Just about every single decision we make is influenced by our emotions.
That's what makes emotional intelligence (also known as EI or EQ) so valuable. Learning to identify emotions, to understand their powerful effect, and then using that information to guide your thinking and actions can be a game changer.
That's why I've studied the topic for years, and why I write about it so often. (It's also the topic of my forthcoming book.) For example, in the past year readers and I have explored topics like:
But no matter how hard you work on your EQ, there's a single, brutal truth that each of us needs to acknowledge:
Developing emotional intelligence is one of the most difficult challenges you'll ever face.
Attempts to master most skills usually go something like this:
You learn the theory. You apply what you've learned. You practice over and over...and you begin to progress, eventually reaching a high level of competence.
Of course, there's always room for improvement. (You may be the best guitar player in town, but you know you can get better.)
Developing emotional intelligence is different.
Trying to increase your EQ goes more like this:
You learn the theory. You (try to) apply what you've learned. You see slight improvement. Then, an emotionally charged situation catches you off guard, and you fail miserably, quickly regressing to previous bad habits.
If you're anything like me, you repeat this process about a thousand times before you start to see any real improvement.
Why is that exactly?
Why It's So Difficult
Scientists have long studied the psychology of changing our behaviors and habits. The truth is, attempting to make lasting changes to behavior is a compound process that requires substantial commitment.
Add to that the vast complexity of our emotional makeup. We're born with emotions, so our emotional behavior is years in the making. Yet, the way we experience these feelings ranges vastly from person to person.
And despite being one of the oldest areas of research, even scientists disagree as to exactly what emotions are and how they work.
Which raises the question:
Is it worth the time and effort to work on increasing one's emotional intelligence?
I'd answer that with a resounding yes.
It comes down to this: With proper motivation and deliberate effort, it is possible to control our emotional reactions.
Here's a personal example:
An excellent communicator, my wife is great at using questions to help her understand the true nature of a situation. However, there are occasions when, I get annoyed and respond defensively (and emotionally). This is due to a variety of factors, ranging from stress to my interpretation of why she's asking the questions.
Of course, she calls me out when I do this.
Every. Single. Time.
The silver lining has always been that at this point in the conversation, I become more rational. I realize that I've failed (yet again) and take time to analyze the situation. Why am I getting defensive? What is really bothering me at that moment?
Taking time to self-reflect helped me to be aware of this weakness. But for years, I continued to fail when confronted with similar circumstances.
That is, until recently.
I was again feeling stress from some external situation, and my wife began probing about something I didn't really feel like talking about at the time.
But this time was different: I could feel my annoyance building, and I had more control. Where previously I would have snapped back with a remark I would later regret, I was instead able to calmly answer her questions, and even make a harmless joke about it. (She laughed.)
I'd be lying if I told you this means I've completely mastered this particular skill, and that I'll never repeat past mistakes.
But it proves that with hard work and determination, we can change emotional behaviors, despite deeply ingrained habits...
As long as we don't give up.
The truth is, not one of us can control our emotions perfectly; we all make mistakes. Show me an "expert" in emotional intelligence, and I'll show you another person who loses his or her temper or makes an emotionally faulty decision--under the wrong circumstances.
But if you continue to consider yourself a student of emotional intelligence--if you continue to question, observe, explore, and apply--you'll continue to learn.
And you will get better.
I'll keep trying to do the same.