Every day, our experiences affect our emotions. Sunshine or rain clouds, our favorite song on the radio or an angry email at work – all of these can affect our mood, change the way we feel and influence the way we think. The problems come when we allow those feelings to dictate how we deal with others. Emotions can cause us to react differently in a certain moment than we would normally. If we’re feeling especially happy, we might agree to do something we wouldn’t otherwise. If we’re feeling very down or upset, we might unintentionally take those feelings out on someone else.
Emotional intelligence, also referred to as EI describes a person’s ability to recognize emotions, to understand their powerful effect, and to use that information to guide thinking and behavior. When we speak about getting our emotions under control, we are usually thinking about controlling our response to emotions. This is easier said than done but it can be done with awareness and practice.
So how can we practice emotional intelligence in our relationships?
One incredibly useful skill is to be mindful of the bigger picture.
In essence, seeing the big picture involves stepping back in an emotionally charged moment, and thinking about the consequences of our actions, both short and long-term. For example, if you receive an email that bothers you, step away before you reply. In most cases, I find I’m able to be more rational in replying when I come back to that email than if I had replied in that moment of overwhelm. If a friend or family member does something frustrating, pause before you react. I have to practice this a lot in my dealings with my children.
While you are stepping away from that situation, ask yourself questions like:
- How will my response affect my relationship with this person?
- Will I regret saying or doing this tomorrow or next week?
It is also important to note that while you are taking a break from that situation, you need to unburden your mind about that particular situation, otherwise, your time away would have been a total waste. The more aware you are of this skill, the faster you’re able to come back into that situation with a better resolve or reaction and it becomes more of a habit for you.
Here are simple steps you need to practice before you’re master of your own emotions and develop your self-awareness and empathy.
Observe how you feel
When faced with pressure, many of us lose touch with our emotions. When we do this, we’re far more likely to act unconsciously and we miss out on the valuable information that our emotions contain.
Whenever we have an emotional reaction to something, we’re receiving information about a particular situation, person or event. The reaction we experience might be due to the current situation, or it could be that the current situation is reminding us of a painful, unprocessed memory.
When we pay attention to how we’re feeling, we learn to trust our emotions, and we become far more adept at managing them.
Pay attention to your behavior
While you’re practicing your emotional awareness, pay attention to your behavior too. Notice how you act when you’re experiencing certain emotions, and how that affects your day-to-day life. Does it impact your communication with others, your productivity, or your overall sense of well-being?
Once we become more conscious of how we’re reacting to our emotions, it’s easy to slip into judgement mode and start attaching labels to our behavior.
Take responsibility for your feelings and behavior
This is probably the most challenging step, and it’s also the most helpful. Your emotions and behavior come from you. They don’t come from anyone else, therefore, you’re the one who’s responsible for them.
If you feel hurt in response to something someone says or does, and you lash out at them, you’re responsible for that. They didn’t make you lash out. You’re not a string puppet controlled by other people. Your reaction is your responsibility.
Equally, your feelings can provide you with valuable information about your experience of the other person, as well as your own needs and preferences, but your feelings aren’t another person’s responsibility.
Once you start accepting responsibility for how you feel and how you behave, this will have a positive impact on your relationships.
Practice responding rather than reacting
There’s a subtle but important difference between responding and reacting. Reacting is an unconscious process where we experience an emotional trigger, and behave in an unconscious way that expresses or relieves that emotion (for example, feeling irritated and snapping at the person who has just interrupted you).
Responding is a conscious process that involves noticing how you feel, then deciding how you want to behave (for example, feeling irritated, explaining to the person how you feel, why this isn’t a good time to be interrupting you, and when would be better).
Remember emotional intelligence is a lifetime process. It isn’t something you develop once then drop. It’s a lifetime practice, and it is possible to keep improving also for the benefit of the important relationships in your life. And even when you feel like you’ve mastered these steps, remember to keep practicing, and you’ll reap the benefits of emotional intelligence for the rest of your happily ever after.