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How can you increase your emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a skill you can develop. Here are some tips for managing your emotions rather than them managing you.

7 min read


How can you increase your emotional intelligence?


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Everyone has had to deal with a difficult challenge, the poor performance of others or something that didn’t go as planned.

When such a situation occurs, we may begin to experience an emotional reaction. The question we must then answer is, “Do we manage our emotions, or do they manage us?” 

Emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, deals with people’s ability to recognize the presence of a negative or “hot” emotional reaction in themselves or others. (EQ is made up of multiple characteristics — this is just one aspect). This type of intelligence also encompasses the ability of the individual to manage those emotional situations in a way that enhances respect, builds relationships and achieves results.

A few years ago, I attended a conference at which I was asked to speak. When I arrived, the first thing I did was to visit the conference bookstore. I wanted to check and see if they had ordered a number of my books for the signing after my presentation. I was shocked to discover that for the second year in a row, they failed to order my books.

I was livid. I took a deep breath and excused myself for fear of saying something I might regret later. Then the real work began. I was determined to surface the thinking behind my emotional reaction and to dispel my current energy or feelings for the situation. This was extremely important because I did not want to speak from a place of anger or frustration during my talk the next morning.

Emotional intelligence is an important aspect of effective leadership and interpersonal relationship building. In fact, researchers on emotional intelligence have identified that 58% of an individual’s successful performance in all types of jobs is attributed to emotional intelligence.

What then must we do to become more emotionally intelligent? One way to do so is by learning to recognize and control our emotional reactions.

Here are a number of tips that will help you to manage your feelings more effectively 

1. Identify your emotions

We all make observations about any situation in which we find ourselves. However what we observe is filtered by the lens of our experiences. Consequently, we don’t see events entirely clearly for what they are, but by what we are. We take the data and make some interpretation or judgment about the data based on our experience. It is our thinking that in turn drives what we feel, say and do.

The first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent is to notice when your feelings start to show up. Increasing emotional awareness allows you to be in control of the situation.

 2. Surface your thinking

Every emotion is preceded by a thought. Because emotional intensity can be overwhelming in the moment, thoughts are often difficult to identify. In order to surface your thinking, try finishing this sentence, “I’m angry because …” Finishing this sentence as many times as you can, will allow you to discover the thinking that is floating around in your subconscious and often goes unidentified.

I like to write down my thinking so that I can examine and reflect upon the accuracy of my thoughts. In the example I mentioned above, when I asked myself this question, these are the kinds of things I came up with — “I’m angry because …”

  • I don’t have any books to sign.
  • I will look unprofessional.
  • I am tired of working with people who are unreliable.
  • I don’t have the time to visit a number of bookstores to purchase books for tomorrow there is not time to get them from my publisher.

The more time you take to identify your thinking, the more complete picture you will gain of what is driving your feelings.

3. Identify your values

Your values are what are most important to you. I often like to define negative emotional reaction as the symbol of a violated value. Reviewing my previous statements reveals the values of preparation, professionalism, reliability and use of time. Being able to identify your values allows you to objectively assess whether they are being violated.

4. Ask questions

Whether you ask yourself questions or another person in a conversation, if you can answer the questions asked, the emotional intensity will subside. To answer questions, an individual has to vacate the emotional center of the brain that serves as the protective reactive mechanism. Instead, you have to tap into higher-functioning regions of the brain, which are more logical and rational.

5. Breathe deliberately

Often when we become emotional, we quit breathing normally. We start breathing more shallowly and quickly. Our brains shut down our logical/rational brain functions to prepare us for fight or flight. Slower, more deliberate breathing helps the brain to maintain cognitive functioning and rationality.

6. Change your movements

You can change or lessen your emotional intensity by physically moving. In fact, the research by Amy Cuddy at Harvard University suggests that striking any number of different “power poses” helps us to become more assertive, optimistic and more confident in stressful situations.

7. Change your words

The use of angry words in a heated situation tends to intensify the emotion that you are experiencing. By contrast, the use of more positive words has the effect of lessening the emotion. Notice the difference in these two phrases:

  • “That makes me livid!”
  • “That makes me curious.”

Because the brain attaches meaning to the words we use, changing words in a heated situation will change the emotional intensity.

To use this strategy effectively, you will need to take three steps:

  1. Listen to yourself and identify the angry or negative words you are using
  2. Identify a number of positive word substitutions
  3. Deliberately use the positive words you have selected

You may end up laughing at yourself when you use the positive words, but you will definitely feel your emotions shift.

After going to work on myself for a few hours, I was able to figure out why I was so upset. My value for looking professional had been violated. After exploring the absence of my books with publisher, I discovered that the conference coordinator had submitted the book order late, so the publisher hadn’t been able to deliver my books on time.

Everyone has feelings. Sometimes our feelings get in our way when we need to work effectively with others. Learning to identify your emotions, the thinking behind them, and the values that they represent will help you understand yourself and others.

By asking questions, slowing your breathing, changing your movements and your words, you can learn to manage your feelings and help to defuse the negative reactions of yourself and others. Once you get past the emotions to the thinking driving them, you can effectively solve the challenges and problems you are facing.


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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