Exercise Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to two things: first, to your ability to recognize the emotion you are experiencing and to manage that emotion in a useful way rather than being overwhelmed by it. Liz Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, is fond of saying: "You invite your emotions along for the car ride, but you don't let them drive." The second component of EI is your ability to interpret accurately and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.

It’s fairly common to grow up correctly showing and interpreting what psychologist Paul Ekman identified as the six basic emotions:

  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Surprise
  • Disgust

Often, as a child matures, five of these six are discouraged. Children are taught “big girls don’t cry” or told to “man up,” giving them the implicit idea that suppressing their "negative" feelings is a mature way to behave. The problem with stuffing emotions down is that they have a habit of escaping when you've used up the psychological surge capacity which allows you to survive acutely stressful situations - but only in the short-term. In these cases, they are frequently misdirected at the most inopportune times, such as at a staff meeting or with your family at home.

All emotions are important. Some feel good, while others do not. One life skill, which we all can profit from, is the ability to initiate, savor and prolong emotions that feel good to us and to navigate quickly through the ones that don't. This ability plays a key role in our personal energy management.

Psychologist Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, uses four key concepts to describe what good emotional practice looks like:

  1. Show up: Avoid suppressing difficult emotions or only expressing positive ones.
  2. Step out: Detach and observe your emotions (meditation helps).
  3. Walk your why: Your core values provide the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction. These values are the true path to willpower, resilience, and effectiveness when emotions threaten to overwhelm you.
  4. Moving on: Use the tools available to move through your emotions with more ease.

What tools?

Breath - check out Jill Bolte Taylor's TED talk where she explains that the chemical cascade of emotions lasts for 90 seconds (this means it your influence that causes any feelings to stick around last longer)

Language - It is common to hear someone ask: “How did that make you feel?” Or you may say: “You make me so mad.” Taking ownership over your emotions involves language choice that doesn’t send you a disempowering message. Your thoughts become reality. So put your energy toward speaking about emotions in a way that plants you firmly in the driver’s seat. Use "I" statements to become emotionally empowered: "When you ___________  I feel________________".

Space - Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl made famous the theory that between stimulus and response there is a space that the individual controls—their belief. Meditation is a known way to increase your ability to increase this space.

Measure - Things like EI can seem abstract or theoretical, but, in fact, there are ways to measure EI. Try taking this EI quiz on the Greater Good Science Center website or try the Global Emotional Intelligence Test (GEIT) based on Daniel Goleman’s work.

Experiencing emotions is a bit like shaking a bottle of soda. If you shake a bottle then immediately open it, things will get messy. But if you let a little air squeeze out occasionally, you can shake it without ever causing an explosion.

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