As human beings, we’re hard wired to experience emotions, and whether we realise it or not, our emotions strongly influence our thoughts, decisions and behaviour. Emotion is simply energy running through the body, and how we express an emotion is a release of that energy. It’s helpful to steer away from labelling emotions as positive or negative, good or bad – all emotions provide us with information, and therefore all serve a purpose. Depending on how we think and act as a result of an emotion, and the context in which we do so, the expression of that emotion may serve us positively or negatively.
Emotional intelligence is not about stifling or hiding emotions, always being positive, or needing to be more emotional. It’s about using emotion productively – recognising, understanding and working with emotions in ourselves and others, so we can
- Interact more effectively
- deal with disagreement constructively
- pro-actively handle stress and change
- read and navigate the dynamics of an organisational or team culture
- manage through complexity and make difficult decisions
- show up authentically
- build and maintain trust.
All of these behaviours help us to increase our performance and achieve more positive results. There is indeed strong evidence that high levels of emotional intelligence in the workplace can lead to:
- Better physical and mental health
- Improved workplace relationships
- Coping better with high demands and stress
- Increased levels of engagement and discretionary effort
- Reductions in employee turnover and absenteeism
- Prevention of psychological injury
- Increased creativity and innovation
- More effective leadership.
So how do we build emotional intelligence? A good place to start is working on our self-awareness to get better at recognising emotion, in the moment, in ourselves and others. To build self-awareness, practice paying attention to these four things:
- Emotion is a biological reaction, and is first triggered in the body, so we can start to notice emotion by being aware of physiological changes or body sensations – are we holding our breath, where do we feel tightness, how intense is that tightness, how far does it extend, how long does it last?
- Next tune in to our self-talk – what are we thinking, what words and phrases are we saying to ourselves that give us a clue as to how we’re feeling?
- Notice what we’re saying – listen to our language, the labels we are assigning, and to the tone and volume of our voice
- Pay attention to our behaviour – both what we’re doing, and what we feel like doing.
When identifying emotions in others we don’t have the benefit of knowing directly about their body sensations or their self-talk (although we could ask them). But in addition to what they’re saying and doing, we also have the benefit of observing facial expression and body language to help us recognise and label an emotional experience. A shift in the person’s energy can also be a clue that they have experienced an emotional reaction.
Awareness in the moment alerts us to the presence of an emotion in ourselves and others. Having a comprehensive mental dictionary of emotions gives us the capacity to label that experience. We can then use that information to make a choice about how to respond more productively.
For example, when we recognise emotion in ourselves we’re able to regulate the way we express that emotion, shift our emotional state to one that is more productive and incorporate information from our feelings, together with facts and other information, into decisions. When we recognise emotion in others, we can acknowledge the emotion with empathy, assist them where necessary to regulate how they are expressing the emotion, and use a broader range of information to help us respond appropriately.
Emotional Intelligence skills can be learnt, by focusing on key behaviours you want to change and practising new responses over time. Like any behaviour change, it can be hard going to get started, but begin by recognising the value to you and the people around you in terms of improved performance and relationships. Then through self-awareness, feedback from others and observation of impact you will start to embed emotional intelligence for a thriving future.