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How To Become More Emotionally Intelligent

Scores of leaders lack the skill, which often leads to good employees going elsewhere. A guide to growing your empathy.

4 min read

Dave Popple is a corporate psychologist who splits his time between New York and Nevada. Some days he advises CEOs on how to not feel like failures and other days he works with them on managing their anger through meditation. And then there was the time he gave one captain of industry a bit of music therapy: He asked the leader to identify emotions in songs.

The CEO was trying to tap not into his raw intelligence but his emotional intelligence—often known as EI or EQ. “This was a homework assignment that he did while running,” says Popple, president of Psynet Group. “All he had to do was listen for emotions. I think he enjoyed the puzzle.”

“Emotional intelligence skills separate great leaders and companies from those who are just good.”

If you haven’t been studying it, reading about it, and most of all improving on it, you may be missing out on what has become one of the hottest topics of the decade among executives and career consultants: emotional intelligence. 

First developed and turned mainstream years ago by former New York Times writer Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is the ability to understand other people’s feelings and successfully express your own. The reason it’s so important, career experts say, is because having emotional intelligence is essential in forming and managing work relationships to optimize everyone’s performance. What’s more, research shows that people with higher emotional IQ are more employable. 

“Emotional intelligence skills are at the core of what separates great leaders and companies from those who are just good,” says Alexander Lowry, a former JPMorgan executive and a professor at Gordon College. “When an employee moves into management and leadership, their responsibility becomes less about doing the work and more about managing people—which requires more emotional intelligence.” 

But research suggests these soft skills are often underrated and overlooked, particularly among the youngest members of the workforce. A Korn Ferry survey of 450 human resources leaders found 92% say emotional and social skills are crucial in a global economy. But 69% of recent graduates say these soft-power skills “get in the way of getting the job done.” And that’s bad, because the majority of HR directors have predicted that those millennials, who now make up the majority of the workforce, won’t ever become high-performing workers without these skills. 

Part of the problem, consultants say, is that in corporate America, people are often promoted because they’re technically competent. But being a great programmer doesn’t mean you’ll be a great manager of programmers, especially if there’s a lack of mentoring or coaching on how to morph into a management role. 

What’s more, learning how to become emotionally intelligence takes time to develop, just like building muscle. Goleman, who wrote a best-selling book on the topic, says you shouldn’t try to learn too much at once. “Manage your goal at the level of a specific behavior,” Goleman suggests. “Make it practical, so you know exactly what to do and when.” 

In all, Goleman has said there are 12 main competencies that make up a strong EI, including emotional self-control, empathy, and adaptability. Let’s say in your latest assessment, you’ve received feedback that you need to pay more attention to your co-workers. You can start to look at little ways to change by analyzing your specific actions. Maybe you often don’t listen because you’re distracted by thinking about how to prepare the perfect response. You can then make an intentional choice to be more present by telling yourself to pause, listen to your colleague, take a deep breath and then respond. The new habit may not happen every time, but even if it happens once a day, you’re on your way to change; research shows it takes about two months for an action to really become a habit. 

One of the key principles of EI is being able to separate thoughts from feelings, Popple says. People who can’t separate the two “are flooded with feelings and have difficulty thinking logically and then base their responses on that,” he says. By separating your thoughts from your feelings, you can reflect on a conflicted interaction, for example, by realizing your own role in it, and then choosing a different response for next time. A good mantra: You aren’t your thoughts.

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