The importance of emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is the capability to recognise and understand one’s own emotions and to empathise/read the emotions of others. It is an essential skill for success in both professional and personal relationships, and in the relationship you have with yourself.
Emotional intelligence comes in two styles. There is intrapersonal intelligence, in which we work with emotions to express needs, self-soothe, stay resilient, develop emotional wisdom, and motivate ourselves. Then there is interpersonal intelligence, in which we understand what makes other people tick, communicate effectively, handle conflict, and build relationships.
Emotional intelligence in psychotherapy
Be default psychotherapists are required to possess enhanced emotional intelligence, especially the interpersonal kind. They need this in order to gauge the effects their words and actions have on others, enabling them to build good working relationships with clients, for research shows that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is the single most important reason for success in therapy. Most training courses in psychotherapy also develop therapist skills in handling their own emotions.
Successful psychotherapy almost always leads to the development of emotional intelligence in clients, on one or more of the five traits described below.
Components of emotional intelligence
The five components of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, empathy, self-regulation, social skills and motivation (self and others).
- Self-awareness is the ability to recognise and understand your own emotions. It involves being aware of how your emotions impact your behavior, as well as how your behavior impacts others.
- Empathy relates to the ability to read off other people’s emotions. While also understanding at a deeper level why they do the things they do.
- Self-regulation enables you to manage difficult emotions and handle stress. Knowing when to take time out, and when to press forward with priorities. It also helps you keep calm in a crisis.
- Social skills relate to communicating effectively, while building and managing relationships. Along the way handling conflict and influencing others.
- Motivation entails connecting to your personal values that link to your goals; they provide a reason for making the effort. Understanding how to motivate yourself also enables you to motivate others to work towards their goals.
Developing emotional intelligence.
There are numerous online courses in emotional intelligence, such as the ones shown here. However, learning to use emotional intelligence in practice is a life-time course. Your best teacher will be the difficult relationship problems you encounter within your family, your long-term relationships, your friendships (and enemy-ships), and with your fellow workers.
Here are five brief exercises you can use to develop some degree of emotional intelligence.
Developing the skills of emotional intelligence.
Interpreting your emotions.
This is an exercise in self-awareness. As you notice emotions, or feelings that are hard to put into words, take some quiet time out to listen to them.
First enter into a state of mindful awareness.
Second, identify the space in your body where the feeling appears, and put your hand over it. If you are distressed then empathise with your body and practice a little self-compassion. Soothe yourself with comforting words while accepting the feeling.
Next focus inwardly on the feeling itself and notice the sensations that come with it. Aching? Heavy? Fluid? Hard? Agitated? Warm?
Next name the feeling as best you can (you can always revise your initial description). For example:
- I am frustrated
- I feel sad
- I am afraid
- I feel burdened/overwhelmed
- I am excited
- I am stressed
Now enter into a dialogue with that named feeling state, while continuing to hold the feeling state. Use questions to do that:
- What is this (named state) about?
- What is this (named state) telling me?
- What would my body like me to do about this? Take a break? Speak to someone? Change something I’m doing? Let go of unhelpful thoughts? Get some help? Develop acceptance? Be kinder to myself?
As you dialogue with the feeling state pay careful attention to the feeling itself. If it increases, slow down and get back in touch with it, accepting and empathising some more. If it decreases or softens, thank your body for communicating to you. The feeling you get from your body may be difficult to translate into words, and intuition may be required on your part.
Next ask: Would it help if I did X right now? Wait for the response. If the feeling softens or diminishes go ahead with the action. If there is no response, or agitation increases try another question.
Keep persevering until the answer makes sense to you.
Thank your body for helping you with its wisdom.
This is an exercise in developing empathy, in which you listen carefully to some one else talking to you about their problems, emotions, thoughts, needs and wishes. You will need to find a willing partner to perform for you. If you have never done this before, it can be useful to make notes as you listen (rather as a psychotherapist might do).
Ask your partner to describe a significant situation to you in which emotions came up (the situation may, or may not involve other people). Then use questions to elicit information from them, as you listen carefully. Try not to say anything more than the questions you employ, and the brief summaries you make. Your speech should be no more than 30% of the entire conversation.
Use any or all of these questions:
- What happened?
- What were your thoughts about that?
- What feelings did you have when this happened?
- What did you want to do about this?
- What happened next?
- What did you do then? (Or what would you have liked to have done?)
- What were your needs/wishes?
- What stopped you from speaking about them?
- What might you do differently next time this happens?
- Now and then summarise what you just heard, using a paraphrase. Following up with the question: “Did I get that right?”
- If any answer doesn’t make sense to you, ask: ‘Let me try to understand that a little more. Did you mean…?’
When you have enough information on the episode give a complete summary to the speaker, and check for accuracy.
Self-soothing when stressed
This is an exercise in self-regulation of emotion. In this case the ’emotions’ are feelings related to agitation, internal tension, irritability, frustration, anger or low mood. The aim is to accept these feeling states, while moving to present-moment awareness and self-compassion. A more complete model for self-soothing is provided in this article here.
- First, use the exercise in interpreting emotion (above) to name the feeling state. Then perform the following steps:
- Sitting or lying down, put one hand over your heart and another hand over your abdomen.
- Say out loud: “It’s okay to feel (named state). It’s okay to be human. It’s okay to be me. This, too will pass.”
- Breathe in through the nose slowly to the count of 5. Breathe out (slowly) through the mouth.
- All the while paying attention to the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen with your hands.
- Then increase the breath count to 6, 7, 8, 9 and upwards (if comfortable).
- Continue to pay attention to your chest and stomach as your breathing slows down.
- Now and then repeat the phrase in step 3 as you feel like it.
- Continue until you feel calm once more.
You can use another grounding exercise from this article here if you wish to continue self-soothing.
This is an exercise in social skills, in which you describe your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, wishes and needs related to something you experienced with another person. You can practice this technique without the other person present and decide later whether you want to deliver your statement in real life. The experience can be either positive or negative.
The technique is based on the Even Cod Need Air model of assertive communication described in this article here. In communication you describe the Event, the Consequence (for you), your expressed Need, and Appreciation for the other person.
Take any event in which you experienced an emotion (positive or negative in relation to something someone else was doing. You can practice this with the other person beside you, but I recommend you first practice on your own.
First, express appreciation for the other person:
I really like the way you you bring humour into this relationship.
Second, describe the event objectively, as if you were describing it on film. Speak only of what you saw, heard and felt. For example:
When we went to that restaurant last night, and you told me that story about X over the wine…
Next, the Consequence:
…I haven’t laughed like that in a long time.
Finally, the Need:
When can we go out and have dinner together again?
This is a light-hearted example. You can practice ‘heavier’ communications as you get used to this style of communication.
Whenever you consider a new challenge that takes you out of your comfort zone, first take some time out to consider how much you want it, and why it is important to you. Answering the second question will take you to your system of values (you can read this article here if you are unsure of your list of personal values).
For example, you need to challenge a friend’s disrespectful behaviour. Habitually, you avoid conflict and find speaking up uncomfortable. Doing this will definitely take you out of your comfort zone. Before you do anything ask yourself why it is important to speak up.
- Because you value high-quality friendships?
- Because you value your self-respect?
- Because you want to protect someone?
- Because you want to maintain a personal boundary?
- Because you value honest communication?
- Because you believe it is wrong to hurt other people?
When you identify your most important reason (value) for speaking up, identify the feeling that goes with it. That feeling is your the base for your motivation. Connect to that and you will be fired up to overcome your discomfort.
Take an EQ test
Why not take a test on your Emotional Intelligence to assess your strengths and weaknesses? That way you can identify the areas to improve.
For a free (60-question) test see this one here.
For a more accurate test (45 minutes: price $10) see this link here.
Spend time with emotionally intelligent people
Another way to develop your emotional intelligence is to build relationships with emotionally intelligent people and model what they do. There are two ways to identify such people. One is to assess them for the five traits of emotional intelligence: self-awareness; empathy; self-regulation (ability to remain calm in a crisis is a good indicator); social skills; plus the ability to motivate other people. The other is to study people whose personal qualities you like and admire.