Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and respond to your own feelings and those of others.
It sounds simple, but emotional intelligence requires quite a lot of self-awareness. You need to become aware of how you feel, why you feel it and what to do about it (if anything).
You also need to do your best to become aware of the same for those around you and step into their shoes when possible.
This is certainly doable, it’s just a matter of some patience and a desire to become more emotionally intelligent. The benefits will stretch across your life including better professional and personal relationships and a greater sense of well-being.
Here are 12 ways to build more emotional intelligence.
1) Be understanding and compassionate with yourself
The first key to emotional intelligence is to be understanding and compassionate with yourself.
We all have flaws and areas where we have trouble managing our emotions.
Before you’ll be able to really grapple with your emotions or know what to do with them, it’s necessary to go a bit easy on yourself.
2) Pay attention to your own behavior and the feelings behind it
When you do something, what feelings surround it?
Maybe there’s a lack of feeling. What could that numbness be covering or counteracting?
Don’t think of your emotions or numbness as “bad” and “good,” and don’t fall into traps of shame from the past.
Your feelings exist and that’s that. Don’t try to decide whether they’re “good,” “justified,” “exaggerated” or anything else.
Emotional intelligence starts here: paying attention to your behavior and the emotions behind it.
3) Analyze the emotions at play within interactions and conflicts
When you do have conflicts or interactions of any kind, what emotions are present?
Try to be specific and take a moment to reflect on it.
When your girlfriend asks you why you don’t communicate better or your mom gives you a compliment, what do you feel?
How does it feel when you’re stuck in traffic and feeling exhausted, or when you just saw an old friend for the first time in a decade who you used to also have some issues with at times?
Pay attention to the complexity. What walls do you have up? Are you very open? Too open? What could it mean about the way you were raised?
4) Learn to observe your emotions without responding right away
When you do feel strong emotions of any kind (happy, sad, confused, irritated, paranoid, ecstatic) practice not responding right away.
Even a moment or two of quiet before you respond to your emotions becomes a kind of superpower.
Instead of being dependent on what you feel, you are now consciously able to make decisions in which your emotions are just one factor.
Making a decision all with your head or all with your heart is an equally risky venture.
Taking the time to balance the two and take your emotions into account before acting on them is enormously beneficial to your life.
It’s not always easy, especially in the heat of an argument or tense interaction, but even that short mental space of going inside yourself and focusing is extremely helpful.
5) Develop strategies to face and process painful emotions
When you do experience painful emotions, it’s not always easy to keep them under control.
I know about this well, since I used to struggle with severe depression, anxiety and anger issues that would sometimes tip me over the edge into aggressive and inappropriate treatment of others.
It’s important to develop strategies to face and process painful emotions.
This could be breathing techniques, exercise, listening to music or shouting into your pillow.
Try to find a “happy place” or at least venting activity that can stop you from taking out painful emotions on yourself or others.
6) Know your limits of emotional frustration, anxiety and sadness
As I mentioned in the last point, all of us do have limits at which we become overwhelmed.
You can see that in those living in enormous fear under threat and feeling completely suffocated by panic.
You can see it in those who get pushed a bit too far by a bully or a person harassing them.
Knowing your limits is an important part of building emotional intelligence, because even though developing more control is key, knowing when that might not happen is vital.
Then you can anticipate a breakdown and avoid it.
7) Find activities and strategies to become more resilient
It’s a sure bet in life that emotions are going to come which have the potential to disempower and drag us down.
They are not “bad” emotions as I’ve said. Nor should you say they’re “alien” or attacking you from outside.
Every emotion we feel is up to us to face and process, whether or not we feel it’s fair or balanced.
Emotions like feeling victimized, wanting revenge, hating social interactions and more are all legitimate. But if we don’t face them and find a way to understand and express them (healthily) then they do have the power to limit other proactive things we want to do with our life.
In other words it’s not that they are invalid or bad, but just that they need to be treated with caution and consciousness.
8) Find activities and strategies to become more vulnerable
At the same time as you should aim for more resilience and ability to bounce back from difficult emotions, you should also aim for increased vulnerability.
This is all about being willing to open up about how you feel:
First of all opening up to yourself and secondly opening up to others.
Vulnerability means letting go of the need to always be strong, right, or “fine.”
It’s OK not to be OK.
And sometimes admitting you’re not OK is, ironically, the first step to becoming truly OK.
9) Develop more empathy for others and give them more slack
Emotional intelligence also starts with going a bit easier on others.
Try your best to develop patience and empathy for the behavior of other people that you find frustrating or over-the-top.
You should never allow yourself to be treated poorly or be exploited, but when somebody is, for example, being annoying or talking in a judgmental way, keep this in mind:
You don’t know what they might be going through or how conflicted and difficult their emotional state is right now.
Rather than judge, try your best to just be present. You’ll feel better about yourself in many cases and avoid many conflicts that might otherwise occur.
10) Be emotionally honest without seeking sympathy or approval
Emotional honesty isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.
When you’re true to how you feel and don’t use it to manipulate others or lie to yourself, you begin to feel much more empowered.
You’ll notice that others open up more to you and that you begin to feel more comfortable dealing with hard emotions in yourself and those around you.
Your emotional intelligence grows as you accept emotions without needing them to be received or responded to in any particular way.
They just are what they are.
11) Be yourself and let others be themselves
Emotional intelligence has a lot to do with space.
Allow yourself to feel what you do and be who you are without having to label or judge it right away.
Life is a process that continues to unfold and evolve. You don’t need to define everything, nor do you need to divide emotions into only good or bad.
When you extend yourself space to accept your feelings you also give others space to accept their feelings as well.