Can you learn how to be emotionally intelligent?

Written by Mark Rowland Thursday 16 April 2020
The short answer is yes, but it’s not quite as straightforward as taking a course


Melissa Howard showed signs of emotional intelligence earlier on in her career, but she didn’t have the full spectrum that you need to be truly emotionally intelligent. She is highly empathetic, but her emotions would often get the better of her. “I used to feel that on one side, I was completely worthless if someone didn’t agree with what I’d said, and on the other side, I’d feel like ‘how dare somebody not agree with me?!’”

Senior leaders that Howard held in high regard started pointing out where she was strong in emotional intelligence, however, and what she could work on to improve it. It opened a door towards some serious self-improvement, and eventually, a new career path altogether – she now works as a business coach specialising in emotional intelligence. “It’s about balance,” she explains. “Open-mindedness, self-awareness, and being able to say; ‘I see where you’re coming from’.”

Emotional intelligence is not the same as empathy

“For a lot of people, even me when I first started learning about this stuff, EQ and empathy is the same thing,” says Howard.

That isn’t true. Empathy is one element of emotional intelligence, depending on who you speak to (Howard sees it as somewhat separate), but it isn’t the whole story. People can be empathetic and fairly low on emotional intelligence – for instance, they can’t stop taking on other people’s emotional burdens.

A 2018 article in Time magazine took a look into the dark side of emotional intelligence – several studies have shown that psychopaths can use certain elements of EQ, such as self-awareness, emotional control and social skills to manipulate others to their own advantage. Howard has actually experienced it first-hand. “I have met with some people where I have thought: ‘you will abuse this.’” The best managers develop a line between empathy and emotional control. “If they haven’t got the capacity to have any sort of empathy, it sort of becomes really unbalanced, and over the past 10 years, that’s really become apparent.”

Start with self-awareness

There is no single right way of learning how to be more emotionally intelligent. Different people can learn and practice EQ differently, but everyone should start with the same building block: self-awareness.

“Part of self-awareness is recognising your own personal emotional triggers and understanding that what may cause me stress and anxiety might be completely different to you, potentially.”

By understanding your emotional strengths and weaknesses, you can identify what you need to work on. Once you know what those triggers are, you can work on how to manage them. Beyond that, you might look at your own social awareness and management.

It's an ongoing process

Learning how to be more emotionally intelligent is a constant process of self-improvement and reflection. “It’s hard work,” says Howard. “What we’re trying to do is take our cognitive abilities to the next level.” This is one of the reasons emotional intelligence is better taught through ongoing coaching. It also requires a lot of self-motivation – if you want to be more emotionally intelligent, you need to really want to improve.

The bigger the team you manage, the more complicated it is

As you develop your emotional intelligence, you will face bigger challenges as a manager. Dealing with an issue one-on-one is very different to something that affects everyone on your team.

“Let’s say you’re dealing with something quite turbulent, like Coronavirus. You’ll have a mixture of families and single people, some people might have elderly parents. You’ll have some very different views and reactions,” says Howard. “As a manager, you need to be able to pull all of that apart and tick everyone’s box to make sure you can keep business running as usual.”

Balance your EQ skills

As mentioned earlier, there’s more than one element to emotional intelligence – focus too much on one thing over another, and your management style will be imbalanced. Remember which elements you’re naturally good at and which you need to work harder on. And make sure you work on all of them. “[Managers that] are able to harness that balance between empathy and emotional intelligence will thrive.”

For more ways to connect with your colleagues and employees, check out how to connect with and manage the different personality types on your team, or how to manage with emotional intelligence.

CMI’s Members also get free access to ManagementDirect, an online portal that has videos, templates, and how-to guides on topics like emotional intelligence and empathy.