How to build emotional intelligence

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When you learn to adjust to your own emotions and those of others, you can achieve a whole new level of wellbeing. Find out how to do it

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the ability to accurately perceive and effectively manage your own emotions. It is also our ability to notice and respond to others’ emotions. EI is related to the neuroplasticity of our brain, which means that we can develop it and, through continuous practice, create changes and make connections that allow us to better align ourselves and others. So how can we build our EI? Here are five tips to get you started.

1. Stay curious

It is all too easy to judge our own thoughts and feelings and those of others. Are you saying, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”? Instead of being your toughest critic, try to notice this and be curious about what you are feeling and why. With others, we sometimes respond to behaviors instead of stopping to reflect on the emotions behind the behavior. A simple example would be your partner coming home from work and slamming the door – you might get mad at the bang instead of thinking about why the behavior is there. Maybe they had bad news or were frustrated during the day? If we remain curious, we ask what happened to cause this behavior rather than judging it.

2. Name emotions

Once you get curious, you may notice more emotions. The debate remains about how many emotions there are, from four to 27 to infinity! Being able to widen the range of emotions we can detect expands our EI. One day you might think, “I feel trash today.” “Trash” is not an emotion, but if you notice this and get curious, you may find that when your friend has canceled your lunch, you may actually feel disappointed now you feel lonely because you haven’t spoken to anyone this afternoon. Naming emotions this way is EI.


3. Sit with emotions

Sometimes when we don’t consciously identify emotions, we react subconsciously – a common response is to numb them. This can be done in many ways – alcohol, drugs, overwork, gambling. But once you start realizing these emotions, there is something you can do to deal with the root cause. For example, you may realize that you are feeling lonely and call a friend or family member to make that connection. This is the antidote to loneliness – as opposed to looking at a new box set.

A note about emotional numbing: you cannot selectively numb. When you numb the negative emotions – sadness, heartbreak, disappointment – you automatically numb the positive emotions – happiness, love, belonging – which can lead to a void of emotions. This is not a good place for us as we are hardwired to connect.

Once you start realizing emotions, there is something you can do to deal with the root cause

4. Create empathy

Once we become more aware of our own emotions, you will most likely notice other emotions as well. Being able to identify and label emotions in others can play a crucial role in building authentic, trusting relationships at home and at work. Looking beyond behavior and into emotions can enable people to feel seen and understood. You can’t assume that you know how another person is feeling. In fact, one of the best ways to break up with someone is to say, “I know exactly how you are feeling.” We can never know because every situation is experienced differently, but we may notice how we feel when someone tells us something. “That makes me sad, did you feel that way?” shows that you recognize the presence of emotions.

5. Think about emotions

When we are excited about an emotion, it can be difficult to practice curiosity and to name emotions. To build EI, it can be helpful to think about your day, and writing it down has a stronger evidence base than just thinking about it. Know where you were excited about an emotion and name it. With practice, you will be able to better recognize that emotions are emerging before they overwhelm you.

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