The other primary element of self-awareness in people skills is emotional intelligence (EI), and the best modern conception of emotional intelligence comes from psychologist Daniel Goleman.
Emotional intelligence is knowing and perceiving the emotions you feel and why you feel them. You are able to put a label on your emotional state and find its cause and effect. By extension, emotional intelligence is being able to read other people’s emotions accurately and deduce the reasons for them.
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When you start thinking “Why did she say that?” and “What made him do that?” instead of immediately reacting, that’s the beginning of your path to emotional intelligence. Why does any of this matter?
People with the skill of emotional intelligence are less judgmental and more empathetic because they understand other people’s motivations and intentions and how that influences their emotions. In times of conflict, they can cut past emotional reactions and resist taking matters personally. In social situations, it means that people with high emotional intelligence can know exactly what to talk about and what excites or bores people.
High emotional intelligence is like being able to read someone’s mind. How do you gain this everyday superpower and increase your emotional intelligence?
Daniel Goleman’s model of emotional intelligence took several thinkers more than a century to develop. As far back as 1920, we find the first roots of EI in Edward L. Thorndike. Thorndike pioneered the notion that intelligence comes in multiple, independent forms when he said humans had abstract, mechanical, and social intelligences.
Despite this early work investigating the role of emotions in human intelligence, the term “emotional intelligence” didn’t appear in psychological literature until 1985, when Wayne Payne published his doctorial thesis, “A Study of Emotions: The Development of Emotional Intelligence.” Payne lamented the fact that society encourages ignorance and suppression of our emotions instead of finding creative ways to work with and communicate even our most antisocial feelings. His work, and the work of his predecessors, encourages us to become aware of our own emotions and to relate with each other and ourselves more consciously rather than trying to ignore the fact that we are emotional beings.
While the precise definition of emotional intelligence has shifted from trailblazer to trailblazer, there is no doubt of the importance of emotional intelligence in all areas of life, from the professional to the personal.
Understanding other people’s emotions lets us get closer to them emotionally and intellectually, helping us respect and support them in ways that can enrich relationships and open up opportunities. It’s absolutely vital that we have high EI, but there’s good news. Emotional intelligence is a learned skill; we can assess where we are, make up for our shortcomings, and become more emotionally intelligent with time and effort.
Take Charlotte. Charlotte prances into the office, her steps lilting and a smile on her face. Before sitting down, she asks her coworker a question: “What do you think of my new haircut?” Derek, her coworker, doesn’t care what her hair looks like whatsoever, but he likes Charlotte, and he also knows that she often worries about her looks. “It looks great,” he enthuses. “The new cut really brings out your eyes.”
“I thought so too!” she gushed, taking her seat. “Thanks.” She smiled.
Because Derek understood and cared about Charlotte’s emotions, he knew she was asking for encouragement and praise rather than an apathetic dismissal. His kind response bolstered her impression of his trustworthiness and kindness, raising her opinion of him. Every time you improve your emotional intelligence, you’ll have more interactions like these. It’s about understanding and consideration and stepping outside of your own desires and perspectives.
Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis’s modern conception of EI can be described in five major categories. All five of those aspects of EI can be developed and improved with awareness and practice. This section will list those categories and the skills they describe so that you can gain the social benefits of being more emotionally present.
When we’re self-aware, we know who we are, what we think, and what we feel. We know that when we get depressed, we’ll get less done. We know that when we drink coffee, we tend to be peppier and more productive. We understand that when we’re feeling stressed, we’re less likely to have patience for other people’s needs.
In short, we have knowledge of what we feel, why we feel that way, and how our feelings will impact our behavior. Self-aware people are also able to observe the effects their emotions have on other people. Happiness and sadness alike tend to be contagious, and a self-aware person will know that their emotions impact and are impacted by their environment.
Self-awareness also involves knowing our strengths and knowing weaknesses. More importantly, it helps us be willing and able to accept advice and criticism. People who aren’t as aware of their real skills or value will either think they’re too incompetent and incapable of learning or that they already know everything and don’t need to be taught.
Neither is true of anyone, and people who fall into those traps come off as lazy or as arrogant know-it-alls, respectively. When you can admit you need help and accept the help or advice offered, you show other people that you value their opinion and respect their knowledge. Accepting help makes the people helping you feel important and needed, which is something we all appreciate. Stop thinking about your faults as bad things; they’re really opportunities to make friends and learn new things.
You can improve your self-awareness in a lot of ways. Overall, you just need to know yourself better.
Professional-level psychological or personality tests can give some insight, as can asking your friends to rate you on various personality traits or skills. It’s also possible to watch how people respond to you when you do or say certain things and gain insight about what traits you have that contribute to their reactions. Or simply sitting and reflecting upon things you’ve done and asking why. And then asking why again. And then doing it three more times—this typically allows you to cut through the defenses you’ve constructed around yourself and get to the heart of matters. Anything that gives you feedback about why you feel your emotions is useful.
Take a step back and pause whenever you experience a strong emotion. Close your eyes and try to trace what happened in the past hour or two that led you to feel that way. Are there any facts or experiences in the past that would explain why you feel a particular way about certain things and people in your life? What is currently casting a subconscious shadow over your mood?
For example, if you’re angry at 6:00 p.m., start thinking about what you’ve done since 3:00 p.m. You’ve driven home, had a snack, changed into your sweatpants, and watched a little bit of television.
When you visualize your drive home, though, suddenly you remember that you were cut off by somebody and that you were beeped at incessantly. This agitated you and you were still feeling the effects of that mood dampener hours later. This is a simplification of the process that begins to take place much more instantly.
The sad reality is that most people are not in tune with their feelings. Often, we are negatively affected by the emotional impact of things that have long since been irrelevant. Most people just react automatically without realizing why and without stopping to think what is happening internally. They fall into patterns that are sometimes negative and sometimes destructive.
Rather than looking inward and attempting to label your emotions based on what you might hypothesize caused them, you can also analyze how you are acting and label them that way. In the former, you are looking to the past to try to deduce a cause. In the latter, you are looking at the present to see the manifestation of emotion. In a sense, you are working backward from what you see and creating at least one theory about what caused it.
Just as with other people, you can tell more about yourself by your actions than you can by what you say (or what you tell yourself).
When you act uncharacteristically, take a step back and think about the kind of emotions that typically galvanize such reactions. For example, if I was somewhat cold and unresponsive to my friend, I would need to think about what happened between us that subconsciously annoyed me. It might stem back to something as small as him never having his wallet when the bill comes. Notice how you act when you experience certain emotions, and you’ll begin to see certain patterns emerging.
The most fundamental aspect of self-management is the ability to keep our emotions in check. When we’re ecstatic because we got a date with a dreamboat, we don’t let that excitement distract others in business meetings. When we’re angry about being overlooked for a promotion, we don’t let that impact our work relationship with our rival or our boss.
We even work to stay calm, steady, and effective when situations are stressful, hostile, or dangerous. In short, it involves not letting emotions get the best of you.
A lot of people attempt to do this by bottling up their emotions, but that’s a bad idea because it can lead to resentment, bitterness, and even eventual explosions of hatred and rage. Our emotions help us understand what we really think about events and people. Paying attention to them can let us form rational descriptions of our concerns and joys that can let us impact our work and relationships in positive ways. Notice what you feel, examine why you feel it, and talk about it calmly with relevant parties when your head is clear. That will let you form meaningful compromises and help you gain more happiness in life. In short, express emotions in appropriate, productive ways; don’t repress them.
Self-management also involves monitoring our thoughts and moods to manufacture a positive outlook. Some people are natural optimists, some aren’t, but seeking out the opportunities and lessons in even the worst situations can produce a silver lining that allows for meaningful growth and progress. You can’t let yourself be crushed by a failure; you have to push through it, learn everything it taught you by heart, and do better next time. A well-managed emotional life is used to motivate you toward your goals because you can use conscious patterns of optimistic thought to rally yourself with hope and joy, letting you continue on your journey. Everyone likes people who can encourage them to go on in the face of hardship, and developing this optimism will do exactly that.
The final trait in self-management is flexibility. A lot of people become attached to doing things a certain way and balk when a better method comes along. Others are so scared of change that they presume anything new must be bad. But a self-managed person will see those impulses as unhelpful and try to learn new ways of thinking and doing things. This helps them adapt and manage their expectations and emotions better.
Arguably a subset of self-management, self-motivation pushes people to meet and exceed expectations—because they know what makes them feel good and what makes them feel bad. They take matters into their own hands, especially their emotional states, and are highly motivated to maximize the positive. They have a good guess on what will make them feel fulfilled, and they try to accomplish that constantly.
Self-motivated people continually look for ways to improve themselves and their environment and won’t hesitate in taking the initiative to make their world a better place. They know what makes them tick, emotionally and otherwise, and try to set themselves up for success. You can supercharge your ability to do this by noticing when you or others complain. Complaints indicate problems, which are opportunities for improvement. When you find these, think about ways to solve the problem, and when you can make those solutions happen, get to it!
Self-motivated people also take intelligent risks to achieve their goals or dreams. You can learn to do this by thinking about and researching objects and operations that relate to what you want to do or make and deciding what to do after you’ve done that research. Being curious enough to study the lay of the land is super helpful—not just for you, but for others also.
People who are socially aware can read the room and understand the emotions that groups and individuals are likely feeling.
At a group level, being socially aware means understanding the power structure and organization of groups, along with the emotional impact of those structures and the emotional currents that flow between one person and the next. It helps us interpret situations. Understanding that the secretary is happy to help her boss but is tired from overwork is part of social awareness.
It’s also social awareness to know that she’s more replaceable and therefore less important and that both she and her boss are influenced by that dynamic. It sounds like an overwhelming amount of data to process, but it can be simplified to asking why people have certain behaviors with one person versus another and then finding the dynamic that causes it.
Understanding social dynamics is easier when you have a good grasp of emotions at an individual level. When you can see or sense others’ feelings, you can better predict what they’ll do and what they’ll need to hear to remain friendly. When you see what others feel and think about the response you would need to feel better or when you know the response that helped them or others in the past, you can offer appropriate and helpful responses to other people’s emotions and situations. Watch people, consider what they must be feeling, and demonstrate that you care enough to consider their feelings. It’s hard not to like someone who pays attention to you and tells you exactly what you need to hear.
Observing and interacting with people helps develop this skill. Whenever you see an interaction that puzzles or intrigues you, you can ask yourself why they’re saying and doing what they are to try to get a better grasp of relationship dynamics. The better you get, the easier it will be to find the right things to do in social situations of every size and type.
Obviously, this is a massive oversimplification, but it begins with asking why something is happening and what unseen or unconscious elements are causing it.
Ask yourself these questions, one at a time at first, and shortly they will become instinctual habit. It’s not an easy task because you can’t focus on one factor definitively. Each situation is different, and you must be adaptable in discovering why people feel what they do. Going through this checklist will assist you in reading people’s emotions in a way you may never have considered before.
How might your thoughts and actions be misinterpreted?
What are other people’s primary motivations and what unspoken, underlying motivations might they have that they (and you) are not even aware of?
Consider people’s built-in biases and life circumstances that give rise to certain emotions. What is their background and upbringing?
How do people display their emotions both positively and negatively?
How are emotions displayed in different ways?
What is their baseline emotional state and preferred interaction style?
By being aware of these factors, you increase your emotional intelligence because you are able to read people more accurately. And just as important, you can respond to them in a more calibrated manner that leads to fewer negative reactions. Notably, this process can take a while—exactly the difference between responding and reacting.
At the most basic level, emotional intelligence is knowing the range of reactions to any given statement or circumstance and who might respond differently and why.
If you insult someone’s mother in a serious manner and with a serious face, one reaction would be anger and being offended. You can expect that reaction a majority of the time. However, what are the other possible reactions, and what accounts for the difference? People might assume you are joking, laugh out of confusion, or ignore you because they didn’t even hear what you said.
Emotional intelligence will allow you to connect with people on a deeper level because you understand them implicitly without their saying anything. You will just get them. This is what many people interpret as chemistry and rapport, and you will have it in a seemingly effortless manner.
People with strong relationship management skills are good at interacting with individuals and groups. First, and perhaps most importantly, relationship management skills let us diffuse emotional or tense situations between others or between ourselves and others. To do this, it’s important to make sure everyone has their needs and desires heard and respected. And of course, to do that, it’s important to know people’s needs and desires. So relationship management occurs as a result of greater social awareness and self-awareness. You can understand why people feel that way and what they want to feel better.
Once that’s done, the goal is to find a course of action that will satisfy everyone involved adequately. The ability to create and sustain good compromises comes from caring about and working with what people feel about the situation.
Strong relationship management will also allow you to persuade, inspire, and guide others. Sharing your emotions and desires in a way that compels others to understand and adopt your views lets you gain followers and supporters who can follow your lead or learn from your guidance.
As always, this is done by honing the capacity to listen, to genuinely consider alternate views, and to form a conclusion. It’s also necessary to objectively assess the strengths and weaknesses of each team member so that everyone’s skills can be put to their best use. Really watching, understanding, and caring about others is the key to developing this skill.