Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to understand and acknowledge your own feelings, empathize with those of other people, and regulate yourself so that you don’t act impulsively. With high EQ, you can delay your own personal gratification if to do so will provide longer-term gain. Increasingly, psychological definitions of intelligence are incorporating some component EQ into the more traditionally, academically-based approaches that focus on knowledge you learn in school.
EQ also seems to have important connections to situations that people encounter in the course of their daily lives. A recent study by German Sport University psychologist Sylvain Laborde and colleagues (2014) showed that tennis players with high EQ were better able to control their physiological stress levels in high-stakes games.
Unless you’re a top-performing athlete, however, your EQ may face different kinds of challenges. You’re far more likely to have your EQ put to the test in sticky interpersonal situations. Here is a sample of EQ-challenging dilemmas. See how you would handle each, and compare your solution to the one reflecting high EQ.
1. Someone’s cologne is too strong. You have a colleague (male or female) who seems to either have no smell receptors at all or believes that you can never overdo the signature scent. Unfortunately, that suffocating aroma makes you slightly ill or is just plain annoying. You're tempted to make your objections clear.
The high-EQ approach: If you’re going to suggest that your colleague wear less of the offending fragrance, you have to be able to form the words in your head that would communicate your concerns in a non-confronting or hurtful manner. Rather than put the onus of blame on the other person, you would put it in terms of your own allergies, sensitivities, or too finely-tuned perceptions. If you can’t find those words, which admittedly would be difficult to do, seek another approach. If the person isn’t someone you see all that often, but whose regard you value, you might just have to hope that your nasal receptors habituate to the assault placed on them and let the matter go. On the other hand, with a close friend, you might wait for an appropriate moment and broach the subject in a gentle, yet clear, manner. If you work with this person, you might (without pointing any fingers) request that a higher-up address the issue with a discreet sign placed near an employee lounge or rest room.
2. You’ve said something “private” that’s overheard by someone else. You’re using the restroom at work or at a party before realizing that a third party was in the stall. Unfortunately, you were actually talking about that third person. You don’t know for sure if you were overheard, but you’re afraid you might have been.
The high-EQ approach: You wouldn’t have that conversation in the first place. Don’t have private conversations in places that might turn out not to be so private after all. This is one of those situations that you have to learn the hard way because once you've done this, you're unlikely to fall prey to the "I think we're alone now" mentality. In the immediate situation,assume that you were heard, and try to neutralize your comment in the best way possible. You may want, simply, to apologize for your lack of tact, and hope your friend or colleague is high enough in EQ to forgive you.
3. A friend asks your opinion about a new romantic partner of whom you disapprove. We’ve all faced this situation when someone close to us is excited about their latest flame but we think that it’s a match made in anything but heaven. You’d like to help your friend but you’re afraid that your critical comments would create resentment.
The high-EQ approach: Ask yourself why you disapprove of your friend’s newest love interest. Are you jealous? Do you fear that this new person will threaten your relationship? Are you projecting onto the new person your own bad experiences with someone who this person reminds you of? If you can honestly say that you see nothing but bad times ahead for your friend, you might try the approach of asking a few completely neutral questions that may help your friend reflect on possible problems down the road with this new person. Be ready, however, to be proven wrong.
4. You’ve cut in front of someone who turns out to be a person who later serves you in a professional role. It’s a free-for-all on the expressway or the coffee line at rush hour, and you get into a territorial spat with a fellow traveler or customer. One hour later, that same person turns out to be your new dental hygienist. You’re not sure if she recognizes you, but you’re worried about possible retribution.
The high EQ approach: In this very common cringe-worthy situation, you have no choice but to own up to your rudeness rather than pretend it didn’t happen. You can use the situation as an opportunity for self-growth so that the next time you’re ready to go on the attack with “strangers,” you exert control over your anger or anxiety and let social graces win the day.
5. You notice that a person you don’t know very well has something stuck in her teeth and she’s about to be seen in public. Whether it’s a lipstick smudge or a stubborn little piece of spinach, this person’s appearance is unintentionally marred by this tiny but fixable flaw. If you point it out, you’ll be providing a valuable service, but you might be causing her embarrassment or making her more self-conscious.
The high-EQ approach: People high in EQ are high in empathy. Try to determine whether you’d want someone to let you know if it were you who was sporting the offending stain or smidgen of food. Then gauge how similar you are to this other person and decide whether the information would be genuinely appreciated or met with humiliation or outrage.
6. Someone is supposed to meet you at a specific time, and that person is late. You’re planning to meet a friend to see a show, and the minutes tick by while you wait for your tardy companion. You can feel your blood pressure starting to rise and with it, your anger and resentment. You call repeatedly but your call goes right to voicemail. You don’t know if you should leave anyhow to make sure you don’t miss the performance, or wait and hope that you manage to make it in time, if not a few minutes after it starts.
The high-EQ approach: High EQ involves the ability to regulate your feelings of anxiety and impatience, even as you recognize that they’re present. Don’t let these feelings spin out of control as the minutes tick by. Inevitably, you’ll find it almost impossible to stuff those feelings back inside when your friend finally appears. Instead, give your friend the benefit of the doubt. There may have been some perfectly good reason for the delay. However, when you reach a point of no return and to wait any longer means you will actually miss out on the event, you must make a decision that you can live with later. If you decide to go ahead without your friend, be ready to explain (calmly) that you felt you had no choice. Don't leave an angry voice mail message that you'll later regret. If you decide to wait and then must go there late, or even miss it entirely, don’t continue to make your friend feel horrible. This will not only spoil your relationship but it will ruin what enjoyment you could get from the shared activity.
These are a sample of the many thousands of practical everyday tests of EQ that you confront on a regular basis. You can surely think of others that you’ve encountered that present similar interpersonal challenges.
High emotional intelligence may be a trait that you’re born with but this doesn’t mean it can’t be cultivated. As it turns out, in the Laborde study, the current emotional state and self-confidence of the tennis players put under pressure seemed better than EQ at predicting performance.
When you find yourself confronted with a difficult social situation, you might have the benefit of your innately high EQ to draw from but even you’re EQ-challenged, you can learn from life experiences to figure out what to do and, just as importantly, what not to do.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Laborde, S., Lautenbach, F., Allen, M. S., Herbert, C., & Achtzehn, S. (2014). The role of trait emotional intelligence in emotion regulation and performance under pressure. Personality and Individual Differences, 57, 43-47. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.09.013