How to increase your emotional intelligence at work


Maybe you’ve heard that it’s an essential workplace skill, or that it’s just as important as IQ, or that it’s a “soft skill.” Emotional intelligence (EQ) has been a workplace buzzword for years, but what is it really?

Some point to the first use of the phrase “emotional intelligence” in a research paper in the 1960s; others say our current obsession with the idea stems from a British article in the late 1980s or U.S. psychologists in 1990. At Fast Company, we’ve covered emotional intelligence for well over a decade, but it still remains a topic that many find confusing, so even if you’ve heard of EQ before, there’s likely room to learn.

The four domains of emotional intelligence

Workplace belonging and well-being expert and author of The Color of Emotional Intelligence, Farah Harris, explains what emotional intelligence is and what people get wrong about it.

She says that “emotional intelligence is the act of knowing, understanding, and managing our own emotions, as well as recognizing and empathizing with the emotions of others.” She says that it’s typically comprised of four domains:

1. Self-awareness is being emotionally aware and understanding how emotions show up for you. Harris points out: “Our emotions are often felt first before we are able to name them. So you may find yourself getting hot when you’re angry, or feel a tightness in your chest when you’re anxious. Practicing the pause to ask yourself what you are feeling helps us become more emotionally aware. ”

Asking for feedback can also help by giving a greater understanding of how we are being perceived.

2. Self-managment is being able to regulate your emotions. This is what Harris calls the “check yourself before you wreck yourself” domain of EQ. “It helps us to be agile and adaptable to situations—Think, “go with the flow”—which allows us to be resilient.” she says.

Taking a walk, deep breathing, listening to music, journaling, prayer, and verbally processing in therapy or with a safe person, are all ways to help take a pause to help with your self-management.

3. Social awareness is how we take time to meet people where they are and empathize with them. Think of this as knowing how to read a room.

Harris says, “This is taking the time to consider another person’s perspective.” She says it’s going a step beyond to consider how best can you help them or provide a resource. For mangers, this might mean when implementing a service or policy, taking the time to consider who will use it and how effective it will be. For example, if you are creating a pumping room, will it be comfortable, private, and convenient?

In other words, “it’s taking time to access what is needed and missing in workplace that creates a sense of belonging.” Harris says.

4. Relationship management allows us to effectively communicate, manage conflict well, and motivate and inspire others.

For leaders in particular, Harris suggests, “if there’s a change that you are aware will impact your employees, take the time to ask questions, acknowledge that you understand their concerns (social awareness) and communicate in a way that is clear. Don’t spring news onto your employees that gives them little time to process.”

Myths about Emotional Intelligence

Harris says we need to dispel the myth that emotional intelligence is a soft skill, she says EQ is a strength because it takes strength to master oneself, and to humble yourself enough to see another person’s perspective.

She points out that EQ is essential in building healthy relationships, navigating through change well, and managing stress. These are three things that everyone has to deal with at work.

In addition to the belief that EQ is a “soft skill,” Harris points out two other common misconceptions emotional intelligence:

  1. That EQ is only a workplace skill. In reality, it’s a life skill that you need in all parts of work and personal life.
  2. That to have high EQ means that you’re always calm or don’t get “emotional.” In fact, we can have a low EQ reaction, we just need to rebound with a high EQ response.

Making changes

If you don’t know where to start in improving your emotional intelligence, Harris says you can start small, by simply by increasing your self- and emotional-awareness. Asking a simple question like “How does this make me feel?” can help you become more aware.

Once you become more aware of how you feel, you can start to take care of yourself. Harris points out that you can’t practice high EQ without self-care. In other words, start with yourself; you can’t take care of others’ emotions if you don’t take care of yourself first.

So we’ve talked a lot about what EQ is, how to recognize it and how to put it in action. But what about if listeners are hearing this and realizing they want to make some changes? How can people improve their EQ?

 We can begin improving our EQ by increasing our self and emotional awareness. Asking what seems like a simple question, “how does this make me feel.” You can’t practice high EQ without self-care and vice versa.