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What is ‘emotional intelligence’ and how can you build it?

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Many graduates leave university without much emotional intelligence, leaving employers disappointed. We’ll help you make the cut.

Emotional intelligence is something that often gets lost but plays an important part in the workplace. No matter what role you end up in during professional life, having strong emotional intelligence will help you navigate all manner of tricky situations. In this article, we’ll answer some common questions and discuss some good ways to develop your emotional intelligence, ready for professional life. 

So what is emotional intelligence?

Basically, it’s your ability to recognise the emotions of others, as well as your own. Both portions of this equation are important. In recognising the emotions of others, you can adjust the way you’re acting to better accommodate for them. If you have the emotional intelligence to assess yourself, you’re able to regulate your feelings and adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of conversations and relationships as a whole. 

This kind of intelligence is often different from the more commonly known intelligence quotient, or IQ. It’s possible to have both, which is in fact often the case, but plenty of people have one without the other.

Emotional intelligence is comprised of a few elements, including but not limited to:

  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Self-discipline
  • Anger management
  • Stress management
  • Self-awareness

Why is emotional intelligence important in the workplace?

You’ll have to interact with people in whatever job you’re doing, even if it’s not typically a client-facing role. Knowing how to read colleagues and bosses, as well as understanding how their behaviour or decisions impact your emotional state, can boost the productivity of yourself and others. More importantly, it’ll help you keep everyone around you happy.

If you have any interest in being a leader, emotional intelligence is key. It takes more than just great subject knowledge or skill to lead others. To lead people, you must truly understand them. For that, you need emotional intelligence.

Even if you don’t aspire to be a leader, you should aspire to be a collaborator. Once again emotional intelligence is crucial. If you can read how people you’re working with are feeling and detect when they’re struggling or enjoying a task, that can help you delegate more effectively and ultimately boost the productivity of your task force. 

How can I develop emotional intelligence?

There are a couple of good ways to develop emotional intelligence, but if you’re starting from the bottom you’ll really need to apply yourself.

  • Pay more attention to the body language of people you’re talking to. They may be saying more than you first thought. It’s worth reading books on the subject from reputable sources, like former FBI agent Joe Navarro or from psychologists and counsellors. They can teach you about body language cues and what they mean in different contexts. 
  • Pay more attention to your body language and how you’re feeling when you make various gestures. For instance, you may find yourself folding your arms when you’re insecure, or thrusting your hands into your pockets when out in public. Maybe you’re mirroring the behaviour of a close friend, indicating you’re engaged with what they’re saying. As this is a two-way street, reflection is key to building emotional intelligence. 
  • Ask your friends how they’re doing more often. They’ll appreciate it, but it’ll also give you a chance to practice appropriately considering and responding to their needs.
  • Get better at self-discipline by recognising when you’re being distracted, then putting it away. Distraction is inherently emotional. It’s our monkey brain craving diversion and stimulation. Being able to consistently swat away that impulse is a mark of emotional intelligence. 
  • When you’re getting angry and frustrated, try to recognise you’re feeling that way and make an effort to calm yourself. There are even courses you can take on anger or frustration management, but before resorting to these, just do your best to remain in the moment, completely self-aware. This is your most powerful tool in keeping your emotions under control. 
  • Take part in activities that regulate your emotions. This can mean engaging in things you enjoy, going to therapy or exercising. These sorts of activities let you vent and express your emotions in a healthy way. 
  • Go out of your way to meet more people. This can mean going to lunch with classmates or going on some dates! Whatever it is, the point is to build up your social skills. One of the best ways to do that is practice!
  • Always try to understand people, even if you don’t like them. In fact, one of the best ways of exercising your emotional intelligence is to put on a debate featuring someone you absolutely loathe… and then do your best to empathise with them! If you can empathise with people you don’t like, under stressful conditions you don’t even agree with, you’ll have no problem understanding colleagues and clients in the workplace. If this seems too hard for now, start small and maybe watch a vlog with someone you mildly dislike to try and understand their predicament and work your way from there. So long as you’re exercising your empathy, you’re working on your emotional intelligence. 

We encourage you to find your own ways of developing emotional intelligence too. Whether it’s seeing your parents more often, volunteering at a homeless shelter, coaching a sport’s team or any other leadership or compassionate activity, all can have a profound effect. Not only will it help you develop, but you’ll become an invaluable member of your community too. 

How long does it take to develop emotional intelligence?

It can take years to develop emotional intelligence from absolute zero, but you likely have some degree of emotional intelligence already. Generally, those who tend to reflect more deeply are the ones who develop emotional intelligence the quickest. If you don’t look inward enough, you’ll have a hard time looking outward. 

Is there an ‘end’ to developing emotional intelligence?

There’s always more to learn. Every person you meet will be different in their own unique way, so constant observation and reflection are required to stay on top of changing social circumstances. Every new colleague will have their own way of speaking, thinking and acting, which you’ll have to accommodate for. 

A final piece of advice…

There are many nuances to this topic, but the crux of the issue is respect. If you put respect for other people first and ask yourself, ‘am I being respectful?’, you’ll have a far better time developing emotional intelligence. More importantly, you’ll make everyone around you feel safe, secure and comfortable with you around. That’s its own reward! 

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