By LaRae Quy
The first thing I learned as an FBI agent was that I would need to be emotionally intelligent if I planned to live long enough to spend my retirement pension.
Agents who are emotionally intelligent have the ability to read the emotions of others before a gun is drawn or a fist is thrown their way. They also develop self-awareness so they can predict their response when confronted with the unknown.
If you watch enough Marvel-inspired movies, you might think all superheroes swagger into a room, take control of the situation by intimidation or force, and knock around anyone who doesn’t play by their rules. The other extreme is the Hallmark TV channel, where complex problems are solved in short, sappy and sweet conversations.
Most of us live life somewhere in between: we’re not superheroes nor are we chumps content with vacuous responses. We are people who want to behave in a way that will benefit us in a variety of situations — at work, home, school or in society. In other words, we want to be emotionally intelligent so we can learn how to express, understand and manage emotions — of ourselves and others.
People who are emotionally intelligent move away from the rest of the pack. Entrepreneurs, leaders, and business owners find emotional intelligence skills to be essential in their efforts to understand competitive behavior and manage a diverse group of people.
Here are four things you need to know if you want to be emotionally intelligent:
1. Emotional intelligence allows you to manage your emotions
When we manage our emotions it can mean the difference between a good response and a bad reaction. Emotions are important information for us and can be used to help us navigate volatile landscapes as we move into the unknown. Sometimes, however, emotions can overwhelm us.
Self-awareness is your ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen. The more you understand your emotions, the easier it will be to tame them and direct your behavior in a positive way.
To be emotionally intelligent, you will need to spend time with yourself to better understand what makes you tick — you will need to pinpoint which words, situations, or people trigger favorable and unfavorable reactions. It’s vital that you look your weaknesses and shortcomings in the eye so they don’t sabotage you when you least expect it. Mental toughness is not being afraid to address your weaknesses with the same enthusiasm and vigor as your explore your strengths.
When you manage your emotions, you can leverage anxiety and stress. Anxiety is often seen as a negative emotion, but it’s a necessary one to spur us to action. Too much blocks achievement, while too little saps our energy. Like Goldilocks, we need to find the sweet spot between too much and too little anxiety.
How to make it work for you: It’s important that you not judge the emotion you’ve experienced as either good or bad — it is what it is. At this point, it’s more important to be honest about the emotion and stay aware of it as you move further into the situation. This will allow the thinking, cerebral brain to catch up with the fast-moving and emotional limbic brain system. This is critical because it gives you time to gain control of your emotion so you can craft your response.
2. Emotional intelligence allows you to place yourself in other people's shoes
While self-awareness is one aspect of emotional intelligence, it’s also important to understand what makes other people tick. Social awareness is your ability to pick up on the emotions of others and understand what is going on with them. To be emotionally intelligent, you need to use that awareness to place yourself in their shoes so you see life from their perspective.
Social awareness can be important in situations where you need to empathize with customers or interact with people who have strong opinions of their own. This is why emotional intelligence training in the workplace has become common. The management and expression of emotions can be directly linked to communication and job performance.
How to make it work for you: Empathy is the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. It’s important because it helps you understand how others are feeling so you can respond appropriately to the situation:
Be curious. It’s more than a chat about weather or sports. Seek to understand what makes other people tick — especially if they’re different from you. Try to engage in a conversation with at least one stranger every week.
Be a good listener and be vulnerable. Listening is good but empathy requires more. When you remove your mask and reveal your own emotions, you start to create a strong empathic bond. Empathy is always a two-way street. Remember there’s a difference between empathy and sympathy.
Expand your circle. It’s easy to feel empathic toward someone who has suffered. To really fine-tune your skill set, you need to empathize with those whose beliefs you do not share. In this politically divided world, it’s rare for one party to sit down and try to understand the belief system of the other party. If you’re a liberal, step into the mindset of a conservative, but do it in a thoughtful and sincere way; and vice versa.
3. Emotional intelligence allows you to see situations as a challenge, not a roadblock
Energy follows attention — wherever your attention is focused, your energy will follow. If you perceive the adversity in front of you as a roadblock, your negative reaction to the obstacle will be the one thing you focus on.
If you’re an emotionally intelligent person, you’ll interpret your emotion as a cue to take action and deal with the challenge rather than think of yourself as a victim of your circumstances. You’re a step ahead when you’re able to recognize negative emotions in yourself so you can nip them in the bud — this is when they’re at their weakest.
In the Rogelberg study, researchers discovered that the more you use negative language and second-guess yourself, the less free your mind will be to roam through creative solutions of the problems that you face. These outcomes will only further cause you to doubt yourself, leading to a negative, downward spiral.
How to make it work for you: Do a pre-mortem on your challenge and ask yourself some basic questions:
- Are my thoughts factual, or are my interpretations based on presumptions?
- Have I jumped to inaccurate conclusions?
- What is the evidence for and against those conclusions?
- How can I find out if my thoughts are actually true?
- Which behaviors will reflect my strengths in this situation?
- Which of my core competencies need to be strengthened at this time?
4. Emotional intelligence can be increased
The good news is that emotional intelligence can be learned over time. Our emotions start in the fast-paced limbic system. As a result, we have emotional reactions to events before our rational mind is able to engage.
Neural plasticity is our brain’s ability to change over time. Each time we discover new emotional intelligence skills, new neurons link the limbic and cerebral brains together like a cable. The chain reaction of growth ensures that new behavior can kick into action at a faster rate in the future.
These new pathways turn into habits over time, and those behaviors create new circuitry that will eventually become your brain’s default response. The length of time to replace an old habit depends on how strong it is, and the new one will need to develop the same strength of connectivity.
How to make it work for you: Reading literature is a good place to start because novels require you to get into the character’s mind. In turn, it helps develop your empathy.
Intentionally practice each new emotional intelligence skill you learn for three to six months. This will train your brain to hardwire new pathways of thinking so that they turn into habits. Habits begin to be hardwired the very first time you practice them.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment.