Emotional intelligence is an underrated quality of leaders and professionals in the modern workplace, but it's starting to get the attention it deserves. In short,emotional intelligence is your ability to identify and regulate your own emotions, and to recognize and respond to the emotions of others. It's a combination of empathy, sympathy, self-awareness, and good temperament that allows you to better handle yourself under stress and pressure, and better manage a team of people working under you and with you.

If you're not familiar with the concept, you can read about the baseline qualities of a person with high emotional intelligence to get a better feel for it. But if you're interested in improving this skill in your own life, simply reading the qualities of someone already successful at it isn't going to help you.

How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence isn't an innate and inalterable quality, like your height. Instead, it's a skill, like verbal communication. And like with any skill, regular practice and specific exercises can help you improve over time.

These are some of the best shortcuts, or "hacks" to help you improve it:

1. Take more pauses.

Pauses can be incredibly powerful, both for your inward emotional intelligence (i.e., recognizing what you're feeling) and your outward emotional intelligence (i.e., recognizing what others are feeling). For example, let's say your boss just chewed you out for making a critical mistake that jeopardized a client relationship, but you were just following their orders.

Your first reaction may be anger, and if you start speaking the first chance you get, that anger will likely fuel your response. Instead, take a few seconds to breathe before you start speaking. Those few seconds will help you recognize your anger as a separate emotion--and one that doesn't have to dictate your next words. You'll then be able to speak much more calmly and eloquently.

Similarly, if one of your employees is coming to you with a concern or a request, take a few moments before responding to them. The extra pause in conversation may reveal a facial cue or body language tell that helps you figure out what they're feeling, or may prompt them to say more than they did initially. As an added benefit, proper pauses can help you be better understood.

2. Be mindful.

Mindfulness is a meditative practice that allows you to eliminate wandering thoughts of the past or future; instead, you'll focus only on the present. There are different techniques to accomplish this, including focusing on your breath or reflecting on your thoughts as they pass (like watching clouds float by), but the end result is the same; you'll decompress your mind and become more aware of what you're thinking and feeling (and why you're thinking and feeling it). This can be difficult if you've never done it before, but the more you do it, the easier it will become.

3. Journal.

Spend time journaling every day. Write about what you were thinking and feeling that day. Reflect on the events that changed your mental state, for better or for worse, and put those thoughts and feelings into words. This will force you to broaden your emotional vocabulary, and lead you to more introspection, which is valuable not just for better understanding your own feelings, but also recognizing how feelings manifest in other people.

4. Watch facial cues.

Start paying close attention to the facial expressions of the people around you. The human face can, and usually does, present a wide range of emotions, sometimes only manifesting in barely-noticeable microexpressions. The more you pay attention to these cues, the better you'll get at reading people. After a few months of consistent attention, a slight eyebrow twitch will be enough to help you recognize frustration, and a nostril flare could be a cue of excitement or surprise.

5. Map emotional triggers.

For yourself and for others around you, consider mapping out the events that led to a certain emotional outcome. For example, if you started yelling in your car because of the dense traffic on the way to work, think backward. Is the traffic the only thing that led you to this emotional response, or was this the last link in a long chain of frustrating morning events? If one of your employees breaks down crying halfway through the workday, were there any immediate events that could have triggered it? Has the employee been stressed in the weeks leading up to this moment? It's a useful form of root cause analysis that can help you work more proactively to prevent future incidents.

The Need for Ongoing Practice

None of these habits and strategies are going to make you an emotional genius overnight. It takes time to develop the instincts and self-control necessary to exercise expert-level emotional control. These habits, even if they don't seem to be working right away, are the tools you need to get there--you just may need to apply them hundreds of times, over the course of months to years, before you're satisfied with your personal development. Be patient, and be sure to celebrate your achievements, no matter how small, as you grow.

Published on: Aug 9, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.