Emotional intelligence can enrich your life in all sorts of ways. Learn what this important skill is and what you can do to strengthen your own emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is both a measure of how well you understand and handle your feelings—and a skill that helps you do so. Also called your emotional quotient (EQ), it can be learned and strengthened, no matter your age.
When you have high emotional intelligence, it means that you understand others, as well as yourself. It helps you respond to stressful situations, such as conflicts, in constructive ways. The higher your EQ, the better you may be able to cope with life and the big and little upsets it sends your way.
Your EQ is not the same as your IQ (intelligence quotient). IQ is a measure of your ability to think, reason, and solve problems. It’s a measure of your math and vocabulary skills. While it’s thought that both IQ and EQ are key to having a successful, healthy, and happy life, many experts now think that EQ may be the more important of the two.
Why emotional intelligence is important
Why might emotional intelligence be so crucial for reaching personal, financial, and professional success? EQ helps you stay calm and engage with others in more positive, productive ways. It can also boost your work performance and leadership skills. But emotional intelligence goes a step further than helping you succeed in life and work. It also supports greater health and well-being. Research suggests that it may:
- Help you stay calm in the face of stress. This in turn may help support better sleep and healthy blood pressure and heart health.
- Lessen your risk for anxiety and depression.
- Hone your communication skills, especially during tense conversations.
- Improve relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. Stronger social support may boost your health and well-being.
- Keep impulsive feelings and behaviors in check, so you can express and redirect them in calm, constructive, and positive ways.
- Help you choose and stick with healthy eating and exercise habits (in part, by helping you to better control impulsive urges, like overeating).
- Help you solve problems and boost your self-confidence to keep working towards your goals, even when you hit hurdles.
How to improve emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence involves many different skills. Empathy, communication skills, and positive thinking are just a few that can play a role. But there are 4 skills that are the main building blocks of EQ. Strengthening each of these skills can help you raise your emotional intelligence.
This means you are aware of your own emotions. You notice when feelings start to crop up, and you can readily identify what they are. You can also pinpoint how those feelings affect your mood, your actions, and how you engage with those around you. You have a clear sense of which emotions trigger you most often. And you know the reactions they tend to cause. Improving your EQ often starts with this skill.
To help strengthen your self-awareness, try taking these steps:
- Practice identifying your emotions. Try to be more mindful of your feelings. When a stressful event happens, try to pinpoint the feelings or mood swings that come up. For instance, are you feeling frustrated, defensive, or angry? Or are you feeling shut down, withdrawn, or hopeless?
- Notice how your feelings drive your thoughts and actions. Say you’re feeling frustrated by a hard-to-solve problem. What thoughts tend to run through your head? Do you tell yourself you’re inept and that the problem is unsolvable? Does this cause you to melt down and give up? This is just one example of how feelings might trigger unhelpful thoughts and actions.
The goal of boosting emotional self-awareness is not to push your feelings aside. Your emotions are not a bad thing. They are valuable and helpful tools, if managed and used in healthy ways. The goal is to tune in more deeply to your feelings, learn to accept rather than judge them, and then learn to manage them.
This part of emotional intelligence means you are able to manage your emotions—and the behaviors they can trigger—in healthy ways. When changes come, you can adapt. When stress hits, you don’t react automatically. Instead, you learn to pause and check what you’re feeling and why before reacting.
Self-management and self-awareness go hand in hand. They work together. Once you become more aware of your emotions, you can work to manage them. You can learn to ground and center yourself instead of impulsively reacting.
Here are some tools that can help you practice and strengthen this skill:
- Wait to react. Take some time to process your feelings and to gather yourself. You may want to take several deep breaths, take a brisk walk, or count to 10.
- Reframe your thinking. If you tend to think the worst will happen when a problem arises, try to shift your thoughts to more neutral or helpful ones. Say you tend to think most problems are insurmountable. That’s likely not true. Instead, remind yourself that there may be solutions you just haven’t found yet.
- Adjust your expectations. If you tend to expect perfection—from yourself, from others, and from the world around you—try to let go of that expectation. It’s not realistic and it can lead to a lot of frustration. You can’t control other people, and you often can’t control outcomes. Pinpoint what you can control, such as your reactions, and practice letting go of those things you can’t.
- Pause and look at the big picture. Say your frustration levels spike when daily hassles pile up. Take a step back and ask yourself, “In the grand scheme of things, are these little problems really worth getting upset about? Will I even remember them in a few days, weeks, months, or years?”
- Ask yourself a few key questions. Ask yourself whether letting loose with the sharp retort on the tip of your tongue is worth it. Consider whether satisfying that impulse will help things—or escalate them. When you feel your emotions starting to surge, ask yourself these 3 questions before you react:
- Is it really necessary or helpful for me to speak my mind in this moment or can it wait—maybe even indefinitely?
- If I really need to say something, either now or later, how can I word my response in a calm, nonconfrontational way?
- Am I feeling the need to prove that I’m right and the other person is wrong? If so, how can I shift my mindset to focus back on the problem, instead, as well as a mutually helpful solution to it?
Asking yourself these types of questions can help you shift your mindset, so your response is less emotionally charged and more helpful to both parties.
3. Social awareness
This is the ability to understand and care about the emotions of other people. Even if someone doesn’t tell you outright how they’re feeling, you’re able to pick up on nonverbal cues. And you can relate to what a person is going through as if you’re going through it yourself. It’s also the ability to notice and understand group dynamics. It is closely related to and springs from empathy.
To help raise your social awareness, practice active listening. This is when you fully tune into what a person is saying. You avoid multitasking. You quiet your own mental chatter. You focus like a laser beam on their words, gestures, and facial expressions—and the feelings behind them. And you refrain from judging them. Your goal is to understand and relate to what the person is going through, is saying, is feeling, and is needing.
4. Social skills
The other 3 parts of emotional intelligence work together to help you build the fourth one—social skills. Good social skills mean you know how to form and sustain healthy relationships. You can communicate calmly and effectively. You can positively influence others. You can resolve conflicts in constructive ways because you’re aware of your feelings and know how to handle them. And you’re also aware of and you care about the feelings of others.
Here are a few steps that may help hone your social skills.
- Take your empathy to the next level. Once you’ve learned to listen actively to others, look for ways to relate to what they are going through, as if you’re going through it yourself. Then try to respond in caring, understanding, and supportive ways to what they’re feeling. This will help the other person feel heard, understood, and safe. Using your social skills in this way may help build trust.
- Find the humor. Laughter and humor, when intended with kindness, may help ease stress and tension with others. Of course, avoid jokes that might be perceived as a personal jab. Instead, try to find the lighter, more playful side of a problem or conflict, if possible. It may help you connect with the other person in a mutually empathetic way.
- View disputes as opportunities to forge stronger bonds. Conflict happens. People are bound to have opposing points of view, needs, and expectations at times. But by using EQ, you can find healthy ways to resolve conflict. You can help lessen feelings of threat inherent in most quarrels. Instead, you can help foster mutual trust and a sense of safety. You can also learn to compromise. These tools for resolving conflict may help you build stronger bonds with the very person you’re clashing with.
As you work to increase your emotional intelligence, you may find that you are a more effective problem solver. You may have more success in reaching your goals, including your health goals. You might also feel less stressed. And your relationships might improve, along with your self-esteem. All of that can support greater health and well-being, as well as help you lead a more joyful, satisfying life.
This information is not intended to take the place of regular medical care or advice. Please check with your doctor before using this information or beginning any self-care program. Images used for this article do not depict any members of the Silver&Fit Program.
Acebes-Sanchez, J., Diez-Vega, I., Esteban-Gonzalo, S., & Rodriguez-Romo, G. (2019, September 9). Physical activity and emotional intelligence among undergraduate students: A correlational study. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 1241. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7576-5
Campbellsville University. (2016, September 14). IQ versus EQ: Measuring emotional intelligence in the workplace. https://online.campbellsville.edu/business/iq-vs-eq/
Center for Creative Leadership. (2021, December 2). Use active listening skills to coach others. https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/coaching-others-use-active-listening-skills/
Espinosa, A., & Kadic-Maglajlic, S. (2018, November 8). The mediating role of health consciousness in the relation between emotional intelligence and health behaviors. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 2161. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02161
Harvard Division of Continuing Education. (2019, August 26). How to improve your emotional intelligence. https://professional.dce.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-improve-your-emotional-intelligence/
Mayo Clinic. (2021, July 29). Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456
Moeller, R. W., Seehuus, M., & Peisch, V. (2020, January 31). Emotional intelligence, belongingness, and mental health in college students. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 93. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00093
Ott, C. (n.d.). What is emotional intelligence? Ohio State University Extension. https://ohio4h.org/sites/ohio4h/files/imce/Emotional%20Intelligence%20Background.pdf
Segal, J., Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Shubin, J. (2021, July). Improving emotional intelligence (EQ). HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/emotional-intelligence-eq.htm
Segal, J., Robinson, L., & Smith, M. (2020, October). Conflict resolution skills. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/relationships-communication/conflict-resolution-skills.htm
Sygit-Kowalkowska, E., Sygit, K., & Sygit, M. (2015). Emotional intelligence vs. health behaviour in selected groups in late adulthood. Annals of Agricultural and Environmental Medicine, 22(2), 338-343. https://doi.org/10.5604/12321966.1152092
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. (n.d.). What is empathy? http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/empathy/definition
This article was written by Gail Olson, edited by Nora Byrne and Jason Nielsen, and clinically reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, MPH, RD.