5 Skills to Help You Develop Emotional Intelligence

What is emotional intelligence or EQ?

Emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient, “EQ”) is the ability to recognize and effectively manage your emotions and the emotions of others.

How emotionally intelligent you are often determines the quality of your relationships, how you handle stress in everyday life, how well you can communicate with others, and even how effective you are at your job.

Stop being an emotional idiot

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What does it mean to be emotionally intelligent? 

I’ve argued before that emotions, while important, are not the be all end all of life. That is, I don’t think we should constantly be striving to feel good all the time by ignoring our negative emotions.

An emotionally intelligent person, therefore, isn’t someone who can just “be happy” all the time. Instead, an emotionally intelligent person can not only clearly identify emotions—both in themselves and in others—they also know how to effectively respond to different emotions.

And this is where I differ from a lot of other people who think about this sort of thing: sometimes the best way to respond to an emotion is by not responding at all.

Again, not all emotions necessarily mean something. The true essence of being an emotionally intelligent person is being able to know when an emotion deserves a response and when an emotion simply needs to be acknowledged, experienced, and then let go.

Emotions come and go. By definition, we can’t really control which emotions we experience (at least not directly). So part of developing your emotional intelligence is learning to choose not only how you’ll respond to emotions, but which emotions you respond to in the first place. As we’ll see a bit later, this all comes down to knowing what you value.

Why is emotional intelligence so important?

As I said previously, how you navigate emotions affects nearly all parts of your life. Here are three areas of your life that benefit from developing emotional intelligence:

  • Your mental health. At any given moment, your mental health is a reflection of emotional balance, or lack thereof, in your life. How you deal with stress—from everyday minor stressors to major life-changing stress—determines a huge portion of your mental health in both the short- and long-term. I’ve argued before that we should not identify so strongly with our emotions and instead experience them as a curious observer. When you learn how to do this, you quickly find that while pain is inevitable, suffering from that pain is actually optional.
  • Your relationships. Your ability to successfully navigate relationships of all kinds is pretty much the same thing as your ability to navigate the world of emotions. Recognizing the emotional needs of a friend, family member, or romantic partner and then responding in a way that helps them get that need met is the foundation for any healthy, fulfilling relationship. It works the other way as well: to get your needs met in a relationship, you must effectively communicate your needs to the other person. This is often one of the hardest parts of relationships for a lot of people.
  • Your job. If you’re in a leadership role in your job, one of the best management strategies you can use is listening to what your employees need to do their jobs effectively. And it’s not just about the valuable information you get back when you listen. When employees feel heard and respected, they’re more productive, less likely to quit, less likely to complain. If you’re an employee, understanding what motivates you and your bosses/coworkers on an emotional level will make navigating your work life so much easier and less stressful.

So let’s look at some practical ways we can develop more emotional intelligence in our lives.

5 Skills to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

1. Practice Self-Awareness

Like with most things emotional, you can’t get better at them until you know what the fuck they are. When you lack self-awareness, trying to manage your emotions is like sitting in a tiny boat without a sail on top of the sea of your own emotions, completely at the whim of the currents of whatever is happening moment by moment. You have no idea where you’re going or how to get there. And all you can do is scream and yell for help.

emotional intelligence: self-awareness

Self-awareness involves understanding yourself and your behavior on three levels: 1) what you’re doing, 2) how you feel about it, and 3) the hardest part, figuring out what you don’t know about yourself.

Knowing what you’re doing. You would think this would be pretty simple and straightforward, but the truth is that in the 21st century, most of us don’t even know what the fuck we’re doing half the time. We’re on auto-pilot—check email, text BFF, check Instagram, watch YouTube, check email, text BFF, etc., etc. Removing distractions from your life—like, you know, turning off your damn phone now and then and engaging with the world around you is a nice first step to self-awareness. Finding spaces of silence and solitude, while potentially scary, are necessary for our mental health. Other forms of distraction include work, TV, drugs/alcohol, video games, cross-stitching, arguing with people on the internet, etc.

Schedule time in your day to get away from them. Do your morning commute with no music or podcast. Just think about your life. Think about how you’re feeling. Set aside 10 minutes in the morning to meditate. Delete social media off your phone for a week. You’ll often be surprised by what happens to you. We use these distractions to avoid a lot of uncomfortable emotions, and so removing distractions and focusing on how you feel without them can reveal some kind of scary shit sometimes. But removing distractions is critical because it gets us to the next level.

Know what you’re feeling. At first, once you actually pay attention to how you feel, it might freak you out. You might come to realize you’re often actually pretty sad or that you’re kind of an angry asshole to a lot of people in your life. You might realize that there’s a lot of anxiety going on, and that whole “phone addiction” thing is really just a way to constantly numb and distract yourself from that anxiety. It’s important at this point to not judge the emotions that arise. You’ll be tempted to say something like, “Ick! Anxiety! What the fuck is wrong with me!” But that just makes it worse. Whatever emotion is there has a good reason to be there, even if you don’t remember what that reason is. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

Knowing your own emotional bullshit. Once you see all the icky, uncomfortable stuff you’re feeling, you’ll begin to get a sense of where your own little crazy resides. For instance, I get really touchy about being interrupted. I get irrationally angry when I’m trying to speak and the person I’m speaking to is distracted. I take it personally. And while sometimes it is just them being rude, sometimes shit happens and I end up looking like a total dickface because I can’t stand going two seconds without every word I speak being respected. That’s some of my emotional bullshit. And it’s only by being aware of it that I can ever react against it.

Now, just being self-aware is not sufficient in and of itself. One must be able to manage their emotions too.


2. Channel Your Emotions Effectively

People who believe that emotions are the be-all-end-all of life often seek ways to “control” their emotions. You can’t. You can only react to them.

Emotions are merely the signals that tell us to pay attention to something. We can then decide whether or not that “something” is important and choose the best course of action in addressing it—or not.

There’s no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion—there are only “good” and “bad” reactions to your emotions.

emotional intelligence: channeling your emotions

Anger can be a destructive emotion if you misdirect it and hurt others or yourself in the process. But it can be a good emotion if you use it to correct injustices and/or protect yourself or others.

Joy can be a wonderful emotion when shared with people you love when something good happens. But it can be a horrifying emotion if it’s derived from hurting others.

Such is the act of managing your emotions: recognizing what you’re feeling, deciding whether or not that’s an appropriate emotion for the situation, and acting accordingly.

The whole point of this is to be able to channel your emotions into what psychologists call “goal-directed behavior”—or what I prefer to call “getting your shit together.”


3. Learn How to Motivate Yourself

Have you ever lost yourself completely in an activity? Like, you start doing something and get immersed in it and when you snap out of the quasi-hypnotic state you’ve somehow induced in yourself, you realize three hours have passed but it felt like fifteen minutes?

This happens to me when I write sometimes. I lose my sense of time and I get this cascade of subtly-layered feelings when I’m fleshing out ideas in my head and putting them into words. It’s like a feeling of fascination mixed with slightly frustrated intrigue mixed with little bursts of dopamine when I feel like I just came up with a great line or funny poop joke or somehow got my point across without cursing.

I love this feeling, and when I achieve it, it motivates me to keep writing.

Notice something important here, though: I don’t wait for that feeling to arise before I start writing.

I start writing and then that feeling starts to build, which motivates me to keep writing, and the feeling builds a little more, and on and on.

This is what I call the “Do Something Principle” and it’s probably one of the simplest yet most magical “hacks” I’ve ever come across. The Do Something Principle states that taking action is not just the effect of motivation, but also the cause of it.

motivate yourself

Most people try to look for inspiration first so they can take some momentous action and change everything about themselves and their situation. They try to pump themselves up with whatever flavor of mental masturbation is in style that week so they can finally take action. But by next week, they’ve run out of steam and they’re back at it again, jerking off to another “method” of motivation.

But I like to turn this on its head completely. When I need to be motivated, I just do something that’s even remotely related to what I want to accomplish and then, action begets motivation begets action, etc.

When I don’t feel like writing, I tell myself I’ll just work on the outline for now. Once I do that, it often makes me think of something interesting I hadn’t thought of yet that I want to include and so I write that down and maybe flesh it out a little.

Before I know it, I’m halfway through a draft and I haven’t even put on pants yet.

(NOTE: This is just because I never wear pants.)

The point is that to use your emotions effectively to get your shit together, you have to do something.

If you don’t feel like anything motivates you, do something. Draw a doodle, find a free online coding class, talk to a stranger, learn a musical instrument, learn something about a really hard subject, volunteer in your community, go salsa dancing, build a bookshelf, write a poem. Pay attention to how you feel before, during, and after whatever it is you’re doing and use those emotions to guide your future behavior.

And know that it’s not always “good” feelings that will motivate you, too. Sometimes I’m frustrated and really fucking annoyed that I can’t quite say exactly what I want to say. Sometimes I’m anxious that what I’m writing won’t resonate with people. But for whatever reason, these feelings often only make me want to write more. I love the challenge of wrestling with something that’s just a little bit out of my reach.


4. Recognize Emotions in Others to Create Healthier Relationships 

Everything we’ve covered so far deals with handling and directing emotions within yourself. But the whole point of developing emotional intelligence should ultimately be to foster healthier relationships in your life.

And healthy relationships—romantic relationships, familial relationships, friendships, whatever—begin with recognition and respect of one another’s emotional needs.

You do this by connecting and empathizing with others. By both listening to others and sharing yourself honestly with others—that is, through vulnerability.

Practice empathy and vulnerability

To empathize with someone doesn’t necessarily mean to completely understand them, but rather to accept them as they are, even when you don’t understand them. You learn to value their existence and treat them as their own end rather than a means for something else. You acknowledge their pain as your pain—as our collective pain.

Relationships are where emotional rubber hits the proverbial pavement. They get us out of our heads and into the world around us. They make us realize we’re a part of something much larger and much more complex than just ourselves.

And relationships are, ultimately, the way we define our values.


5. Infuse Your Emotions with Values 

When Daniel Goleman’s book came out in the 90s, “emotional intelligence” became the big buzzword in psychology. CEOs and managers read workbooks and went to retreats on emotional intelligence to motivate their workforces. Therapists tried to instill more emotional awareness in their clients to help them get a handle on their lives. Parents were admonished to cultivate emotional intelligence in their children to prepare them for a changing, emotionally-oriented world.

Infuse your emotions with values

A lot of this sort of thinking misses the point, however. And that is that emotional intelligence is meaningless without orienting your values.

You might have the most emotionally intelligent CEO on the planet, but if she’s using her skills to motivate her employees to sell products made by exploiting poor people or destroying the planet, how is being emotionally intelligent a virtue here?

A father might teach his son the tenets of emotional intelligence, but without also teaching him the values of honesty and respect, he could turn into a ruthless, lying little prick—but an emotionally intelligent one!

Conmen are highly emotionally intelligent. They understand emotions quite well, both in themselves and especially in others. But they end up using that information to manipulate people for their own personal gain. They value themselves above all else and at the expense of all others. And things get ugly when you value little outside of yourself.

Lisa Nowak, for all of her brilliance and expertise, couldn’t handle her own emotions and valued the wrong things. Therefore, she let her emotions drive her off the proverbial cliff, going from outer space to incarcerated space.

Ultimately, we’re always choosing what we value, whether we know it or not. And our emotions will carry out those values through motivating our behavior in some way.

So to live the life you truly want to live, you have to first be clear about what you truly value because that’s where your emotional energy will be directed.

And knowing what you truly value—not just what you say you value—is probably the most emotionally intelligent skill you can develop.