Emotional Intelligence Skills and How to Develop Them

While it’s only become a more popular buzzword in the past decade, the concept of Emotional Intelligence skills has been around for at least 25 years.

Whether you know it as Emotional Quotient (EQ), Emotional Intelligence (EI), or you’re more familiar with the idea of ‘soft skills’ more broadly, EI plays an important role in our daily lives.

Emotional Intelligence underpins our professional relationships, interpersonal communications, and are even related to our ability to motivate ourselves. If you’ve ever held yourself back when you’ve felt like lashing out, you’re already familiar with one way EI works.

Like other aspects of the self, it’s not tangible, but even though we can’t see Emotional Intelligence, we can certainly feel its impact.

What are Emotional Intelligence Skills?

According to the APA dictionary of psychology, Emotional Intelligence is

“a type of intelligence that involves the ability to process emotional information and use it in reasoning and other cognitive activities”

– (Dictionary.APA.org, 2018).

It’s clear from this definition that EI is relevant in both our professional and personal relationships, as well as the relationships we have with ourselves. We’ll soon look at the dynamics of how, when it comes to interpersonal skills, EI play a big role.

The term was coined by two American Psychologists, John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1997, and from their definition, we can get a great idea of what Emotional Intelligence skills are all about:

“The emotionally intelligent person is skilled in four areas: identifying emotions, using emotions, understanding emotions, and regulating emotions.”

Of course, it’s academia, so the idea is constantly being worked on and expanded as more and more research is carried out. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t already quite broad agreement on how Emotional Intelligence works in our everyday lives (Schutte et al., 2011):

  • EI helps us manage our emotions – by allowing us to dismiss, ignore, or regulate our unproductive emotions in instances where they’re just not instrumental. For example, there’s little value in yelling at a bus driver because your commute has been slowed down by bad traffic;
  • Our EI abilities are what allow us to notice and understand how others are feeling. They play a big role in defining who we are by shaping our relationships with others around us; and
  • Our Emotional Intelligence skills are believed to be huge contributors to our overall success in life, due to their influence on our ability to self-manage and motivate.

Applying Emotional Intelligence Skills

Is Emotional Intelligence a soft skill?

Interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and social skills are often all considered together. They’re intangible, for one, yet have a significant impact on almost everything we do. These are definitely considered soft skills that a good therapist can easily help with.

At the same time, the ‘soft skill’ label doesn’t mean that interpersonal skills like EI can’t be measured psychometrically, or that you can’t develop them yourself in extremely effective ways.

We’ll look closely at these in a little more detail before we consider Emotional Intelligence Skills Assessments. Hopefully, this background understanding makes it apparent how super-simple it is to develop your clients’ EI.

Emotional Intelligence Theories

Four branch model of EI

Mayer and Salovey’s Four Branch Model of Emotional Intelligence is a helpful way to visualize the different Emotional Intelligence Skills we looked at earlier (Mayer & Salovey, 1997; Salovey & Grewal, 2005). The two psychologists are credited with coming up with the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ before the concept was extended by other researchers and later came to mainstream popularity.

The Four Branch Model simply premises that Emotional Intelligence Skills come under four categories, as shown below. These are Perceiving Emotions, Facilitating Thought Using Emotions, Understanding Emotions, and Managing Emotions.

Four Branch Model

Perceiving emotions is about being aware of and sensitive to others’ emotions. In other words, it’s about the ability to accurately identify emotions (yours and others) by detecting and decoding emotional signals. This can be in others’ faces, voices, or even in pictures (Papadogiannis et al., 2009).

Facilitating thought using emotions takes place once we detect and identify emotions. Facilitating thought using emotions relates to analyzing and registering this ‘emotional information’. Then, incorporating it into our higher-level cognitive functions for enhanced decision-making, rationalizing, problem-solving, and consideration of others’ perspectives (Mayer & Salovey, 1997; Mayer et al., 2002).

Understanding emotions is about being able to understand how different emotions relate to one another, how they can change based on the situations we encounter, and how our feelings alter over time (Papadogiannis et al., 2009). Being able to predict how someone’s emotions are changing through their facial expressions, their tone of voice, and so forth, means you’ve probably got strong emotional management skills. Which is great—the ability to understand emotions is very much linked to successful communication.

Managing emotions is the Emotional Intelligence skill that relates to handling your own and others’ emotions effectively. Typically, emotional management and understanding are considered higher-level skills, as they rely on the first two (Perceiving Emotions and Facilitating Thought) to work effectively. Thinking about the workplace, it’s easy to see how managing your own (and others) emotions might make life easier when facing a stressful deadline.

The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI)

A more recent contribution to Emotional Intelligence literature, Israeli psychologist Reuven Bar-On’s (2006) ESI Model considers emotional intelligence, social skills, and their facilitators all together. The Model consists of five interrelated competencies, skills, and behavior clusters that were identified from academic literature.

Specifically, they were considered because they were all perceived to impact our well-being and performance as humans (Bar-On, 2013). These ‘clusters’ are:

  1. Self-Awareness and Self-Expression;
  2. Social Awareness and Interpersonal Relationships;
  3. Emotional Management and Regulation;
  4. Change Management; and
  5. Self Motivation.

The Bar-On model suggests that these EI competencies and skills contribute to how we as people understand ourselves and others, our self-expression, relate to one another and deal with everyday demands (Bar-On, 2006; McCleskey, 2014). While its underpinning premises remain debated in the broader psychological literature, the Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology considers the Bar-On Model of ESI one of the three main models of Emotional Intelligence (Spielberger, 2004).

Bar-On’s work views EI and cognitive intelligence (IQ) as different, separate concepts, and he suggests that the former is more important than the latter in predicting an individual’s success in life. Interestingly, there is neurological research in support of this aspect of the ESI model. These studies show that brain damage to areas we use for various emotional functions and decision-making can impair our ability to function socially (Bechra et al., 2000; Bar-On et al., 2003).

Goleman’s Model of Emotional Intelligence

Daniel Goleman is one of the most famous names worldwide when it comes to EI. His work on Emotional Intelligence skills is linked very often to leadership and managerial abilities, and his model of EI is an extension of Mayer and Salovey’s earlier work that identified four Emotional Intelligence skills. Goleman’s (1995) model, like Bar-On’s, is based on five essential factors that determine an individual’s EI, though they’re a bit different:

  1. Emotional self-awareness – which is very similar to Mayer and Salovey’s Perceiving Emotions skill, concerns awareness of one’s own feelings, and encompasses an appreciation of how those feelings can affect those around us;
  2. Self-regulation – concerns managing one’s own emotions and predicting their effects, in a similar way to Facilitating Thought and Managing Emotions;
  3. Motivation – this covers continuing on when encountering obstacles;
  4. Empathy – which relates to detecting others’ emotions; and
  5. Social skills – a set of Emotional Intelligence social skills that help us manage our interpersonal relationships and elicit certain reactions from them.

What Determines Emotional Intelligence?

A lot of the theories, like the ones we’ve just looked at, offer different perspectives on what the concepts actually include. They’ve got a lot in common, however, like understanding your own emotions, those of others, and managing those effectively. The main takeaway is that all of these are abilities, rather than static, unalterable traits.

At a neurological level, it’s possible to link some of these EI abilities to different parts of our brains, and we’ve already covered some researchers whose studies have shown this. However, this neurological link goes back quite a while, to the case of Phineas Gage—probably one of the most famous patients ever in modern Psychology. Poor Phineas sustained bilateral damage to his prefrontal cortices that had a very unexpected effect. According to his doctor (TalentSmart, 2018):

“He was now capricious, fitful, irreverent, impatient of restraint, vacillating… His physical recovery was complete, but those who knew him as a shrewd, smart, energetic, persistent business man, recognized the change in mental character.”

The great news for most of us, though, is that despite EI having some links to the way our brains function neurologically, a lot of it is learned through our everyday experiences. Which means it’s possible to develop our Emotional Intelligence skills. In that sense, therefore, it’s you who decides your Emotional Intelligence.

What are Emotional Intelligence Skills?

Let’s look at some examples of how EI skills look in our day-to-day lives, with a particular focus on the relationship between Emotional Intelligence skills and social skills. We’ll use both workplace examples and also consider how EI looks in professional, working relationships.

Listening to others

Jan works at an advertising agency, and things can get a little hectic during the brainstorming process. Everyone’s struggling to get their opinion heard, thinking they have the best idea. Quite often, this leads to a lot of raised voices. When Bob presents a campaign idea, it’s difficult for him to get his point across without another team member talking over him, which demonstrates very little respect and can lead to hurt feelings.

By calmly suggesting that people listen quietly to one another when they are given the floor, Jan is demonstrating strong Emotional Intelligence. Specifically, he’s perceiving that Bob’s not taking it very well emotionally, and also, he’s attempting to manage emotions in the room. It’s both recognition and effective handling of the team’s emotions at play. When everyone starts to listen to one another, as per Jan’s suggestion, it’s much simpler to reach a constructive decision together.

Facilitating thought

Daniel is a parking inspector, and his job, unfortunately, means that sometimes people return to their cars to find him printing out a ticket. Over the years, he’s learned that an authoritative, “only doing my job” attitude tends to provoke negative reactions from drivers. Often, these lead to complaints about his performance.

When drivers catch Daniel printing out a ticket, he now starts their interaction with a smile. He asks how they’re doing, and whether they’re alright, then starts a chat about the weather. By detecting and attending to their emotions, then adapting his communications strategy using higher-level mental processes, he’s managed to reduce the complaints against him by 90%. He’s also successfully managed others’ emotions despite their potentially irrational behavior.

Understanding others’ perspectives

Lisa has gone over to Debby’s house to return a dress she borrowed. She even brings a slice of cake because she knows that Debby has had a very stressful week at work. Debby’s in an unpleasant mood because she’s exhausted, and doesn’t invite Lisa inside. Instead, she is snappy and closes the door on her friend as soon as she can. Lisa is upset, thinking “How horrible”, as she walks home.

During the walk, Lisa reflects on the situation and takes a moment to think about how Debby’s been busy with incredibly long hours, working until 9 pm each day at the office. She dismisses her earlier thoughts and recognizes that Debby has just been tired and a little worn out. By putting herself into her friend’s shoes and looking at the emotional situation objectively, she’s been able to make a rational decision about how to react. Rather than getting angry at Debby, she decides to give her a friendly call later in the week, to let her know she hopes things have become less hectic.

Emotional Intelligence, Social Skills, and You

As the above examples illustrate, Emotional Intelligence, social skills, and communication skills are inextricably linked. You’ve probably even had similar experiences, and hopefully, Lisa, Jan, and Daniel’s stories outline the connection between our emotional experiences, communication, and behaviors.

As Bar-On noted, research from recent decades has revealed that being aware of our emotions and handling our feelings can be more critical in determining the extent to which we succeed in many aspects of life. Unsurprisingly, relationships, emotional intelligence, and social skills definitely play a huge role in our happiness and family relationships (Gottman, 1998).

When it comes to EI skills, the ability to perceive and manage emotions helps us cope with conflict. It does this by allowing us to anticipate how others are feeling and adapt our responses so we can resolve them in a mutually beneficial way.

Interestingly, academics have noted a specific positive linkage between EI and increased relationship satisfaction (Malouff et al., 2012). And this has made it possible for us to develop actionable strategies to improve our relationships by growing our Emotional Intelligence skills. Here are some examples of how we can do this.

How to develop Emotional Intelligence Skills

Practice makes perfect, and when it comes to developing your EI skills, all of the following 4 exercises are most effective when practiced regularly.

1. Work on your self-awareness

Mindfulness is key with this exercise, which is surprisingly easy. Start by simply taking a little time out to think about your reactions to daily events. A few quiet moments at the end of the day are perfect for reflecting on what happened to you and how you felt. Corporate Psychologist Dr. Patricia Thompson suggests not to stop here, either.

She stresses that it’s important to take this reflection a little further by spending some time considering your own strengths, triggers, values, and opportunities that you see to develop further (Thompson, 2018). This EI exercise is built on Mayer & Salovey’s (1997) concept of Perceiving Emotions—it starts with you!

2. Reframe your perceptions of self-management

Executive coach Roger Reece advises that conflicts with others can often be problems that relate to our frame of reference. As an example, reframing is what we do when we switch from a glass-half-empty to a glass-half-full perspective, in a sense. When developing our EI, we take this internal process and apply it to our interactions with others. Here’s Reece’s description of how it works:

“By reframing conflict with a co-worker as an opportunity to build better teamwork with that person, you can find the motivation to initiate a conversation rather than avoid the conflict as unworkable. During a difficult conversation, you can reframe the way you see the other person – not as an enemy, but rather a potential new ally.”

The concept of reframing is a popular one with EI practitioners and works well if you are looking for a long-term way to deal with unavoidable interpersonal conflicts. As an example, in your mind, someone is criticizing an idea you have come up with. Instead, you could reframe the situation mentally as “How useful these suggestions are, I can use them to improve my idea.

3. Become aware of your emotional triggers

Another approach Reece suggests for learning to manage our own emotions is to identify the triggers that actually set them off in the first place. This involves trying to isolate, anticipate, and control the aspects of our interactions with others that set us off.

A common example is what Reece calls the offense trigger. It describes most people’s tendency to become offended by others’ body language, their tone of voice, and so forth during arguments. The opposite is considering what their intended message might actually be – maybe they’re just trying to help.

We’ve actually included a really great exercise on identifying your triggers in one of the worksheets below. The underpinning motivation for identifying our triggers is to be able to control our maladaptive emotional responses to them. If we know that someone’s tendency to speak frankly tends to set us off, for example, we can adapt our behaviors accordingly when we interact with them. Being less defensive and aggressive if an interaction is unavoidable, for example, can help us reach a constructive conclusion when we engage.

4. Recognize and celebrate your positive emotions

This is a pretty lovely one from Dr. Thompson, who we mentioned above. It’s lovely because it’s as simple as taking the time out to do things that make you experience positive emotions. The only catch is that it’s not about taking a tropical vacation each weekend! It’s more about intentionally engaging in intrinsically rewarding activities like being kind, recalling past happy memories, and expressing our gratitude when we interact with others.

It’s based on the idea that experiencing more positive emotions puts you in a better and more resilient position when negative things do occur. We’re better equipped, in this respect, by taking conscious steps to celebrate the things that evoke positive feelings in ourselves.

Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

Daniel Goleman’s (1996; 1998) work on Emotional Intelligence and communication skills emphasizes the critical role of EI across a diversity of careers, highlighting its functionality in leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and interpersonal relationships. As Goleman (1998) puts it, in high IQ labor markets, those of us with soft skills like “discipline, drive, and empathy” are more likely to stand out from the crowd.

The Center for Creative Leadership even draws on research to suggest that 75% of careers are negatively impacted by emotional competency-related themes. These include the inability to respond adaptively to change, nurture trust, lead teams during tough times, and deal effectively with interpersonal problems. So yes, developing your EI skills will help you in the workplace.

Emotional Intelligence Skills Assessment

While many different organizations and practitioners use varying emotional intelligence skills assessments, the best known is probably the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (Mayer et al., 2002; 2003). Here’s one nice way to get an idea of how you might start to measure your EI.

Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test

The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence test uses a whopping 141 items to measure each of the four Emotional Intelligence Skills mentioned above. It also gives you two area scores for ‘Experiential EI’ and ‘Strategic EI’ and one total EI score, as the picture below shows (Brackett & Salovey, 2006).

Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test

Some example questions from emotionresearcher.com are shown below (Mayer et al., 2002; Price & Walle, 2018):

1. Identifying Emotions

Indicate the emotions expressed by this face.
Happiness 1 2 3 4 5
Fear 1 2 3 4 5
Sadness 1 2 3 4 5

2. Using Emotions

What mood(s) might be helpful to feel when meeting in-laws for the very first time?

Not Useful Useful
Tension 1 2 3 4 5
Surprise 1 2 3 4 5
Joy 1 2 3 4 5

3. Understanding Emotions

Tom felt anxious and became a bit stressed when he thought about all the work he needed to do. When his supervisor brought him an additional project, he felt ____. (Select the best choice.)

  1. Overwhelmed
  2. Depressed
  3. Ashamed
  4. Self Conscious
  5. Jittery

4. Managing Emotions

Debbie just came back from vacation. She was feeling peaceful and content. How well would each action preserve her mood?

Action 1: She started to make a list of things at home that she needed to do.
Very Ineffective..1…..2…..3…..4…..5..Very Effective

Action 2: She began thinking about where and when she would go on her next vacation.
Very Ineffective..1…..2…..3…..4…..5..Very Effective

Action 3: She decided it was best to ignore the feeling since it wouldn’t last anyway.
Very Ineffective..1…..2…..3…..4…..5..Very Effective

You can learn more about the full version of the MSCEIT here.

The Harvard Business Review EI Assessment

This test is much shorter, comprising only 25 items, which you can do here. Annie McKee, a PennCLO Executive Doctoral Program senior fellow put this quiz into the Harvard Business Review in 2015. Here are some sample items (not in the original order):

1) I can describe my feelings in detail, beyond just “happy,” “sad,” “angry,” and so on.

  1. Always
  2. Most of the time
  3. Frequently
  4. Sometimes
  5. Rarely
  6. Never

2) I focus on opportunities rather than obstacles.

  1. Always
  2. Most of the time
  3. Frequently
  4. Sometimes
  5. Rarely
  6. Never

Because the answers are all on the same 5-point Likert scale, the test is easy to complete. Here are some more items so you can see how your Emotional Intelligence skills score on McKee’s test.

3) I see people as good and well-intentioned;

4) I use strong emotions, such as anger, fear, and joy, appropriately and for the good of others;

5) I readily understand others’ viewpoints, even when they are different from my own;

6) My curiosity about others drives me to listen attentively to them; and

7) I adapt easily when a situation is uncertain or ever-changing.

On the HBR website itself, you can submit your answers online, and even ask others to respond to the same test while thinking about you.

3 Emotional Intelligence Skills Worksheets

Developing your Emotional Intelligence skills doesn’t have to be difficult. Whether you prefer to learn from books, exercises, or videos, there’s something for everyone. The important thing is to find what works for you, as you’ll quickly discover that this makes it much easier to continue the great work over time.

Perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions

This worksheet is for everyone – no teams necessary, just recall. You’ll very soon see that a lot of Emotional Intelligence skills exercises are based on reflection. Whether it’s a reflection on your own experiences, your interactions with others, or part of a longer, ongoing journaling exercise, reflection and EI often go hand in hand.

The exercise starts with recalling a recent occasion when something unexpected occurred and caused you to feel certain emotions.

Think about:

The people who were there;
What happened;
The emotions you felt; and
The emotions you presently feel as you recall and reflect on the event.

Note down your reflections in answer to the following questions:

  1. What did you first become aware of, in yourself, as you remembered the situation?
  2. What physical sensations did you notice?
  3. How would you describe the first emotion you felt as you remembered this experience?
  4. When did you become aware of the emotion? (both during the situation itself and during the process of remembering)
  5. What were the signals that alerted you that this was the emotion you were experiencing?
  6. What triggered this particular emotion for you?

This exercise is part of a larger Emotional Intelligence Skills PDF from OPP.com. (The link is for an automatic download of the PDF.)

Understanding Triggers

The above exercise gave an in-depth look at how we can perceive emotions in response to a certain event. The Therapist Aid Understanding Triggers worksheet below starts from unwanted emotional responses – anger, frustration, jealousy, etc. – and helps us work on strategies. For adults, it can even be used to better understand potentially maladaptive coping mechanisms.

For this worksheet, a trigger is defined as “A stimulus – such as a person, place, situation, or thing – that contributes to an unwanted emotional or behavioral response.

We start by identifying The Problem: something that our unwanted responses are contributing to. Maybe it’s snapping at others in the workplace, or it could be something like a bad reaction to negative feedback.

Describe the problem your triggers are contributing to. What’s the worst-case scenario, if you are exposed to your triggers?

We then explore these by sorting them into Trigger Categories. We think about each of the six categories below, and ask ourselves if any of these trigger the unwanted emotional response (The Problem, from above):

Emotional state – Is there a specific emotion that acts as a trigger for you?
People – How about a person?
Place – (you get the idea!);
Thoughts; or

Ideally, we can start to identify our triggers and avoid them where possible. This step makes it easier for us to then fill out the following table, which is adapted from the original exercise at TherapistAid.com:

Trigger One Trigger Two Trigger Three
List your three biggest triggers in detail
Describe a strategy for avoiding or reducing exposure to each trigger
Describe your strategy for dealing with each trigger head on, when they cannot be avoided

Avoiding unnecessary triggers and learning to better handle those that are just part of life is also a welcome way to cut down on stress.

Self-Management Activity

The IFVS Self-Management Activity looks at how to better manage our own behavioral reactions to the emotions we feel. Because sometimes it’s natural to feel really angry – traffic jams come instantly to mind!

There are two super-simple steps to this activity. In the first, think back to a time you felt angry, and list your reactions and behaviors in response to the following statement:

The last time I was angry I…

For the second activity, describe some healthy management skills and behaviors – these are how you’d prefer to react to similar situations in the future. Some suggestions of healthy management skills include:

Breathing deeply;
Going for a walk;
Taking a break;
Taking a shower;
Lying down;
Thinking before you speak;
Distracting yourself; and
Writing about it.

The whole exercise and more is available as a PDF download.

Recommended Books on Emotional Intelligence Skills

If you’re interested in finding out more about social skills and Emotional Intelligence, Goleman’s (1995) book is a brilliant place to start—which is why it was on the NY Times list of Best Sellers for at least 18 months. Here’s a short list of great reading material, including a nice audiobook:

Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman (Amazon)

Creativity and Creative Thinking: World-Renowned Entrepreneurs, Professors and Psychologists Share Their Thoughts on Emotional Intelligence by Satheesh Gopalan (Amazon)

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves (TalentSmart)

At the Heart of Leadership by Joshua Freedman (Amazon)

Here are some cute books to teach Emotional Intelligence skills to the little ones, too:

The Way I Feel by Janan Cain (Amazon)

Two Monsters by David McKee (Amazon)

For an even more comprehensive list, see our review on the 26 Best Emotional Intelligence Books.

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