The three-step method to emotional intelligence 

Having a bright outlook means more than just being optimistic about the future.  It means being prepared to face whatever the future holds.  That's a tall order.

No one can predict the future.  We are living in a unique period in history, but the same factors weigh on us that have always weighed on humans.  Individually and collectively, we try to maximize our potential for gain while minimizing our potential for loss.  On a large scale that means wars and trade alliances.  On a smaller scale it means looking for ways to make a better living and improve our relationships.  There are many successes.  There are also many failures.  Through it all, we find joy, conflict, and stress.  It's impossible to precisely measure the effects but I found some useful statistics that may help.

Gallup interviewed more than 151,000 people in over 140 countries to compile their 2019 Global Emotions Report.  What did they find?  The number of people worldwide who said they experienced a lot of enjoyment the day before the survey was 71 percent.  Not bad.  But they also found a growing number of Americans were stressed, angry and worried, despite a growing U.S. economy.  

In 2015, researchers in The Netherlands, Spain, and the U.S. developed a smartphone application that monitored real-time emotions of an exceptionally large and heterogeneous participants sample (over 11,000 people!).  Their findings:

People’s everyday life seems profoundly emotional: participants experienced at least one emotion 90% of the time. The most frequent emotion was joy, followed by love and anxiety. People experienced positive emotions 2.5 times more often than negative emotions, but also experienced positive and negative emotions simultaneously relatively frequently.Trampe, D., Quoidbach, J., & Taquet, M. (2015). Emotions in Everyday Life. PloS one, 10(12), e0145450.

Emotions are a dominant part of everyday life.  While it's good to know that joy is the predominant emotion, we need to be prepared to handle all of the emotions we encounter in life.  In the article What is Emotional Intelligence? I mentioned several abilities that "emotionally intelligent" people have that enable them to better cope with life's challenges.  In Handle Criticism Like a Superhero I discussed why criticism can be difficult for so many of us and suggested more effective, empowering ways to deal with criticism.  Russell Clayton, who writes about the benefit of applying "power skills" to work and personal life, wrote, "Employees high in emotional intelligence are more satisfied with their jobs than their counterparts with low emotional intelligence." That's important, considering that a 2014 study reported 76% of those interviewed cited money and work as the leading cause of their stress.

Much of this article will reinforce what I've already written on the subject and will hopefully make it even clearer.  My three recommendations for becoming more emotionally "intelligent" and better equipped to deal with stress are:

  1. Recognize
  2. Understand
  3. Practice

What to recognize

In What is Emotional Intelligence? I pointed out the importance of being able to recognize and identify emotions.  It may seem simplistic, but verbally naming emotions as they appear (1) reduces their effects and (2) allows us to process them intelligently.  I would imagine that the study participants in the smartphone study I referred to above all became better at this by virtue of being asked multiple times a day which emotions they were experiencing.  In fact, Andrew Atkins, senior vice president of research, innovation, and practice at executive coaching and assessment firm Bates Communications, suggests using this method, such as setting alerts on a smart device, to "periodically ask yourself what you are feeling in a variety of situations." This quote comes from the excellent article 10 emotional intelligence tips from the masters by Stephanie Overby.

Recognize that it's natural to fear criticism.  Also recognize that this fear can be overcome, and the criticism can be harnessed for its positive potential.  To be able to separate the grain of useful feedback from the chaff of judgment accompanying it is a skill that can only be described as intelligent.

Recognize that improvement is attainable.  I addressed the fact that some think EI is inborn but I believe there is plenty of evidence that it can be learned.  Both of my articles I refer to above suggest effective, empowering ways to deal with "ego threats."This is a very broad term, poorly defined, but it fits the context of what I'm trying to say.  I'm finding it a challenge to clarify any concept with the word "ego" in it.  A 2009 study concluded, "Whether one is interested in threats to self-esteem, self-image, public image, social acceptance, or perceived control, these specific terms indicate far more clearly the phenomenon of interest than does ego threat." Leary, M. R., Terry, M. L., Batts Allen, A., & Tate, E. B. (2009). The Concept of Ego Threat in Social and Personality Psychology: Is Ego Threat a Viable Scientific Construct? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 13(3), 151–164. doi:10.1177/1088868309342595 

Recognize that awareness precedes control, and control is an important element in reducing stress.In case I need to prove this statement, a study with hundreds of participants concluded, "Results revealed that as direct and indirect change increased, stress increased; as level of control and input into changes increased, stress decreased. Control and input served as a moderating variable between stress and direct change, but not for indirect change." Johnson ME, Brems C, Mills ME, Neal DB, Houlihan JL. Moderating effects of control on the relationship between stress and change. Adm Policy Ment Health. 2006 Jul;33(4):499-503. doi: 10.1007/s10488-005-0002-6. PMID: 16220241. In an earlier article I wrote, "Fundamentally, EI involves awareness, motivation, and control." "Emotional intelligence," as described by the research I summarized, includes several abilities which give a person insight and control over situations.  It allows a person to handle situations successfully without sacrificing either one's own or the other's sense of well-being and self-confidence.  It can truly be described as win-win.

Recognize that "no one has power over the way you think, feel or behave."Amy Morin While many of us were raised believing that our emotions are automatic responses to the actions of others, we can learn to stop and reflect on how to react, or even whether to react at all.  Recognize that by taking responsibility for your actions you can maintain your integrity and self-respect. 

Recognize that "emotional literacy" is like any other form of literacy.  It is like learning a language.  First, the basic concepts need to be memorized and understood, in this case, being able to identify and name subtleties of emotion.  This is the vocabulary, the basic building blocks of the language. Next, patterns need to be identified.  This is the grammar.  Finally, practice is necessary in order to attain fluency.  If you've ever mastered a second language you are familiar with this process.  For adults it requires lots of time, commitment, and motivation.  For children it is much easier and seemingly effortless. Just as learning another language opens doors to form valuable relationships, emotional fluency can do the same.

What to understand

Judgments are necessary for decision making, but humans are generally unskilled at making judgments.  We often make judgments based on inadequate evidence, and our thinking is full of errors and biases.  And then we make judgments at times when it would be best not to judge at all. Also, our expressed judgments demonstrate our actual or desired role in society.

While judging actions is often appropriate, any judgment of emotion is generally inappropriate.  This is true whether it is an emotion in someone else or in oneself.  By paying attention to your own feelings and trying to remain objective and accepting of them, you will find it easier to cope with and control them.  By resisting the urge to judge the emotions of others we learn to be empathetic and compassionate which in turn motivates others to act the same toward us.

We can even use "undesirable" emotional states to our advantage.  For example, John D. Mayer, whose 1990 article, "Emotional Intelligence" with Dr. Peter Salovey, provided a foundation for research on this topic, states,

People with high EI ... know how to use emotional episodes in their lives to promote specific types of thinking. They know, for example, that sadness promotes analytical thought and so they may prefer to analyze things when they are in a sad mood (given the choice).

Mayer et al. also point out that emotionally strong people are willing to speak up when something conflicts with their values. They use the phrase positive maladjustmentDefined by academic publisher IGI Global as "a conscious and selective rejection of the standards and attitudes of one’s social environment that are conflicting with one’s growing perception of higher values." to describe a person who is 

...True to oneself and to the universal ideals of compassion, caring, and to the idea that each individual deserves consideration. Grounded in empathy and a sense of justice, such stance is often in opposition to others' self-interest, prejudice, and ruthlessness. Therefore, the two terms, emotional giftedness and positive maladjustment overlap.Mayer, J.D., Perkins, D., Caruso, D., & Salovey, P. (2001). Emotional intelligence and giftedness. Roeper Review, 23, 131 - 137.

In other words, an "emotionally gifted" or "positively maladjusted" individual is willing to go against the crowd in order to speak up for the interests of someone else, someone who may be in the minority.  In light of information I've published about social influence and its effect on the brain, it's easy to see why a person needs strong emotional skills in order to do this.  Do you want to be this kind of person?  I do.

Developing emotional skills requires understanding empathy.  Overby, cited above, says empathy is a quality found in the best leaders. She quotes Iain Aitken, CEO of RocheMartin, which offers EI training and assessment to individuals and organizations, as saying,

It involves two dimensions: a cognitive dimension – understanding the task that other people must perform – and an emotional dimension – acknowledging the humanity of others.

Responding with empathy means letting your employee know you heard and understood both what they said, as well as how they feel. It’s harder than it sounds, and will take some practice, but people will appreciate even the clumsiest of efforts.

Emotionally intelligent people seek to support other people.  For Inc., Bill Murphy Jr., wrote, "Emotionally intelligent people understand that if they can demonstrate focus, they can help the other person fill in some of the gaps with a positive message like: 'I am important to this person.' Maybe even, 'I appreciate knowing that fact.'"

Listening to others, including looking for what is not said, is a sign of high emotional skill. Overby also quotes Dr. Steven J. Stein, founder and executive chairman for Multi-Health Systems, which develops and administers Emotional Quotient (EQ) assessments:

People high in emotional intelligence listen with their third ear. It’s not just what somebody says to you, it’s also the underlying message. What do they really mean? When somebody says they’re fine, for example, is that really true? Or is there more going on in their life that they’re avoiding talking about for now? Be fully present and focused on what [the other person is] saying, without thinking of a reply.

Take it to Carnegie Hall

Just in case you haven't already heard it:  One day a man asked a passerby how to get to Carnegie Hall.  The answer: "Practice, practice, practice."

As I mentioned above, becoming fluent in emotional skills involves first understanding the basics and then continually practicing.  Here are things to practice regularly.

  • Observing and labeling emotions.  There's an app for that, if you are so inclined.  Personally, I use Exist to keep track of my daily mood.I love the app for many reasons, not just mood tracking.  I also highly respect and admire its developers.  One of these days I'll write an article describing all that I like about Exist.
  • Separating story from facts.  Stop and think about whether you are jumping to the wrong conclusions.
  • Try out these steps for dealing with disturbing interactions with others or when you are upset with yourself.
  • Taking responsibility for your actions.  Remember, more control = less stress.
  • Try to make a habit of looking at things from another's perspective. 
  • Thinking about how your actions affect others.
  • Accepting others as they are: Don't get overly focused on people's mistakes and don't try to change them.  This is really hard, I'll admit.

Although this is the last article in this series, it most likely won't the be the last I write on the subject.  I will personally be trying to put these things into practice more fully, so I'll certainly have more to write about.

I'd love to hear how these suggestions work for you.  Please reach out to me on Twitter