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5 Tips to Increase Your Emotional IQ

Photo by Phil King
You can’t calm the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass. ~Timber Hawkeye

Have you ever felt so angry you lashed out and said words you regret? Felt so hurt, you couldn’t talk past the lump in your throat?

So frustrated, you weren’t able to form a coherent sentence? Or tried to communicate something important, and it landed like a dead fish?

I’ve been there. In my teens, I was a tempestuous young woman. Hormones had me flipping from rage to despair in a heartbeat. I sprayed emotions around me like a machine gun sprays bullets.

I couldn’t even talk to my then-boyfriend about anything important without losing control. I frustrated even myself.

So I learned to keep emotions under lock and key. I rarely expressed how I felt, and aimed to just keep the peace and ensure everyone was happy.

Except me.

What Squashing Your Emotions Leads To

Because, of course, the emotions were still there. I hadn’t learned how to express them in a way that was effective for both myself and others who were involved.

When I did try to express them, the result was jerky, unpracticed and ineffective, leaving both parties unhappy. When I didn’t, the emotions festered inside me and caused frustration.

I thought it was all or nothing. The emotions were there, whether I shared them or not. I couldn’t change the way I felt. Could I?

But as a work psychologist, I did believe that people could change. So why not around emotions? I explored the area, did my research, and spoke with other psychologists. I role-played and experimented in the moment.

And slowly I began to communicate my emotions successfully, in a way that left both me and the other person whole.

1. Familiarize Yourself in Neutral Situations

I’m a logical person — better with describing thoughts than emotions. But that meant I couldn’t always recognize subtler shades of emotion in myself — or others.

Understanding the difference between two similar but distinct emotions, such as guilt and shame, or just learning more words for emotion lay a foundation for managing my emotions. It improved my “emotional intelligence,” which had benefits for both my work and personal life.

Whenever I was hit by a wash of emotion, I helped myself deal with it by a game of detective; I described to myself how my emotions felt in my body, as well as naming them.

I also used less personally emotive situations (like TV) to spot and investigate feelings in others.

Get to know emotions. Understand them. Look for them in others:

  • Ask those you love, “How do you feel about that?” Listen to how they express themselves. Put a name to the emotions they are feeling.
  • Express your own emotions in neutral situations that don’t involve you directly; for instance, share your feelings on a book, a TV program or a work situation.
  • Use these inputs to create an “emotions cheat sheet” — a list of emotions to help you pinpoint and describe your feelings.

2. Share Judiciously

Modern culture is expressive. As we’re pelted by social media messages and celebrity confessions, we might think we need to let it all hang out in order to express our real selves.

And we do need to share in order to be vulnerable, what Vulnerability Research Professor Brene Brown calls “Whole-Hearted.”

But we need to share appropriately, with boundaries.

Brown discusses the need to build up “social capital” before we share. We’ve all listened to others overshare, and it leaves us uncomfortable.

Those who share to “meet unmet needs, get attention or engage in shock-and-awe behaviors” (Brown, in Daring Greatly) are not expressing their emotions effectively.

But when we have built a relationship on a thousand tiny confidences and then share in a vulnerable way, that two-way relationship becomes stronger and more resilient.

I have a long-time friend who knows all my secrets. When I share my feelings with her, when I open my heart in all its delicate vulnerability, I know she’ll never judge me. Instead, our relationship deepens and grows, the confidences like water on a sturdy plant.

3. Be Logical In Your Expression

All emotions are valid — a reflection of how you feel in a given moment — but not all of them come from a healthy, helpful place inside you.

Think past the moment. Get the most evolved part of your brain, the neocortex, to overcome the more ancient and basic limbic system (where our emotions originate).

When you feel a strong emotion, before expressing it, ask yourself:

  • What do you want to happen next?
  • What probable consequences will result from your expressing yourself in this way?

These big-picture questions will help provide perspective on your immediate emotional reaction. This has been a huge game-changer for me. It helps me to rein in my immediate instinct and be more considered in my reaction.

When a friend lets me down, previously, my first instinct might have been to snap out my annoyance. To shoot out words that will wound.

But these days, I play out the likely next steps in my head. I imagine what their response will be and realize that letting my initial feelings rip will only worsen the situation.

Instead, I work toward eliciting a response that will bring what we both need, such as a healthy conversation about expectations and integrity.

4. Use the Right Kind Of Language

Expressing your emotions effectively doesn’t mean turning into a drama queen. The blame-game happens when we tell others:

  • “You make me feel so angry!” or
  • “You’re so stressful to be around!” or
  • “You make me feel really unattractive!”

Language like this inflames the situation.

Avoid blame or accusations. Talk about the behavior rather than the person and how that behavior has impacted your emotions. This creates space in the conversation for the other person to respond.

  • Instead of: “You make me feel so angry!”
    Say: “When you criticize my work in that way, I feel angry.”
  • Instead of: “You’re so disrespectful and rude!”
    Say: “When you’re late for our planned date, and you don’t tell me, I feel that you don’t care or respect my time.”
  • Instead of: “You make me feel really unattractive!”
    Say: “When you make comments like that about what I’m wearing, I feel unattractive.”

How you express your emotions is a choice. Using language like the above empowers you to own your feelings and actively choose how to express yourself rather than just re-acting.

5. Consider the Best Format

Your personality can influence how you choose to express your emotions and how others receive that message. Face-to-face conversation is often effective when discussing difficult subjects, because there is less likelihood of misinterpretation.

I’m an introvert and have one friend with whom I have wonderfully deep conversations, often about tricky or very personal subjects, whilst walking. This tactic provides literal space and lessens the intensity of the interaction.

Introverts need to ensure they contribute as well as listen. Extroverts need to allow breathing space for the other party to contribute – without being afraid of silence.

Introverts like time to process information and consider their response. Two introverts who want to communicate about difficult feelings might try using a brief, written format.

If this is you, make sure you have a follow-up at the end to define what you want to happen next (for example, “Would you call me so we can chat about the situation?”).

You Can Only Change Yourself

No matter how effectively you express your emotions, you can’t force others to respond in a particular way just because you want them to.

All you can do is express how their behavior has impacted you. How they choose to use that information and respond is up to them.

This has been another critical learning for me. I’m learning that even when I express myself in the best possible way, the other person still might not be in a space to listen. Or care.

When I go into a conversation with my energy and determination aimed at changing the other person’s point of view, I’m unlikely to be successful.

As much as possible, detach yourself from the outcome of expressing your emotions, no matter how effective you’ve been.

Focus on being in integrity with yourself, rather than on persuading them you’re right. You have control over the former but not the latter.

Expressing Effectively for the Greater Good

If you communicate your feelings to others, you can create deeper and more meaningful relationships with people as you open up to each other’s common humanity.

Communicating your feelings effectively increases empathy in yourself and the other person. It smooths friction before it becomes abrasive and helps you to accept and process your emotions.

Whenever you talk about your feelings, aim to express them in a way that leaves both parties whole. You will be better off than you were before, in a relationship that is stronger despite having navigated challenging waters.

  • Communicate kindly.
  • Express yourself effectively.
  • Tenderly tell someone how you feel.

It will make your corner of the world a tiny bit better, and the two of you will shine a little brighter.

Who are you going to share your feelings with first?

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About the author

Ellen Bard’s mission is to help you shine more brightly in business and life. She has a fancy degree, works with those who are too tough on themselves and loves all things that sparkle. If you want to know more about being kind to yourself to make sure you’re in the best possible place to express your emotions effectively, click over to get her free self-care cheatsheet at EllenBard.com

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18 thoughts on 5 Tips to Increase Your Emotional IQ

  1. Great post, Ellen! And I’m laughing–I just wrote about anger this very morning. Thank you for your insights!

  2. Hi, Ellen

    It is a fantastic article about how to handle the situation which makes me feeling angry. I loved you remind us that there should be no blaming, guilt, or shameful feeling in either party. How easy we fall into the trap that we are always “right” and want to change others.
    As I grow older, I become a little more mature, I always ask them the reasons for their actions or sayings so that I will not be angry due to my own misunderstanding.
    i sure will tweet this nice article immediately. – Stella

    • Thanks so much Stella, I am so glad you found it useful. There are so many shades of grey in the world, that rarely are any of us truly ‘right’, and the more we can encourage communication between us all, the more we are likely to be our best selves.

      Thanks for sharing, Ellen

  3. Great advice, Ellen! The first thing I’m going to work on is my language. I am definitely guilty of those you-make-me-so-statements. It’s worth taking the time to rephrase if it leads to a more productive discussion.

    • Thanks Nicki. I find this one a challenge too – it’s such common language. But it means we step away from the accountability for our own emotions, so it’s a great thing to experiment with – it can really defuse rather than inflame a situation. Good luck!

  4. Excellent article, Ellen. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and your life experience on this super-valuable topic!

  5. Great post Ellen! I particularly resonate with #2. For so long I kept my emotions and feelings very close for fear of being judged. It wasn’t until I understood that being vulnerable and opening ourselves to others is the only way to truly connect.

    • Thanks Scott. I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly this year, and I think it’s a wonderful book to remind us all we can be more vulnerable and open as you say. It’s hard, especially at first, but it really can deepen our connections with those we love.

  6. Wow what a story Ellen! I wasn’t a raging hormonal teenager myself but am more than familiar with the unhealthy suppressing of emotions and not being able to deal with them the moment they do pop up.

    I’ve learned the necessity of improving our emotional intelligence the hard way and can only support your point wholeheartedly!

    • Thanks Linda. It’s a shame really that we don’t teach more about emotional intelligence in schools – as you say, teenagers are definitely a group who could use help with dealing with new and unwanted emotions! Perhaps we all model it a little better, and change the world by example :-)

  7. Hi Ellen – such an in
    depth post on emotions. I’ve been writing about anger recently and wish I had read this post first.

  8. love it – particularly the idea that taking the time and energy to communicate our feelings, kindly, is for the greater good. That’s a powerful ideal to strive towards.
    And language … haha, when my kids were little and one would come to me saying, “Maryellen is making me angry”, I would respond with – “Oh, Maryellen walked into your body and pushed the angry buttons, wow!” And then we would discuss how feeling anger is human and ways to handle it. They are in their early 20s and I see their ability to effectively communicate with others, and the way they own their own emotional responses.
    kudos, Ellen!

  9. Ellen, this is such an incredibly comprehensive but easy to understand post. You’re so right to say that we need to learn to express our emotions both for the sake of relationships with others and for the negative effect of repressing emotions. This is a post I’ll keep referring back to over and over. Thanks for posting such excellent advice.

    • Thanks Laura, and I’m glad that this was useful and clear. Sometimes I think our emotions are like another language – one we’re just not taught, and we have to learn as we go along. But like any language, if we put a bit of effort into it, we can improve our skills in communicating hugely – and reap the benefits. Wishing you a wonderful week with much loving and kind expression of your emotions :-)

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