Building Emotional Intelligence Isn't as Hard as You Think
Five rules for approaching our feelings with greater wisdom and effectiveness.
Posted November 8, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Dozens of times a week, we ask friends, family, and even strangers, “How are you?” Given this fact alone, you’d think our society was very interested in how people feel.
But all of us know that this question generally doesn’t get an honest answer. Instead, most people reply with, “good,” “fine,” or at least, “okay.” If we’re really honest with ourselves, most of us would be a bit uncomfortable if we got a more genuine answer.
For many of us, it can feel risky to get in touch with our feelings, let alone to express them to others. I was recently speaking with a close friend who was genuinely hurt by something his father posted in a family chat room. He had been ruminating about it for days. And yet, when I suggested that he bring it up with his dad, his answer was straightforward: “No,” he told me. “We don't talk about feelings in our family.”
In one experiment, Brackett and his colleagues divided middle-school teachers into two groups. One group was placed in a good mood by recalling positive classroom experiences, while the other group was placed in a bad mood by recalling negative classroom experiences.
Then, they all were asked to grade the same essay. The teachers who were in a worse mood scored the essay a full letter grade lower than those in a better mood. But here’s the real kicker: Most of the teachers said they thought their mood had no influence on their grading, even though it clearly had.
Whether we like it or not, our feelings affect our thinking and behavior. Being out of touch with these feelings just means we’re at the mercy of them. So, it behooves us to get to know them better.
Our ability to understand and regulate our feelings is what psychologists often call “emotional intelligence.” Luckily, emotional intelligence isn’t a fixed commodity, but rather something we can build by learning what Brackett calls “emotion skills.”
He has developed a system, organized around the acronym R.U.L.E.R., which has been used in nearly 2,000 schools across the world to teach such skills to children and teenagers. But it can be equally applicable for helping all of us develop greater wisdom about our feelings and use them to our advantage.
Here are the five skills you can start practicing now:
The first step toward productively managing any feeling is to recognize that we’re having it. Although this may sound easy, it’s equally easy to ignore our feelings. Have you ever said, “I don’t care,” about a situation when you really did? Have you ever gotten a head or neck ache, only to later realize you were actually feeling emotionally stressed?
To better recognize our feelings, Bracket suggests using a technique known as the “Mood Meter.” At its heart, this technique involves asking yourself two simple questions:
- How much energy does this emotion have?
- How pleasant is this emotion?
Emotions can be high in both, low in both, high in energy and low in pleasantness, or low in energy and high in pleasantness. Emotions high in both energy and pleasantness include joy, excitement, and optimism, while emotions low in both include sadness and depression. Anxiety, anger, and frustration are examples of feelings high in energy but low in pleasantness, whereas calmness and contentedness are examples of feelings low in energy but high in pleasantness. By at least identifying in which of these categories our feelings fall, we lay a foundation for wisely dealing with them.
The next emotion skill involves understanding our feelings. In short, this involves asking the question, “Why am I feeling this way?” Because this wide-open question is notoriously difficult to answer, in his book Permission to Feel, Brackett suggests some more specific questions we can ask ourselves to figure out the reasons behind our feelings. Here are a few of them:
- What just happened? What was I doing before this happened?
- What happened this morning, or last night, that might be involved in this?
- What has happened before with this person that might be connected?
- What memories do I have about the situation or place in which this emotion occurred?
Understanding the causes of our feelings can help provide clues about how to address them. If I’m feeling anxious because my new boss reminds me of a person from my past who was cruel to me, I’ll want to deal with the situation very differently than if my anxiety results from a particular managerial decision my boss just made. Of course, it could be both—so it can take serious time and introspection to really sort out what we’re experiencing and why. Be patient and keep at it.
It’s not enough simply to recognize and understand an emotion; we also can benefit from finding the right word to describe it.
Many of us have a relatively limited emotion vocabulary. Some of us stick with two words: bad and good. Others might have three or four: happy, sad, mad, and scared. Still, others may not use emotion words at all, but prefer figures of speech like, “on top of the world” or “burning up.”
But in actuality, there are thousands of words to describe emotions in the English language alone. We certainly don’t have to memorize all of them, but Brackett suggests that more accurate labels are usually better for us. In his words, “We know from neuroscience and brain imaging research that there is real, tangible truth to the proposition that ‘if you can name it, you can tame it.’”
For a start, knowing precisely what feelings we’re experiencing can give us clues about how to manage them. Although you may recognize that you’re experiencing a negative, high-energy emotion, both “stressed” and “overwhelmed” might fit that general description. But which of these labels most accurately describes our feeling really matters, because they mean different things.
“Stress” generally means we feel that what we’re trying to do or handle exceeds our capabilities, whereas “overwhelmed” means there’s just too much of it, regardless of our capabilities. If we’re feeling overwhelmed, the best approach may be to reduce our workload the best we can, whereas if we’re feeling stressed, the best approach may be to upgrade our capabilities by learning new skills or reorganizing the way we do things.
If the R, U, and L of R.U.L.E.R. are about getting into touch with our emotions, the E and R are about what to do with them.
There are lots of reasons we hesitate to express our feelings. Especially when emotions fall on the negative end of the spectrum, we may be afraid they’re inappropriate, will embarrass us, or will somehow injure the person we express them to.
According to Brackett, however, “Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.” So it’s important to express them in some way.
But this doesn’t mean we should let our emotions run wild, saying everything that’s on our minds to everyone we wish. According to Brackett, the skill of expressing our feelings “means knowing how and when to display our emotions, depending on the setting, the people we’re with, and the larger context.”
If we’re feeling hurt by something our boss said, for instance, it’s in our best interest to express this differently than if a close friend said something similar to us. Depending on the level of trust, we may make ourselves more vulnerable to our friend than our boss, expressing our feelings in greater depth or detail. If there’s a good chance we could lose our job, we may even choose not to express our hurt at all to our boss, instead confiding in and seeking support from someone else.
The final emotion skill involves determining how to cope with our feelings.
Whether or not we choose to express them, feelings impact us. Regulating our emotions involves dealing with them in a way that allows us to best meet our personal and professional goals—or at least prevent our feelings from interfering with them. This certainly doesn’t mean ignoring our emotions; as already discussed, this doesn’t work well. Instead, it involves learning to accept and deal with them wisely.
Techniques for helping us cope with our feelings run the gamut, and we should strive to use ones that work for us. Relaxation videos abound on YouTube and can help us soothe strong emotions. Meditation phone apps can be used to facilitate mindfulness, which may help us accept our feelings. Physical exercise can help us to “work out” our feelings and feel more grounded in our bodies.
But emotion regulation can also be very simple. “You can’t stand your neighbor? Avoid her,” writes Brackett. “Your parents are coming to visit and you don’t want them to see some of your more outré artwork? Hide it until they leave. You’re tired? Splash some water on your face.” The important thing is to acknowledge our feelings—not avoid them—and then take productive steps toward dealing with them.
Learning to be more emotionally skilled isn’t a panacea. It won’t eliminate all our negative feelings or bring about a constant state of bliss. Such goals are probably impossible. But part of emotional intelligence is realizing that our feelings aren’t our enemies. In fact, if we approach them wisely, they can be some of our best friends. Let’s all get to know these friends a little better.