Emotional intelligence is the proficiency of identifying and managing our own emotions and the emotions of others. Not everyone has the skills to be emotionally intelligent.  Skills represent an ability that comes from knowledge, practice, and aptitude in order to do something well. While everyone has a different beginning and maximum level of natural capability, between those boundaries skills can be learned and honed.

Self-awareness is the base on which emotional intelligence is built.  Self-awareness provides the ability to lead with a sense of purpose, authenticity, openness, and trust. Being self-aware provides an understanding of who we are and what we need from others in order to complement our deficiencies.  A Harvard Business Review web article, 5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware suggests that you can become more self-aware through five tools:

  1.      Meditate
  2.      Write down your key plans and priorities
  3.      Take psychometric tests
  4.      Ask trusted friends
  5.      Get regular feedback at work

The tools tell us to do the work to know ourselves, then test that knowledge by getting feedback, and then listening to that feedback. Improving our self-awareness increases our ability to recognize our emotions and channel those emotions to deliver and lead.

While self-awareness is an important first step, once we have a grasp on who we are emotionally we then need the ability to self-regulate our emotions. Self-regulation is not the avoidance of emotion, but rather the ability to manage those emotions so that they do not control their words and actions. I recently was listening to a Freakonomics podcast featuring an interview with Trevor Noah.  In the interview, they were discussing the channeling of anger into comedy.  They used the example of a professional boxer; while the boxer may be angry during the fight (and who wouldn’t getting punched in the head) they must repress that anger so that they can think and act strategically and only release in bursts when the time is right.  Professional athletes channel their emotions in order avoid havoc, disruptions, and lasting bad feelings all around them.  As with self-awareness, self-regulation is a skill that can be honed. For example, the Huffington Post article, 6 Steps to Controlling Your Emotions by Dr. Carmen Harra, suggests the following actions for self-regulation:

  1.      Don’t react right away
  2.      Ask for divine guidance
  3.      Find a healthy outlet
  4.      See the bigger picture
  5.      Replace your thoughts
  6.      Forgive your emotional triggers

People, including myself, often feel before we think.  Many of our cognitive biases, formed as survival techniques, are stark reminders of this truth.  However, just because we feel first does not mean we need to act before thinking.  The suggestions from Dr. Harra separate feeling from acting so that we have time to think and self-regulate.  Except in rare instances, this is a learned behavior.

Empathy builds on the self-awareness and self-management.  Empathic people have an awareness of the feelings and emotions of others and then consider those feelings and emotions in their words and actions. Having and using empathy does not mean we need to be frozen into inaction or be unwilling to make tough or unpopular decisions, but rather to understand and take others feelings into consideration.  Empathy, while studies have shown starts as a hardwired state, can be improved.   There are steps that can be taken to get better at empathy. Those steps include:

  1.      Pay attention
  2.      Communication
  3.      Learning games

We have explored these steps in depth in an earlier blog entry. In order to be empathetic, we need to be aware of others, let them have their say (don’t interrupt) while we listen and understand both logically and emotionally.

Emotional intelligence is truly a confluence of many capabilities.  Arguably self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy are a path to many social skills.  Each of those skills can be learned and honed which will increase emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is useful, for example, to control and channel emotions in a tense meeting is important in any corporate environment.  An emotionally intelligent team player will be able to interact with team members with varying agendas, temperaments, and help generate buy-in.