Optimising emotional intelligence: 3 simple practices
Most would agree that emotional intelligence (EI) has some importance in life. But to truly dedicate effort and energy towards focusing on it and optimising it is a completely different question. What often happens; investing in emotional intelligence gets assigned low priority on our to-do list and then gets ignored…until it literally slaps us in the face and now we are facing a problem. In our professional lives, this often comes in the form of burnout, but there are several examples of other unfortunate circumstances that could lead us to pay more attention to emotional intelligence. If you attended my talk at brightonSEO you would've heard me elaborate on this topic as part of my presentation; From AI to EI: The future of SEO is emotional intelligence.
The good news is, if you are here reading this, you have already taken an important step on your journey towards investing in your own EI. So let’s dive in;
What’s wrong with Emotional Intelligence?
Currently, when we talk about emotional intelligence, we often refer to the capacity to be aware of, control, and express emotions. We then often connect (and therefore restrict) this definition to the ability to be empathetic and compassionate towards ourselves and others. This means we are missing the importance and role emotional intelligence plays in learning technical or practical skills, cognitive abilities and so on.
In fact, it is still a popular belief to separate so-called ‘emotional’ and ‘rational’ thinking and responses. This ideology is not only outdated, but it is also built on the concept of a layered brain (reptilian, emotional, and rational) that isn’t supported by neuroscience. The functioning brain however, is way more complex, interconnected and adaptive. Emotions play a much bigger role in human consciousness and they cannot be separated into a specific brain region, or assigned to a specific set of skills.
To go into more detail on this will likely require pursuing a PhD, and I am not quite there yet, however, there is an eye-opening book from Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD (How emotions are made) that I highly recommend to everyone, if you want to understand more on how emotions are constructed by your brain.
To summarise my point for this article, there’s no such thing as rational thinking. In fact, if we really must define it;
Rational thinking refers to the feeling of comfort about your own logic and reasoning.
Think of it as a complete structure built out of Lego. When you think someone is irrational or unreasonable it means that with the pieces you have, you can't seem to build the same structure they claim they have built, therefore it doesn’t make sense. You are missing pieces of core information. And perhaps even more importantly, they miss the information of which exact pieces you are missing, therefore there's a disconnect in understanding each other's point of view. If you were to find all the pieces then you would be able to recreate their logic. It doesn't mean you would agree with it, but you would be able to understand it and therefore empathise and show compassion.
Tip: Next time you think someone is being irrational, instead of saying 'you are being unreasonable', you could try saying 'I don't think I have all the information to understand your logic'.
This is important to understand because the Lego bricks represent the unique wiring, past experiences, emotional concepts and other information we all have. While there might be bricks that most of us our familiar with, there are undoubtedly some less familiar pieces and we all have to learn to build structures from the pieces we have, therefore our way of coming up with building structures will also be different.
Redefining Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence refers to someone's ability to understand and make sense of the relationship they have with themselves and their environment.
This relationship is - of course - inclusive of someone’s ability to empathise, be compassionate, be articulate and effective in communication and be a good listener and leader, but it isn’t restricted to what we often refer to as ‘soft skills’. It refers to a much wider meaning. Emotional intelligence is connected to the skills we possess, how we process information and thoughts, and how we make decisions - just to mention a few things.
Practical ways of understanding this relationship could happen via self-reflection, realisation and regulation.
Personality tests are a great way to do self-reflection. Some examples of this include the Myers-Briggs, 16 personalities (which is a free version of the Myers-Briggs personality types), and the DISC personality test. You could also use feedback from friends, family and work colleagues, or even just go through any type of personality test you find online. The important part is the self-reflection, not which test you take.
It’s important that you dedicate attention to digesting the feedback and analyse how it makes you feel. No personality test will be unique and accurate enough to give you the ultimate guide to how your brain works. Therapists and clinical psychologists are the most equipped to help you fully understand your unique wiring and personality. However, these tests can already help you recognise your patterns and your feelings associated with those patterns.
I also encourage you to do more than one personality test, or even to redo the same one every year. Again, we are not monitoring the changes in your results, as much as the changes in your self-reflection that come as part of it.
Another core element of emotional intelligence is the awareness of your present bodily state. I call this realisation because it is the understanding of your physical state in the present moment.
There’s actually a sixth sense we can use to detect this. It’s called interoception. nteroception helps you detect what’s going on inside your body in terms of physical sensations. In the world of science it’s been studied since the early 20th century and has been recorded as a sense similar to vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, but in the world of spirituality - such as yoga and mindfulness - interoceptive practices have been around for the last 5000 years.
To awaken your interoceptive sense you can follow a very simple exercise, where you try to detect your own heartbeat. You can pay attention to how easily you can detect this, how sharply you can feel it and notice the pace of your heart beating. Having this practice in your daily routine will give you a great moment of self-realisation as well as a vast amount of information to work with when you start asking regular questions such as; how my heartbeat is today after a calm day and a good night’s rest. Or, how my heartbeat is today when I have an important deadline to achieve. And, how it is when I’m on holiday away from the stress of the office.
This is a great way to start your self-realisation journey.
Considering that we live in a world that’s incredibly fast-paced, and even inside our body there’s so much going on, no wonder that we often feel overwhelmed, and could use a skill to regulate our internal state. There is a natural process of regulation that our brain does automatically to keep us alive and functioning of course, but it can feel like starting it’s failing to make us feel at peace.
This is certainly a good time to use breathing exercises. And one in particular that’s been made very popular by Andrew Huberman - who is a neuroscientist at Stanford - is called ‘the physiological sigh’. This is a breathing technique that our bodies (and other animal bodies) often do spontaneously to regulate bodily sensations. We often do it spontaneously in our sleep as well. We can also self-induce it when we feel like we need to regulate feeling stressed, or other highly unpleasant sensations.
There’s a video from the Hubermanlab podcast on how to do this, and essentially it is two inhales through the nose, one long inhale and then a ‘top-up’ inhale to completely fill up with oxygen, and then a long slow exhale through the nose again.
So, what’s next
To optimise emotional intelligence, consistent investment is key. The method of self-reflection, realisation and regulation isn’t a short-term ‘quick win’ to say. However, consistent practices of these tactics can help lead to deeper understanding and improvements in your relationship with yourself and to your environment. And that, according to the redefined definition, is emotional intelligence.