There has been lots of buzz about the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and how it contributes to a person’s success in the workplace. As a consultant in the field of Leadership Development—I work with organizations to enhance their leadership skills—teaching Emotional Intelligence and its skills is a key part of what I do.

Emotional Intelligence was once considered fluff, or a soft skill, but it is now a core of leadership training and discussed at the C-Suite of organizations that focus on their people development. The number one trait that Southwest Airlines looks for in new hires is empathy (Forbes 9/14) and it has been proven that leaders with EI are more successful. It can also make you happier, healthier, and better able to deal with whatever life throws at you.

But can you really increase your Emotional Intelligence? 

The short answer is “Yes!” You can increase your emotional intelligence. And having EI or increasing your EI in the workplace can help you in your career. But the skills that are part of Emotional Intelligence—empathy, compassion, self-control, listening, influence, etc.—have been around since humans started living in social groups. Daniel Goleman simply popularized EI and emphasized the impact of EI in the workplace.

We can now describe what EI means and measure its impact. The exciting part is that we know we can improve it, teach it, and excel at it. 

Goleman defines emotional intelligence as: 

“The ability to sense, understand and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information and influence.”

The 4 parts to Emotional Intelligence are:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Regulation
  3. Empathy
  4. Social Skill 

I am going to focus on the first two parts in this blog and follow up with Empathy and Social Skill in another.

Self-Awareness is about understanding what you are feeling and knowing why. It is the foundation of EI and a person needs to have some level of self-awareness before he or she can build other EI skills. You can see self-awareness developing in young children when they say things like, “You make me so mad!”

In the workplace, it looks more like this: “I get really defensive and sometimes lash out at people when they find errors in my work.”

Self-Regulation is having the appropriate response to a situation or emotion. Emotional Intelligence doesn’t mean not having any emotions. It is appropriate to cry when you find out someone close to you has died or get frustrated when the team talks endlessly about a problem with no one willing to make a decision. In the workplace (following the example above), self-regulation means that a person is aware that he or she gets defensive but doesn’t lash out. Here, the appropriate response is to not take it personally and focus on the impact to the organization by acknowledging the errors and fixing them.


The best way to strengthen your EI in these two areas is to get feedback!


Many of the organizations I work with are moving away from the annual review and trying to instill a culture of ongoing feedback. It is the best, most immediate way to understand whether you are doing things correctly. We received instant feedback at a young age on the playground, as kids are often more open and less filtered: “I don’t want to play with you because you always get upset when you lose.” But as we get older, we become more filtered and give (and receive) feedback less and less often. The number one request from employees is to get more feedback at work. 

Here is a great tool for giving feedback: Just SAI it. Enact Leadership developed this format to help individuals practice creating a feedback message. It can be used for constructive feedback (helping someone improve), or positive feedback (reinforcing something great someone has done): 

 If you want to help someone improve, take these steps:

  • Describe the Situation: “In the project meeting yesterday, during your presentation….”
  • State the Action that you want to give feedback on: “…you got defensive when people asked about the errors in your data.”
  • Tell the Impact to the project, team, or organization. This it the most important step. If you can’t explain the impact of their behavior, it probably is not an important piece of feedback. “The team got really sidetracked and we never found the reason for the errors. We all left confused about what to do next.”


The flip side of this is receiving feedback. One way to improve is to ask for feedback. Asking for feedback also builds trust and strengthens the relationship. Here are some steps to ASK for feedback:

  1. Describe an area you want to develop/get feedback on.
    “I would like to get better at listening before jumping in with a solution.”
  2. Identify who would be able to provide feedback to you in this area.
    It might be multiple people in different areas (manager, peers, customers, etc.) depending on the situation and the feedback you seek.
  3. Ask those people to help.
    “Would you mind providing me with some feedback on how I am doing in (work area X)?”
  4. Determine a plan.
    “Would you mind watching for this in our next two team meetings?”
  5. Listen carefully to the feedback to make a difference:
    “You waited until two people gave their input before offering your suggestion.”
  6. Thank them for their help.


Another way to focus on Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation is to pause. This helps build Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, and in general, helps you deal with difficult situations in life. Here are a few thoughts on practicing this: 

The first way to pause is to Reflect. In our leadership training, we build in multiple reflection times. In our sessions, we design questions to guide the reflection, but you can generally use something like this:

  • What just happened?
  • How did it go?
  • What was my reaction to what happened?
  • What can I do next time to be better?


Another way to practice pausing is to stop and think in tense situations or to help figure out what to say next. Your Auntie’s suggestion to “count to 10” really does work. This allows you to think about what is going on, assess how the other person is feeling, and decide how you want to respond. 

The last way to pause is to practice meditation. People who meditate have increased self-awareness, better health, and improved EI. A recent study at Harvard showed that meditation “increased brain matter in the area of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection” and decreased it in the area responsible for stress and anxiety.


So what are the first steps to improving your emotional intelligence?


Focus on becoming aware of your own emotions, understanding why you are feeling them, and then regulating your reactions to those emotions. How can you practice this? 

  1. Seek out feedback. Listen attentively and openly to find out how you are being perceived by others and how you can improve.
  2. Pause. Take time to think about what is going on, what you are feeling, and how you should react. Strategies:
    1. Reflect on current and past situations and determine what went well and what could be done better.
    2. Stop and think about what to do or say next.
    3. Practice meditation to have higher self-awareness and to be better equipped to pause when needed.


Please let us know if you have any thoughts on Emotional Intelligence and your experience with it in the workplace. Stay tuned for part two on Empathy and Social Skill with more tips on improving your EI.


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