How to Improve Emotional Intelligence: Tips to Practice Awareness

Do you want to know how to improve emotional intelligence?  Specifically, concretely, what are steps to take to increase mindfulness and self-knowledge?

At Six Seconds, our vision is one billion people practicing the skills of emotional intelligence by 2039.  So I asked our world-wide network of certified practitioners the following question: What would you recommend for people to practice EQ by increasing self-awareness?

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence: 10 Tips for Increasing Self-Awareness

Some favorite practical tips from the global EQ community

The answers have been organized based on the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence, where the first step is called Know Yourself. It’s about becoming more aware; noticing what you do. In the Six Seconds model, there are two skills that you need to fine tune to be more consistently aware:

1. Get fluent in the language of emotions. To practice EQ, it’s essential to be emotionally literate. This is multifaceted; one part is to be able to name emotions really specifically – to differentiate between similar emotions, like feeling sad versus overwhelmed. And beyond that, it’s super helpful to know the profile of each emotion – to be able to define it and understand its message. Sadness is a feeling of loss of something I care about, and it helps clarify what’s important to me. Just like with any language, we pick up a good part of it by simply paying attention, but we may have to study up to become a real expert. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions and the Emotoscope Feeling Chart are two amazing resources for getting fluent in the language of emotions. We feel all these different, nuanced emotions, but we don’t always have the words to name them and make sense of them. And as we’ll go over in the next tip, bringing this cognitive awareness into the emotional realm is extremely powerful. 

“It’s essential to build your emotional vocabulary.”

Robin Parker Meredith

Coach, Integral Leadership

2. Name your emotions. Emotions can feel like a powerful current that sweeps us along, takes us for a ride. But neuroscience research has revealed a remarkably simple practice that helps us calm the waters: naming our emotions. It has been shown to lessen the intensity of emotions, simply by shining our cognitive spotlight on what we’re feeling. Read this article for a powerful testimonial of how this works when you are sitting in traffic. Try it out and let me know how it works for you. A slight variation is to name your emotions…


3. … in the 3rd person. Further research into the power of naming emotions recommends that we DISTANCE OURSELVES from the experience by using the 3rd person voice. Instead of saying, “I am frustrated,” I can say, “Josh is frustrated.”

Or, if that’s too odd, try saying, “I’m experiencing frustration” – or “One of my feelings is frustration.”

These distancing techniques combat the all-encompassing nature of intense emotions and are a natural calming mechanism. But remember — emotions are information — so after you name your emotions, stay with the feeling instead of immediately changing or fixing them, which leads us to our next tip…

“When I find myself reacting to a situation, I take a moment and name the emotion.”

Nicole Tervalon

Director of Technology, Mount Madonna School

4. Observe without trying to fix. Name your emotions, and then simply let that be for a few seconds. Let yourself be frustrated, or angry, or sad. We have been socialized to think of some emotions as bad, and because of that, we have a tendency to try to push them away as soon as we feel them.

It’s tempting to put a comma after your emotion, instead of a period. “I am frustrated, because he did this or that,” but this intensifies the emotion all over again. Instead, say “I am experiencing frustration.” And take a few deep breaths.

It takes about six seconds for emotion chemicals to be absorbed into the body, so give yourself at least that long… which brings us to the next tip.

“Be an observer of yourself.  Pay attention to what you feel and how those feelings contribute, distract, enhance, or challenge you.”

Dawn Karner

Coach, Quantum Innovation

5. Feel your emotions in your body. We often feel our emotions in our physical body. Anxiety before a job interview may leave us with tight muscles or sweaty palms, and as we walk to the door to pick up our significant other for a date we may feel like we are walking lightly and our hearts are pounding with excitement. These are only a few common examples of how we feel emotions physically. But researchers have found that different emotions are universally associated with feeling activation in specific parts of the body.

Consistent patterns of bodily sensations are associated with each of the six basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, surprise and sadness. Emotional feelings are associated with discrete yet partially overlapping bodily sensations: decreased limb sensations with sadness, increased sensations in the upper limbs with anger, sensations around the throat and the digestive system with disgust, sensations in the chest with surprise and fear, and enhanced sensations all over the body with happiness.

“Train yourself to sense your emotions via sensations in your body.”

Shabbir Latif

Advanced Trainer and Practitioner, Six Seconds

6. Bust the myth of bad emotions. We too often get stuck in an antagonistic relationship with our emotions, thinking of them as bad and something that we should suppress. But at the end of the day, emotions, even challenging ones like anger, are data. They exist to help us. Overcoming this mindset that there are good and bad emotions is one of the hardest parts of practicing emotional intelligence, but it’s also extremely liberating. Once you truly make emotions your ally, you are empowered to take control of your life. The first step is acknowledging that emotions are providing you with valuable information.

Emotions are neurohormones that we release as a response to our perceptions about the world. They focus our attention and motivate us toward a specific course of action. So there aren’t good and bad emotions. They all have a unique purpose and message. Fear focuses our attention on a threat and motivates us to protect ourselves. Sadness focuses our attention on a loss and helps us recognize what we care about. If you want to know how to improve emotional intelligence, the first step is to stop fighting your own emotions.

For a more in-depth look at this non-dualistic view of emotions, check out this article: Rethinking Feelings.

“Acknowledge emotions, not as good or bad, right or wrong, but as a source of information that help you gain self-awareness.”

Tang Weng Liang

Training & Development Manager, Tokio Marine Life Insurance Singapore Ltd.

7. Notice the build up before the trigger. In terms of how to improve emotional intelligence, another way is to hone your ability to recognize when you’re headed in a direction that you don’t want to go – before something really triggers you. The trigger is usually obvious. “He said this,” or “I can’t believe she did that.” But we have to remember that these events don’t occur in a vacuum. Our emotions are based on our perceptions of the world, and our mental state plays a big role in that. In fact, our perceptions aren’t as objective as we think. When we are already frustrated, we’re more likely to see slights. When we’re already afraid, we’re more likely to interpret something as a threat. So it’s essential that we check in with ourselves and know where we’re at – what our own biases could be in that moment. The better and quicker we get at this self check-in, the less likely we are to overreact or misinterpret something.

8. Recognize recurring patterns:

When ____stimulus______, I _____my typical reaction____.

This is may be the most transformative part of Know Yourself. And to understand it, we need to dive into a little neuroscience. Our brains have a natural tendency to follow neural pathways that already exist. So whether it’s in a relationship or by ourselves, we have a tendency to form and follow patterns. But that doesn’t mean that all our patterns are serving us well, or that we can’t change the ones that aren’t.

For example, “when I get angry, I bottle it up.” I learned it from my Dad, so it’s pretty well engraved in my mind. But with that awareness, I have the ability to notice when I’m just starting to react… and then I can chart another course, to practice responding instead of reacting. But the first step in the process was to simply recognize that pattern in myself. 

“Notice when you set yourself up for low EQ moments that become low EQ habits.”

Marek Helstrom

Owner, Purpose Centered Coaching and Training

Marek went on to say, “There are two common traps. The first is passing critical judgment on others (e.g. “How stupid is that?” or  “What in the world were they thinking?”)  This kind of comment is a crutch to elevate or affirm one’s superiority over another person. The EQ moment begins when we learn to recognize the habit and then re-train ourselves to restrain from making any negative comment at all.

The second common trap is taking offense unnecessarily.  This is another area that is a struggle for many of us.  In today’s world we have been taught to take offense at even the most trivial matters.  From taking offense, and feeling offended, people quickly escalate to criticism, judgment, bitterness, and unforgiveness, which hurts relationships and even our own health.  The EQ moment:  Notice the other person’s comment or action, and instead of taking offense and taking it personally, just consider it as data:  “Hmmmm, that’s interesting.”  Or, “I wonder what’s going on for her?”  Or, “Wow, he must be really stressed…”

Curious about your own emotional intelligence? Take the free assessment

9. Write down your feelings throughout the day. Check in with yourself, and don’t think you have to choose just one feeling. Emotions are multilayered, complex. It’s totally normal to feel multiple at one time, even if they seem to contradict each other. Just writing them down is an important practice of validation and part of the answer of how to improve emotional intelligence.

“In the office, keep a feelings whiteboard divided for 2-3 parts of the day – morning, noon, evening – and list six or eight feelings.  Then ask people to check mark their feelings during the day.  See where the max check marks land.”

Dexter Valles

CEO, Valmar International

10. Remind yourself, “Emotions are data.” Emotions are valuable data that help you see more clearly. When we stop fighting them, ignoring them, or feeling suffocated by them, we gain an amazing resource.  Remember what the purpose of emotions are: to focus our attention and motivate us toward a specific course of action. They are simply data, based on our perceptions of the world, about what to do. Know Yourself is about opening ourselves up to this data, and the next step is using it to choose exactly where we want to go.

Remember to download your free poster with tips to increase self-awareness. It’s a great thing to hang up in your office, bedroom, or any place you spend a lot of time.

“Start by noticing what you’re feeling, right now. Observe without judgment or trying to ‘fix’ anything; just notice your emotions a few times per day.”

Cheryl McKenzie-Cook

“Notice your own strengths – and live into your strengths more fully.”

Carolyn Meacher

“Start with self-awareness. Acknowledge your emotions, where you feel them in your body, and name them.  Give yourself one minute for this when you feel uneasy.”

Irina Sergeeva

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