Like most ideas with staying power, the value of emotional intelligence seems obvious in hindsight. The better you can understand and manage your emotions -- and the emotions of people around you -- the greater your chances of success.
But what if you feel your EQ is on the low, rather than high, side?
Neuroscience to the rescue: Here are a few simple ways to dramatically improve your emotional intelligence, especially in terms of managing your own emotions.
After all, if you can't manage your emotions, how can you understand and influence the emotions of the people around you?
1. Recognize that your emotional responses aren't set in stone.
According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, most people tend to have one of two mental perspectives where talent is concerned.
People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed. That we "have" what we were born with.
People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort. That we "have" what we work to attain.
Surprisingly, the same applies to emotions. As Lisa Feldman Barrett writes in How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain:
Where emotions and the autonomic nervous system are concerned, four significant meta-analyses have been conducted in the last two decades, the largest of which covered more than 220 physiology studies and nearly 22,000 test subjects.
None of these four meta-analyses found consistent and specific emotion fingerprints in the body.
In short, early on we learned -- from the people around us, from the culture (and micro-culture) we grew up in, etc. -- how to process what our bodies felt.
Which means we can work to unlearn and relearn some of our emotional responses.
2. Identify an emotion more specifically.
Say you feel "stressed." (Who doesn't?) "Stressed" has meaning, but it's too vague.
Instead, you're stressed about a specific version of the future. Or about a certain decision you think may come back to haunt you. Or an upcoming presentation, or a conversation you dread having with an underperforming employee ...
Those are what neuroscientists call "granular" emotions. The more specifically you identify an emotion, the more granular you make it, the better. As Dr. Marc Brackett writes in Permission to Feel: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-Being and Success:
Participants who were deemed granular were better able to differentiate their emotional experiences. Subjects who were low in granularity -- called clumpers -- were less skilled at differentiating emotions (e.g., angry, worried, frustrated).
When the two groups were compared ... granular individuals were less likely to freak out ... when under stress and more likely to find positive meaning in negative experiences. They also were better at emotion regulation -- moderating their responses in order to achieve desired outcomes.
The clumpers, on the other hand, scored worse on those counts, tending to be physically and psychologically ill at a higher rate than the granular crowd.
While it might sound odd -- especially since we're often told not to dwell on our emotions -- taking the time to think about the reasons why you feel the way you feel helps you better deal with that emotion.
The same is of course true where others are concerned: Helping a person who feels "upset" or "stressed" or "anxious" identify the specific source of an emotion helps them better manage that emotion.
3. Reframe an emotion.
Approximately 75 percent of Americans say they regularly experience physiological and psychological symptoms caused by stress. Research shows that Generation Z in particular is much less able to manage and deal with stress: feelings of fear, trepidation, and hesitance keep them from performing as well as they could.
For them, "stress" is a negative.
Then there's Nascar champion Joey Logano.
"It's just really cool to get the opportunity to have all that pressure on you," Joey told me before the season-ending race at Homestead in 2016, where he had a shot to win that year's championship. "A lot of people don't get the opportunity to have pressure. To work hard and get to a certain level and then have pressure ... it's a privilege to feel pressure." (My italics.)
Logano reframed "pressure" into a positive.
And so can you. Nervous about an important sales demo? The fact you feel nervous is actually a good thing, because it means you have the chance to win a major account. Anxious about whether you can deliver on a tight schedule? That's a good thing, because it means your company has the chance to be a hero for your customer.
If you don't feel "pressure" on at least a semi-regular basis, that's a problem. "Pressure" is something you want to feel. Pressure means you're in a position to be successful at something meaningful, something important, something that truly matters to you.
Pressure is a sign you're pushing yourself. And that's a good thing. You can't achieve more unless you try to do more.
When you feel pressured, when you feel nervous or stressed or anxious, reframe the emotion. If you feel pressure, that means you're in a position to make things happen. That's a good thing. If you feel nervous, that means you care. That's a good thing.
You can't always control your emotions.
But you can control, at least to some degree, how you respond to and manage those emotions.
Which is what emotional intelligence is all about.