How to Improve Emotional Intelligence in 3 Simple Steps

2020 has (finally) concluded—and it's been a doozy, hasn't it? We may not have been able to control the unexpected events of COVID, but hopefully, you were still able to achieve some of the goals you set for yourself at the beginning of last year.

As the new year is in its infancy, people naturally think about goal setting. Setting and writing down goals with a plan to achieve them has been shown to increase the likelihood of their attainment. Historically, the most popular New Year's resolutions have had to do with exercise and dieting. But instead of only improving your physical fitness this year, why not set a goal to improve your emotional fitness?

Social interpersonal skills are vital on ZoomEmotional fitness, otherwise known as emotional intelligence or EQ, can affect every aspect of our lives, including our physical well-being. And with the challenges of the pandemic unlikely to disappear quite yet, resilience is a critical mindset to master.

Working to improve your EQ comes with a multitude of benefits, ranging from decreased stress to increased motivation to enhanced relationships in our lives—beginning with our relationships with ourselves!

If you're looking to reap the benefits of increased emotional fitness in 2021, you’re in the right place. In this post, you’ll learn about emotional intelligence and three easy steps you can take to improve your EQ in the new year.

Deep dive: "Goal-Setting Is Linked to Higher Achievement."

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

"Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense, understand,
and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as 
a source of human energy, information, connection, and influence." 
~
Robert K. Cooper, Ph.D.

It's easy to think that emotional intelligence is all about mushy feelings, but it's a concept well-researched in psychology and supported by neuroscience. In fact, science shows that our brains have been evolutionarily hardwired for emotional responses and that these responses have been purposefully conserved despite centuries of evolution.

EQ is a person's awareness of their own emotions and the emotions of others. Most importantly, however, we also can use that awareness in different life situations. To define EQ in more detail, we need to start with its four fundamental pillars: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, and Interpersonal Management or Social Intelligence.
Woman reading on social intelligence

Self-Awareness

EQ begins with understanding yourself. Being able to distinguish unhelpful thoughts or identify which emotions you’re feeling is one aspect of self-awareness. When it comes to others, you need to first be able to recognize and name your own emotions before empathizing with others. This knowledge includes recognizing all the physical responses that accompany our emotions, such as sensations, thoughts, urges, and behaviors.

For example, how did you feel whenever watching the news this year? If you felt stressed or anxious, did your heart race? Did you clench your jaw? Or was your first reaction to ignore the news altogether or try to avoid the stress by turning off the TV?

Simply taking a step back and noticing how your mind and body react in different situations will provide greater self-awareness.

Self-Management

Once you understand your own emotions, the next step is regulating them. As helpful as our emotional responses are to our survival, they can also be a hindrance in certain social contexts, such as when we react in knee-jerk ways or direct anger at another person. Controlling ourselves and self-calming are critical for all social situations. If we can’t modulate our emotions, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to put ourselves in another person's shoes.

One small part of self-management includes coping with stress, calming yourself, and expressing your emotions in a healthy way (also known as emotional regulation). Another aspect of managing oneself is through setting limits and healthy boundaries, such as managing our time, saying no to overeating, achieving goals, and finding a work-life balance.

Related Reading: Why Should You Care About Emotional Regulation?

Social Awareness

The third pillar of EQ is social awareness: taking your own emotional and self-awareness and applying it as a context to understand those around you. Social understanding includes reflective listening, and having an active interest in others.

While you navigate your daily interactions with your social environment, social awareness requires you to be:

  • perceptive of others’ perspectives and emotions
  • tolerant of diverse beliefs and opinions
  • interpret, even anticipate the needs of others
  • genuinely interested in others
  • empathetic to the feelings of others

Interpersonal Management

Respectful interactions with others are the next component in building EQ. This fourth and final pillar of emotional intelligence uses everything you've learned thus far to enhance social interactions. Social EQ integrates multiple skills to nurture and cultivate healthy relationships—whether you’re in the workplace, in your social life, or at home.

Conflict resolution is just one example of intelligent interpersonal management. Take this scenario as an example: Your co-worker comes to you after incorrectly completing his part of a group project. The project had a tight deadline, and the delay to correct the mistakes is a problem. You blow up and tell him how inept he is while storming off to fix the project. (Hint: this reaction is not emotionally or socially intelligent.)

Manager upset with mistakes on a project

Now, let’s replay this scenario using EQ:

Your co-worker brings the project to you, and you immediately realize his mistakes. Instead of yelling, you slowly walk to your desk while taking a couple of deep breaths. (This action is a self-calming technique, and it allows you to shift your frustration and anger to an intention to get curious.)

Turning around to face your co-worker, you ask in a calm voice, “What was your understanding of this project’s objective and the part you were responsible for?” After hearing his explanation, you realize that your co-worker misinterpreted the instructions, and you neglected to give necessary background information for him to be successful. You immediately take responsibility for your part, apologize, and give him the missing pieces to finish correctly and efficiently.

See why self-management is so vital in social interactions? This communication dance between people is an ongoing challenge. All interpersonal relationships require awareness and self-management for healthy relationships.

3 Simple Ways to Improve Your EQ

Understanding, regulating, and expressing our emotions in a healthy way is a potent recipe for improving our EQ. Keeping with the theme of New Year's resolutions, it may help to strengthen your EQ the same way you would look at planning a workout for the gym.

To improve your emotional intelligence, you need to exercise each "muscle group" (which in this metaphor is each of the four pillars described above) so that your emotional fitness is well-rounded. Let’s take a look at three simple steps that will bring you that much closer to building your emotional intelligence across all four pillars.

1. Delve Deeper into Your Emotions

How many times, when your loved ones ask how you're doing, do you answer "fine" automatically? When is the last time you stopped to consider what feeling "fine" really means, or if that's actually how you feel at all?

The next time you are asked how you are doing, pause to reflect and check in with yourself. How are you actually feeling? Refer to the wheel of emotions to learn more about your different emotions. Try to select the word that best describes your emotional experience in the present moment. The very act of identifying your emotion helps to regulate you.

However, as you identify how you are feeling, remember that the emotional experience is more than a single word; it is a collection of physiological responses, thoughts, sensations, and behaviors. It's equally as important to be mindful of your physical body as it is to assign a label to your emotions.

Giving honest responses and opening up to those you feel comfortable around helps create connection. Sharing how you are truly doing (beyond "fine" or "good") works doubly to strengthen your emotional intelligence by encouraging your conversational partner to open up, too. This practice will assist you to also exercise your empathy and listening skills, fortifying your EQ by combining the skills of self-expression and active listening.

Pensive man contemplating and gaining self-awareness

2. Replace Negative Self-Talk with a Practice of Self-Compassion.

Self-compassion is defined by three elements: self-kindness versus self-judgment, common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus over-identification.

  • Self-kindness entails being warm and kind to ourselves, especially when we struggle or fail. Mistakes are an inevitable part of being human, so we must practice speaking to ourselves gently, rather than calling ourselves losers or failures when we err.
  • Common humanity involves recognizing that your struggles are shared in some way by all human beings. By the very definition of being human, you are imperfect. Accept this, rather than berating yourself for it.
  • Mindfulness requires us to take a step back from our emotions and put our situation into context. We must practice shifting our perspective and identifying meaning from our personal experiences. In turn, this helps us better relate to others.

In order to do this, we need to avoid "over-identifying" with our thoughts and practice a concept known in acceptance and commitment therapy as cognitive defusion: separating ourselves and our identities from our unhelpful or unwanted thoughts.

By learning to replace negative self-talk with encouraging self-talk and mindful self-compassion, you're strengthening the skills you need to cope with life's disappointments. Your inner peace and well-being gained by this practice will empower you to bring more understanding to your relationships.

3. Look Inside Yourself to Figure Out What Motivates You.

Intrinsic motivation gives us the strength and energy we need to keep working on our quest toward self-improvement. Intrinsic motivators, such as pride or joy, reinforce our emotional intelligence more effectively than extrinsic motivators, such as tangible rewards.

To improve your EQ, you need to understand the reason why you value emotional intelligence. We need to understand our "why" in order to continue to stay motivated to improve our emotional intelligence. Focusing on our intrinsic motivations is what makes the difference between creating a lifelong habit instead of another abandoned New Year's resolution!

So instead of saying, "I want to improve my EQ," go more in-depth and answer the following questions: 

  • Why do I want to improve my EQ?
  • How will improving my EQ make me happier?
  • How might my life be better if I gave myself permission to feel and express my emotions intelligently?
  • How would EQ strengthen my relationships with others?
  • In what context do I feel most excited or motivated to improve my EQ?

Once you've identified your "why," remind yourself often of your goal and the reasoning behind it to get motivated—and stay that way. For example, you can try leaving motivational sticky notes around the house with phrases such as, "I will improve my EQ to feel closer to my partner," or "I will strengthen my emotional intelligence as a leader so I can earn that big promotion.” You could even set reminders on your phone!

Need Accountability?

As shown above, improving your emotional intelligence boils down to three foundational concepts we know well here at Heartmanity: self-awareness, self-compassion, and intrinsic motivation. But sometimes, knowledge never makes it to action. Wanting to practice these three steps is very different than actually acting on these steps. Sometimes, you need just a little bit of extra support.

To further strengthen your EQ in 2021, consider taking Heartmanity's Emotional Intelligence online course, which will teach you more simple, straightforward ways to develop your emotional intelligence in the New Year. Or contact us at Heartmanity today at 406-577-2100.  

Yes, teach me emotional intelligence!

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer’s passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills and a step-by-step process that removes the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. Her understanding of brain science strategically reshapes a person’s pain into power while restoring inner peace and well-being through a fun and remarkable learning experience. She also works with companies helping to promote organizational transformation of culture, leadership, and relationships. Jennifer is happily married to her beloved husband of 40 years and is the mother of three grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness