Can Emotional Intelligence be Learned? A Beginners Guide

Knowing the impact and importance of Emotional Intelligence has become essential within today’s modern business community. People previously viewed as being callous and cutthroat are no longer viewed as leaders by their peers. New workplace philosophy has pushed forward, prioritizing the fostering of employees’ happiness, health, and strengths. This, in turn, has made for more effective, efficient and profitable businesses, along with a multitude of personal and professional benefits.

Can emotional intelligence be learned? Though there are many arguments both for and against the ability to improve intelligence, there is evidence that supports the ability to improve upon the emotional intelligence an individual possesses. Through self-discovery and continuous learning, a person is able to improve their abilities to both understand, convey, guide and react intelligently towards the emotions of themselves and others. 

Even though abilities can be improved upon, each individual must first possess a basic set of competencies in order to build upon them. Provided these basic cognitive milestones have been reached, a person’s emotional intelligence is able to grow and improve based upon their interactions with others.

“Around age 12 months, babies become aware of not only other peoples’ expressions but also their actual emotional states, especially distress. They’re beginning to make the connection that expressions match an inside feeling. It’s interesting to note some babies begin to exhibit jealousy at the end of this first year, around age 12 months.” – Angela Oswalt, MSW   Infancy Emotional/Social Development: Emotional Expression

Learning the Basics

Before learning to deal with our emotions and those around us, we must first be able to self identify our emotions, which is often easier said than done. Unfortunately, as we become older, without training or large amounts of practice, we adults tend to mix up our emotions.

When watching a child, it can be much easier to spot what their emotions are. Angry = Tantrum, Sad = Cry, Fear= Hide

As adults, we create far more convoluted emotional masks that hide our true emotions. Where a child may hide out of fear, an adult may lash out, and seem angry to those around them. Where a child will cry when they are sad, an adult may become apathetic, shutting down and seem callous or uncaring. All of these are protective emotional responses that we have learned over time. Though not wrong, if they no longer serve the purpose which they are intending to achieve, they are no longer the intelligent choice and do not show mastery over our emotions.

Activity 1 – Incident Debrief

In your mind, or on paper, identify a recent emotionally changed situation or discussion you have been a part of. It is better if the situation was more recent, enabling you to go back to what you thought and how you felt.

  1. How did you perceive the potential outcome(s) to impact you?

  2. What emotions did you feel?

  3. What emotions did you display?

  4. Were these the same, or different?

  5. If different, why?

  6. Do you feel competent or confident enough to express your true emotions?

  7. What concerns or fears were behind these emotions?

  8. How did you want the other person to react to the emotions you displayed?

  9. Did their reaction meet your needs?

  10. If not, what could you change?

  11. Where/when have you seen these reactions displayed before? (Where were they learned?)

By answering the above we become increasingly aware of our emotions. In addition, we are also able to reflect back on the reactions of others in the same way. Even if our assumptions about their motivations are not correct, it can lessen our emotional reaction to them.

All people are motivated by their own intrinsic thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs, etc that have nothing to do with others. The more we are able to understand what is the driving force behind our emotions, the better we become at seeking to understand our differences and similarities in these motivations with others. This can lead to more suitable reactions, increased empathy and less stress on our part.

Activity 2 – Emotions Journal

Don’t worry! This can be as simple or as complex and you choose to make it. You can dig into the depths of your soul or you can simply check in with your emotions the same way you would check the temperature.

Set a timer, or set aside a block of time if you are going in-depth, to think/write about your current emotional state. The best times to do this would be:

  1. First thing in the mornings (while laying in bed or brushing your teeth is fine)

  2. During transition periods of your day (commuting or getting settled at your workspace)

  3. Before and after handling a tense situation

  4. Just before you join any social space (lunch with friends, home to family, dinner at the in-laws)

  5. Before you go to bed (again, while laying in bed or brushing your teeth is fine)

All you need to do is identify your emotions, thus becoming self-aware. By putting a label on our emotions, and noticing that they exist, we are able to take power away or add power to each emotion. In turn, this will increase or decrease the impact and role it plays within each situation. Do not label any emotion as good or bad, it is simply how you are feeling.

If you want to, you can ask why this emotion is present? Are there any feelings you are having in combination?AdventurousCalmElatedFulfilledInvigoratedOpenheartedResentfulThankfulAffectionateCenteredEmbarrassedGladInvolvedOutragedRevivedThrilledAfraidClearheadedEncouragedGloomyIrritableOverjoyedSadTornAggravatedComposedEngagedGreifJoyfulPanickedSafeTroubledAlertConfidentExcitedGroundedLivelyPassionateSatisfiedTrustingAngryConfusedFascinatedHappyLividPerplexedSereneUncomfortableAnnoyedContentFatiguedHopefulLonelyPleasedShockedVindictiveAppreciativeDisconnectedFlusteredImpatientLovingProudSurprisedVulnerableApprehensiveDispleasedFriendlyInquisitiveMellowRefreshedSympatheticWithdrawnAverseEagerfrustratedInspiredMischeviousRelaxedTenseYearning

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Activity 3 – Get to Know Your Why

What motivates us is ultimately what determines our reactions and behaviors. A parent driving their injured child to the emergency room will behave and react much differently than someone who is out for a leisurely drive in the sunshine.

These motivations often vary and live in different aspects of our lives. Discovering your Why can change the way you work, play and enjoy your leisure time.

A. What is your goal for your home life? (marriage, relationships, children, family, parents, friends, etc)

  1. What are you doing to support and encourage this?

  2. What are you doing to detract from or derail this?

  3. Why?

B. What is your goal for your work life? (business, career, financial, social)

  1. What are you doing to support and encourage this?

  2. What are you doing to detract from or derail this?

  3. Why?

C. What is your goal for your play/leisure time?

  1. What are you doing to support and encourage this?

  2. What are you doing to detract from or derail this?

  3. Why?

D. How does each of these goals impact the other areas of your life?

E. Is there a common underlying motivation/want between any of the areas?

F.  How are your emotions/behaviors/actions from one area impacting the other areas of your life?

As we start looking at what is motivating us, we can make informed decisions about the actions and choices we make, determining the best course of action.

The Story of the Mexican Fishermanby Courtney CarverAn American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos.  I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”“Millions – then what?”The American said, “Then you would retire.  Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”


Understanding Others

Once we gain self-awareness into our own emotional state, becoming emotionally competent, we can begin expanding the breadth of our knowledge.  

By naming our emotions, both on the surface and in more depth, we can, in turn, start making assumptions about others. Though it is important here to state the importance of clarifying these assumptions with others, our abilities to empathize with others will grow as we assume and check-in.

Activity 4 – Assume the Best

During the next 2 days, every time that you find yourself annoyed, frustrated, or angry at someone else, flip it on yourself. Place yourself in their shoes and think, what could be happening that would make them act that way.

AVOID THE RABBIT HOLE! Don’t jump to “They are stupid”, “They don’t care about anyone else” and so on.

Take your personal feeling towards them out of it. Often times we judge a set of behaviors to be situational or contextual when related to ourselves and indicative of personality and character when related to others. This is known as fundamental attribution error; it will not serve you well in this activity.

Instead, ask yourself, what would motivate me to act that way? Is there something I would want someone to do if I was them?

Now that you have the basic learning principals of emotional intelligence, you will be able to continue to expand upon your current competencies and abilities. By being able to identify and name your emotions, you will gain power over them, allowing you to begin taking steps towards self-regulation.

By understanding your motivations and whys behinds your emotions and actions you allow yourself the ability to empathize with others. Remember to continually check-in and do not make decisions or react based upon your assumptions. Humans are complex and continually changing. What worked one day may not work the next, so check-in and ask why.

At the end of the day, how emotionally intelligent we are grows and stagnates based upon our relationships with one another. By working on our social skills and variety of interactions, our ability to relate to others will increase. We will, therefore, become more emotionally mature, socially intelligent, and resilient individuals.

If you are interested in taking an EI assessment, I recommend using the EQ-I 2.0 which can be found here.

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