Social and emotional intelligence is crucial for success at work: a learnable skill that enables us to work effectively in teams, remain calm amid conflict, establish healthy long-term relationships, and make sound decisions.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 lists emotional intelligence (EI) among the ten skills most frequently requested by organizations surveyed. And the need for social and emotional intelligence is among the 12 factors for success that Eric Shepherd and Joan Phaup highlight in their book, Talent Transformation: Develop Today’s Team for Tomorrow’s World of Work. They describe IE as “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express emotions and to handle relationships effectively.”
Exponential changes in technology and business models, together with the additional stresses of living through a global pandemic, reinforce people’s tremendous need to value EI. They can use EI to help them adjust readily to changing work practices and work effectively in remote teams.
Powerful technologies enable us to communicate with each other, but people feel isolated – a combination that makes them more impatient and volatile. These impacts of stress are making it harder to solve our individual and collective problems, and they impact everyone around the world, at work, and home.
The distance we must maintain for safety can obscure the natural cues that tell us how other people feel. We may be less apt to empathize with someone and connect with them constructively when we are not in the same room. Long periods of social isolation are testing our limits, making it more critical than ever to understand our own and other peoples’ feelings.
According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2020 report, two out of every three adults in the United States have experienced increased stress since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the younger generation, nearly 8 out of every 10 Gen Z adults in the US consider concerns about the nation’s future as a significant source of stress.
Developing emotional intelligence will help all of us find constructive solutions to these problems. It doesn’t only help us get along better with coworkers. It makes us more agile and adaptable. As technology takes on more and more tasks, emotional intelligence will help us embrace change, reason clearly, and make smart decisions. By accepting the importance of EI, we move closer to achieving it.
So how do we improve our EI?
Tune in To Emotions
Emotions relate to our biology. Our neurotransmitters are designed to help us cope with various levels of stress. Serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and other endorphins help regulate essential bodily functions: digestion, temperature, heart rate, and so on. They also play a role in how — and what — we feel.
It’s typical for people who ignore their emotions to experience a physical manifestation of how they feel: perhaps tightness in the jaw, sore muscles, or furrowed eyebrows. Taking hints from our bodies can help us tune in to our feelings. But how can we do that? Answering these questions is an excellent way to start:
How do I feel physically? (tight muscles, tight jaw, frown, etc.)
What emotions am I feeling? (happy, sad, anxious, calm, excited, bored, etc.)
How would I describe my mindset right now? (distracted, focused, observant, etc.)
We can also discern another person’s emotions by paying attention to their tone of voice, watching their facial expressions, and noting their body language.
Strike a Balance
Paying attention to our feelings helps us improve relationships, solve problems, and empathize with other people. But it’s essential to strike a balance. Being consumed by emotion can decrease productivity, but ignoring strong feelings, which some construe as strength and resilience, can make it hard to engage with family, friends, and colleagues. Ideally, we use our emotions constructively instead of letting them use us.
We can temper our tendency to ignore our feelings when we focus too much on facts. While it’s essential to concentrate on the data and facts we need to analyze for work or school, we also need to heed emotional data. Observing other people’s feelings and honoring the value of maintaining clear, compassionate connections with our coworkers and family members can help us curb our need to “be right” and win arguments.
With daily practice, we can better understand our own and others’ emotions, honor them, and respond to them. We often hear that we must treat others with respect. This sounds easy, but sometimes it takes special effort. We can practice genuine respect by knowing that we have something to learn from everyone. This awareness makes us more willing to understand things from their perspective. When we do this, others can see and feel our respect, and we can then build empathetic relationships with them.
Even when we disagree with someone, we can respect them by recognizing their perspective. We can admit that the individual’s views are as important and worthy as ours. Whole-hearted respect for others helps us notice the subtle ways we may consider ourselves to be superior. We can then change course to see ourselves as equals. Then we are in a better position to learn from the other person. Sensing our respect, they will be more open with us. Our mutual empathy makes for a healthier, more productive relationship.
When someone is having a hard time, it can be tempting to say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But putting ourselves into their shoes enables us to imagine how overwhelming the “small stuff” can get when dealing with toxic stress levels. At such times, it’s almost impossible to focus on the important stuff. Empathy instead of dismissiveness will help us offer a supportive, understanding response.
When feeling overwhelmed by our emotions, reflection can help us gain perspective and balance. For instance, we can take ourselves into the future and imagine what we will think of our current problems. This exercise can help us untangle our feelings and separate those that need our attention from those likely to settle naturally.
Override Innate Traits
Developing social intelligence can help manage what seem to be innate aspects of our personality. For instance, people may have a predisposition for optimism or pessimism and might go through life on that basis. But studies now suggest that looking on the bright side – taking a thoughtful, optimistic approach that seeks solutions – can be a learned skill.
If we find ourselves in a pessimistic pit, we can feel so sad, scared, and desperate that it seems impossible to solve problems. But allowing ourselves to feel and identify our emotions can open the way to solutions. Adding context to a feeling can help, too. For instance, if we’re feeling demotivated, we can place that mood in a timeframe, such as “at the moment.” When someone thinks, “I don’t want to do this at the moment,” they are setting the stage for regaining their motivation. “At the moment” reassures the person that their pessimistic mood need not last long.
Keep Building EI
Emotional intelligence is not rocket science. Nor is it something that we either have or don’t have. Anyone can learn about it and practice it. Much of this learning occurs informally, through personal experience, but formal training can help, too. Either way, practicing emotional intelligence enables us to feel healthier, achieve more, make better decisions, form deeper relationships.