Every person experiences emotions, but some respond to their emotions better than others.

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The first component of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. This is simply the ability to identify your emotions in the moment and understand where they are coming from.

Ask yourself, “What emotions am I feeling right now?” and “What’s causing me to feel this way?” If you can answer those two questions, you are on the right track.

Emotions often come in two main parts: 1) The mental component – the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs that underlie most of our emotions, and 2) The physical component – the bodily sensations that often accompany different emotional states.

For example, an emotion such as nervousness may be a mixture of certain thoughts (“I’m not good at this” or “I’m scared I’m going to make a mistake”) as well as certain physical sensations in our bodies (a fluttery feeling in our stomach, ie “I have butterflies in my stomach”).

There are many different ways to classify our emotions; but ultimately, the more you improve your emotional vocabulary, the easier it will be to correctly identify what you are feeling.

One simple and useful model for categorizing emotions is the “valence” vs. “arousal” dimensions. Every emotion falls somewhere between “positive” vs. “negative” (“feels good” vs. “feels bad”) and “high arousal” vs. “low arousal” (“energizing” vs. “lethargic.”)

That’s a basic view of emotions, but it’s a useful guideline.

In general, pay attention to the physical and mental components behind each emotion. The more you learn from them and become familiar with them, the quicker you can take note of how you’re feeling and respond accordingly in the moment.

The simple act of accepting and acknowledging our emotions is sometimes enough to lessen their power over us.

In one fascinating study, psychologists found that labeling your emotions in the moment can help you overcome them.

When participants with a fear of spiders were asked to approach an open container with a tarantula, the group that was instructed to describe their emotions openly and honestly (“I’m anxious and terrified by the ugly spider”), were able to dampen their fears more and walk closer to the tarantula than groups that were instructed to ignore or suppress their feelings.

The next time you’re feeling a really strong emotion, try stepping back and just observing that emotion as it is. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What physical sensations am I experiencing with this emotion?”

Of course, our world is filled with a lot of emotional complexity, sometimes we even experience multiple emotions at once that can be difficult to untangle.

In general, however, the more you understand your emotional world the easier it will be to navigate it.


Once you are more aware of your emotions, the next pillar of emotional intelligence is learning how to respond to them better, also known as “self-regulation.”

Every emotion is valid and justified – the key is knowing how to respond to it in a healthy and constructive way.

You have a choice in how you respond to your emotions. Two people can experience the same exact emotion but respond to it in two completely different ways.

One person experiencing anger may use that as an excuse to yell, insult, or be aggressive, while another person uses that anger as an opportunity to reflect and learn what is really bothering them.

Depending on the situation, there are many different strategies we can use to better regulate our emotions in the moment.

Common self-regulation strategies include:

    • Talking about your feelings with a trustworthy and loyal friend can be a huge help, especially someone who will listen in a nonjudgmental way. Too often we keep our feelings to ourselves, when the thing we need most is emotional validation and just having someone who understands what we are going through.


    • Writing about your feelings and articulating them in an honest and open way. If you have no one to talk to, journaling about your feelings can be a great tool to build emotional intelligence. It gives you an opportunity to step back and question your feelings rather than impulsively responding to them in the moment.


    • Creating a new plan for how to respond to your emotions. If you have trouble with a specific negative emotion (such as anger, sadness, or anxiety), come up with alternative ways you can respond to it in the moment. Make a list of all the possibilities. Instead of using “anger” to argue or fight, think of it as a sign to walk away or take deep breaths. Remember that you have many choices.


  • Channeling an emotion in a creative and constructive way, such as through art, music, or photography. Creative hobbies can often give you an opportunity to express yourself in a deeply personal way that doesn’t rely on words. For me, making electronic music is one of my go-to strategies when trying to process deeper, more challenging emotions that don’t always have a clear answer.


Think of “emotional intelligence” as a kind of toolkit. There are many different ways to respond to a particular emotion, but not every tool is going to work depending on what the situation is.

The more emotionally intelligent you become, the better you will be at deciding what is the best way to respond to any emotion in any given moment. Be patient with yourself, experiment with new strategies, and find what works best for you.


Understanding your emotions is 50% of emotional intelligence, the other half is understanding the emotions of others.

This is commonly known as “empathy” – it is our ability to see things from another person’s perspective – and to take into account their individual thoughts and feelings about a situation.

Interestingly, research shows a strong link between self-awareness and empathy.

As we discover more about ourselves, we also improve empathy (or “other-awareness”), because we learn that there is sometimes a difference between our thoughts and feelings vs. the thoughts and feelings of others.

Empathy includes recognizing both the similarities and differences between you and others.

To do that, you have to be willing to step into their proverbial shoes and keep in mind the complete picture of who someone is: their upbringing, education, beliefs, values, culture, and past experiences.

You may never be able to completely understand someone, but you can bridge the gap between your perspective and theirs.

Keep in mind: You may not naturally consider yourself an “empathetic” person, but empathy is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice.

In general, be more willing to ask yourself, “Where is this person coming from? What are they thinking and feeling? Why are they acting in the way they do?” These types of questions will be a great starting point in building more empathy in your daily relationships.

Social Skills:

Once you understand the emotions of yourself and others, the next question is “How do I respond to other people’s emotions?” This is where “social skills” comes in as the last pillar of emotional intelligence.

In essence, social skills are simply about navigating other people’s emotional world. It’s not only about empathizing with how they are feeling, but also knowing how to appropriately respond to those feelings in the moment.

Empathy is a prerequisite to social skills, but it’s often not enough.

One big aspect of social skills is knowing how to identify a person who is feeling negative, upset, or angry, and helping them manage those feelings more effectively.

Social skills give you the ability to walk people from “negative emotions” to “positive emotions.”

This could be something as easy as listening to a person and letting them vent, giving them emotional validation and helping them feel understood (which is what most people are looking for).

It can also mean doing something more pro-active such as providing positive feedback (compliments, encouragement, support), shifting the topic of conversation to something more positive, or even just cracking a joke to lighten the mood.

Many of the tools and strategies mentioned under “self-regulation” can also be applied in a social context. Ask yourself, “What would make me feel better in this situation?” and see if it applies to the other person.

Another important principle to keep in mind for all of our social interactions is the idea of emotional contagion – we can “catch” the emotions of others, and others can also “catch” our emotions.

The trickiest thing about social skills is that every person and situation is going to be different.

How to best respond to one situation may not necessarily be the best way to respond to another situation – when it comes to social skills, you always need to take into account the full context.


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