experiences the world.

9. Sharpen your social skills

  • Ask people open-ended questions and encourage people to talk about themselves.

  • Remember details about their lives (write brief notes for yourself in a spreadsheet and check it before you meet them again). You can ask about their family or their hobby when you connect again.

  • Pay attention to the body language and nonverbal cues. Recognize your own body language. It’s not only the content of your message, but how you deliver that message.

  • Challenge yourself to connect new people every day. Perhaps join a LinkedIn or other online special interest group. Practice expanding your in-person and online network.

10. Be open to constructive criticism

When delivered in a professional manner, constructive criticism has the potential to help someone learn and grow. While it’s not easy to hear less than stellar feedback, if you’re open to it, this type of guidance can help you adjust course when necessary and take your career to the next level. 

11. Reflect on what motivates you

  • Write down your main “why” – what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going whenever inevitable setbacks arise. It’s important to hold onto your main source of motivation when the going gets tough. For some that’s family, for others it’s a long-held dream.

  • Need help with goals? Don’t miss this guide to The 3 types of goals that will set your career on fire.

Review your F4S profile and for insights into what motivates you and consider how this knowledge can help you work effectively with your team and be a better leader.

How to improve emotional intelligence in the workplace

Developing your emotional intelligence will help you both professionally and personally. 

  •  If you feel bored in your current role, consider what drove you to that position in the first place. Are still there ways you can grow and develop as a professional?

  • Are there committees you could join or new projects to bring a sense of novelty and challenge to your work? If this isn’t possible, you might consider letting your intrinsic motivations guide you on your next career steps.

  • When someone on your team is going through a hard time, think of how you would feel if you were in a similar situation. What kind of support would you want in that situation?

By learning how to improve emotional intelligence, identifying your own emotions and recognizing the impact your behavior has on others, you are empowered to use this knowledge to facilitate more effective communication with those around you, both in personal and professional settings. 

Get started in F4S for free to help you maximize your emotional intelligence.

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