January 30, 2020

The importance of emotional intelligence

a diverse group of people looking up at the sky

Madison, Wis. — By now many people have heard the term "emotional intelligence" or "emotional quotient" (EQ for short). Basically it refers to our ability to navigate relationships and social complexities by identifying, understanding, managing and using emotions (knowing how to respond to others) in a positive way.

"Emotional intelligence is really the key to long-term success," said Shilagh Mirgain, UW Health psychologist. "In the business world, high emotional intelligence is a critical trait of a good leader with some studies suggesting as many as 90 percent of top performers in a given field also have high levels of emotional intelligence. Research has also suggested that higher emotional intelligence actually translates to higher salaries."

Unlike intelligence, or what we think of as IQ – which remains the same whether we're 18 or 48 – emotional intelligence can be cultivated by focusing on a few key skills.

Appreciate the purpose of emotions

"Emotions are essential to human life and universal across all cultures," said Mirgain. "Their purpose is to provide important information about our needs and wants so we can act on them."

She points out that anger often indicates when a need or want isn't being met. Guilt or shame occurs when we did something not in alignment with our core values. Sadness occurs when we experience a loss. If we stop to recognize what we're feeling, it's possible to identify what might be triggering the emotion particularly when it's not obvious and this information can inform us to act. It also allows us to manage the emotion in a more productive way.

Express, don't suppress, the emotion

Because emotions can be uncomfortable, many people try to avoid or suppress their feelings. But doing so can lead to mental and physical problems over time.

"It's like trying to hold a beach ball under water – it takes a lot of energy to hold the ball under the water. Eventually it will erupt through the water when you least expect it," Mirgain said.

The key is to recognize the emotion so it becomes possible to respond in an appropriate and controlled way. Being able to do so isn't just good for the workplace, it's critical to our personal relationships as well.

In many relationships, there is often a topic or topics – like finances or the relatives – that seem to trigger an instant argument between a couple. Often, however, the fight is less about the actual topic and more about the feelings and needs each partner may not be able to express. When we're able to understand what we're feeling, and express that in a productive way our relationships benefit by becoming stronger and more fulfilling.

Befriend and tend

When a friend is upset, the best thing we can do is to be present and listen to what is going on rather than jumping in to fix it for them. The same is true for our own emotions.

"When you're feeling emotional, treat yourself with the same kind and caring presence that you would a friend. Be compassionate with yourself, and when you are, you'll start to realize that you're actually able to move on rather than becoming stuck," said Mirgain.

Mirgain uses the example of the toy puzzle called the Chinese finger trap. The harder you pull to remove your fingers from the ends, the more stuck you become. But when you relax and stop resisting, it's possible to remove your fingers from each end of the wicker tube. The same is true of emotions. We ruminate on them, we can become stuck. Learning to recognize what we're feeling and accepting it – or when we stop resisting – can help us move beyond the emotion and toward a resolution.

Coaching vs. dismissing

We've all experienced this moment, when we're feeling sadness or worry and the response is, "Don't worry, it will be OK." Or we're angry and someone says, "Just get over it."

While the responses may be well intended, the reality is that it dismisses how we are feeling and suggests, on some level, that we shouldn't even be feeling it in the first place. While our natural tendency may be to try and fix the problem, empathy – a key element in emotional intelligence – helps us understand when it's appropriate to offer advice and when to simply be a comforting presence.

"Parents are frequently challenged with how to react to a particular behavior. When a child gets upset, the first reaction is to try and encourage them to stop feeling a particular way," said Mirgain. "But saying something like, 'Don't cry, it's just a toy,' suggests the child shouldn't feel upset and can leave the child unsure of how to express him or herself."

Instead, parents can use an emotional moment as a learning opportunity and coach their child through the experience. Saying something like, "I see you are sad," or "I hear you are frustrated," can help label emotions so children begin to understand what it is they're feeling. Then coaching the child in how to express their emotion in a positive and prosocial way helps kids learn to develop the resilience they need to overcome the challenges life sometimes throws our way.

The good news is that it's also never too late to learn. Being aware, understanding and patient with yourself while strengthening your emotional intelligence can go a long way to helping build a healthier future.