Like most leadership skills, emotional intelligence can only be learned through experience. No matter how much empathy and recognition of others’ feelings you bring to the table, you need to practice EI to improve.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Many executives want quick fixes that provide immediate results. EI can mean the difference between inspiring teams to succeed or instigating an employee exodus — but it's not something you can manufacture overnight.
What makes EI so critical? As TalentSmart revealed through exhaustive research on the workplace skills that matter most, EI is a reliable predictor of success. Google came to the same conclusion, using its wealth of data to prove that employees widely preferred managers with an even temperament over those with high levels of technical proficiency.
Given these facts, why wouldn’t you want to give yourself an edge with stronger EI? As a Harvard Business Review article asserted, leaders motivated solely by self-interest are more likely to experience tragic failures than those who are attuned to people’s emotional responses. In other words, your best path to avoiding trouble is by strengthening your EI.
Use the following strategies to do just that:
1. Take the EQ-i assessment.
OK. This one isn't very unconventional, but it's important to know what your current level before you embark on a major change. Like your intelligence quotient, your emotional quotient also can be measured. A popular assessment tool called the EQ-i helps gauge where you stand in terms of your EI. With more than 20 years of science backing the measurement, you can be certain you’re getting solid information. But don’t stop there: To get a truer understanding of your EI, you need feedback from others as well.
You and your staff members will all benefit if you conduct a 360-degree assessment in addition to the EQ-i. The responses will show whether you are accurately predicting the emotions that your words and actions evoke in those around you. Don’t be discouraged if you see a large variance between your EI self-assessment and your 360-degree evaluation — it just means you have opportunities to improve.
2. Adopt the surprising communication secrets of peace negotiators.
When peace activist Marshall Rosenberg wrote the book “Nonviolent Communication,” the work didn’t resonate in the business world. Yet it's exactly the kind of hidden gem that you'd expect a leadership archaeologist to discover.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella agrees. Upon taking over as CEO at Microsoft, Nadella made reading Rosenberg’s book one of the first directives for his leadership team. The publication lays out an actionable, repeatable structure for validating the emotions of another person. That way, even if you’re starting with a very low EI, you can boost your score through trial and error. Why shoot in the dark when you can follow a path toward more natural empathy through a series of questions and responses?
3. Jump headfirst into acting or improv classes.
A critical component of EI is being able to sense emotions in ourselves and others. Acting trains us to get in touch with our emotions. When I took an improv workshop at Second City in Chicago, my goal wasn’t just to have a good time — it was to learn the skills that come from improvisation. Although most of us think of actors as reading from scripts or reciting lines, they’re actually diving deep into the emotions of their characters. They’re also sometimes given free rein to improvise, basing their actions and words on the emotions of their team members.
Whether you’ve never set foot on a stage or you’ve embraced the limelight, investigate acting strategies like method acting or the Meisner technique. Knowing more about how actors stay connected to their characters gives you an understanding of ways you can better respond in a variety of settings.
4. Experiment with psychodrama.
Obviously, EI has psychological roots. As a result, psychodrama might be valuable in your quest for EI improvement. Typically, psychodrama occurs in a group setting. The protagonist describes a traumatic moment, often one that took place in his or her early history. Group members play roles (e.g., the boss, the mother, the sister, or the boyfriend) decided by the main actor. They will either be given scripts or license to improvise.
When the action begins, each player must act out the scenario and fully embrace the experience. It’s a controlled way to not only knock off the emotional rust you’ve built up, but potentially get past something that’s making you resistant to increasing your EI.
5. Try somatic experiencing.
Have you ever noticed that strong emotions are often connected to feelings in parts of the body? When you’re afraid, your stomach starts to churn. Angry? You might get a headache or stiffness in your shoulders. Somatic experiencing helps you identify your emotional states by connecting them with the way your body reacts.
Is it unconventional? You bet. I’ve “taste-tested” somatic experiencing with plenty of success, though. Every time I went to a session, I seemed to feel hungry despite just having eaten. What I discovered was that certain emotions mimic the desire to eat. As I became more aware of this link, I opened the door to feeling through my body’s reactions, not just my core emotional state.
You can’t assume that you’ll become an EI guru overnight — or perhaps ever. But you can build your EI abilities through deliberate learning. A great first step is to think creatively about the many roads you can take to reach your full potential as a leader with an enviable EI.