On one hand, they're a natural and vital part of our lives. They motivate us, regulate us, empower us. But they can also limit us greatly--if we don't understand the effect they have on us and others.

So how do we improve our emotional intelligence, that ability to understand emotions, and then use that knowledge to guide our thinking and behavior?

Take a look at the following 11 behaviors, and see how many you can incorporate into your life. (And if you enjoy these, make sure to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter. It'll announce details of my book launch later this year--a practical guide to developing emotional intelligence, including some great personal stories.)

1. Use small talk--strategically.

Imagine you receive regular messages from a colleague that always read something like this:

Hi, I need _____ . Any way you can help me with that?

Nothing wrong with that message--under the right circumstances. But if all you ever receive from this person is requests for help, you naturally begin to resent their messages...and may even stop replying.

In contrast, the emotionally intelligent realize that they're dealing with a real person on the other side. They take a moment to ask how things are going, or to make brief conversation. They realize they're not the only person making requests, so they periodically ask if they can somehow make the process smoother.

By showing (appropriate) personal interest in others, you foster healthier relationships.

2. Say thank you.

No-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, neglecting these two simple words has become commonplace today.

So take the few extra moments to say the words. Look the person in the eye. If that's not possible, write an email. Even better, send a small card, or even a small gift (if appropriate).

Because a little appreciation goes a long way.

3. Remain open to other perspectives.

Each of us has a perspective that's influenced by thousands of factors, including how we were raised, where we grew up, and who we count as friends.

But the way other people view us is much different than how we view ourselves (and vice versa). By soliciting feedback from others, and then truly listening, you'll begin to see how different those perceptions can be.

Of course, those opinions won't always be easy to hear. But knowing that ahead of time can help you to keep your emotions in check.

4. Analyze your weaknesses.

It takes self-reflection, insight, and courage to identify weaknesses.

But all of us have them, and we won't get better unless we work on them.

By analyzing situations in which we've lost control of our emotions, we can work on our strategy for encountering those moments the next time.

5. Praise sincerely and specifically.

People see right through insincere attempts at praise or flattery.

But when you're consistent about looking for the good in others, and then specific about what you appreciate, you motivate them. They'll feel good about working with you, and moved to give their best.

The key is sincerity. If you praise half-hearted effort, that's what you'll continue to get. Which is why it's also important to...

6. Give constructive correction.

Feedback should be balanced. Just as you look to praise positive behavior and actions, you should also share negative feedback in the spirit of helping others improve.

That's not easy to do; it requires thinking from the other person's perspective and using tact. But if you've taken advantage of other opportunities to praise sincerely and specifically, they'll realize you're trying to make them better.

7. Show your passion.

If you need to convince others of an idea or decision, make sure to convince yourself first.

That's easy if the idea is yours and it's something in which you strongly believe. But if you start to lose motivation for whatever reason, take time to remind yourself of the "why" behind the "what".

Because if you don't get passionate about the idea, no one else will.

Getting angry is a natural part of life. In some circumstances, it's very useful: It can motivate you to address an unacceptable set of circumstances.

But losing control of your anger will almost always lead to negative consequences.

Think of anger like fire: It can be a useful tool, or it can be hideously destructive. You may not be able to control feeling angry, but you can take steps to control your response to that feeling--like stepping away from a volatile situation before you say or do something you later regret.

Learn to harness your anger appropriately and use it for good.

9. Apologize.

Admittedly, "I'm sorry" can be the two most difficult words to utter in the English language.

But even the best make mistakes. When you acknowledge them and apologize, you make a big statement about how you (or your company) view yourself in relation to others. This actually draws people to you and builds loyalty.

Learning to apologize can also help develop qualities like humility and authenticity, all of which contribute towards healthy relationships.

Pausing--at times, even for just a few seconds--can make a major difference in how you react. Using the pause may be as simple as stopping and thinking before you act or speak (which is much more challenging than it sounds).

The pause isn't only effective when dealing with upsetting situations. Often, we're tempted to jump on opportunities that look really good at the time but which we haven't really thought through.

The goal of "the pause" is to reduce those "What was I thinking?" moments.

(Want a practical tip to using the pause effectively? Check out my previous article These 3 Questions Will Immediately Improve Your Emotional Intelligence.)

11. Focus on your thoughts.

It's been said: "You can't stop a bird from landing on your head. But you can keep it from building a nest."

Every action is preceded by a thought. It's easy to give into our emotions...but that often leads to decisions we wish we could take back.

If you're trying to keep your emotions under control, focus on controlling your thoughts, first.

Putting It into Practice

Our emotions are a large part of what makes life worth living.

But by constantly learning more about them, as well as how they affect us (and others), we make sure to keep our emotions working for us and not against us.