How to Improve Emotional Intelligence

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence was originally published on Idealist Careers.

Illustration of a young woman smiling, with drawings of falling dominos, a mountain, and a sunrise covering her eyes.

Illustration by Marian Blair

So-called “soft skills” are often viewed as less vital and less challenging to acquire than “hard skills” like crunching data and engineering software. While hard skills are important, social-impact work hangs on relationships—which means soft skills are often the secret sauce to getting things done. 

Maybe you already know why emotional intelligence matters. But how do you improve emotional intelligence? Here are some tactics you can employ in the workplace.

Manage negative emotions

One of the most important things we can do for our career, relationships, and mental health is learn how to manage negative emotions effectively. We’ve all been there: something bad happens and before we know it, we’re in a negative thought spiral that is hard to pull out of.

Here are some steps to help manage negative emotions:

  • Recognize the emotion: Are you angry? Sad? Frustrated? Disappointed? Feeling taken for granted?
  • Change your reaction: If you’re feeling frustrated because a colleague didn’t follow through with something they agreed to do, you can’t change that they didn’t deliver as promised. You can, however, change your own reaction to the situation.
  • Change your environment: Take a lap around the office or a break in the staff kitchen; a change of scenery can help keep us from getting stuck.
  • Use a positive coping mechanism: Identify some simple mood enhancers. Maybe cat videos or memes from “The Office” give your spirits a boost; or perhaps looking through photos from your family vacation or texting a good friend does the trick.

Pro tip: If you notice you are experiencing negative emotions, consider using the HALT method before you take action or make a decision.

Cultivate radical curiosity

Unmet expectations and judgement can create a lot of strife in our relationships at home and at work. If someone did not meet your expectations, or perhaps you fell short of your own expectations, try radical curiosity on for size. Instead of getting into negative mental statements about what happened, ask for more information from a place of curiosity. 

  • Instead of: “You missed that deadline and now we’re all going to be behind on this project.” Try: “Can you help me understand what happened?” 
  • Instead of: “I flubbed that presentation and everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” Try: “What would have made me feel better about that presentation?” 

Any time we experience negative emotions, it’s easy to fall into black and white, all-or-nothing thoughts and statements that focus our mind very narrowly on what is wrong. Think of radical curiosity as turning on the overhead light instead of using a laser pointer, widening our view to consider options and opportunities beyond yes/no or good/bad.

If you find yourself thinking in binary either/or patterns, it is likely a good time to channel radical curiosity and expand your mental framework.

Practice empathy and compassion 

Empathy is all about sensing and understanding what another person is experiencing or feeling. How do you cultivate empathy for the people around you? 

Here are some things to try:

  • Put your phone away and really observe and engage with the people around you.
  • Notice non-verbal cues in others: body language, tone, facial expressions.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Be quiet and use active listening.
  • Be genuine and share your experiences.
  • Withhold judgement.
  • Ask yourself: what if this person is really doing the best that they can?

Empathy and compassion for ourselves can go a long way, too. Sometimes we have such high standards for ourselves and don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt—and that makes it hard to have empathy for and assume best intentions of the people around us, as well. Learn to be kind to yourself to help build your skills in empathy and compassion for others.


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