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Emotional intelligence is the capacity to blend thinking and feeling to make optimal decisions — which is key to having a successful relationship with yourself and others. While most people agree that it’s important, many struggle with emotional intelligence because they misunderstand emotions. This isn’t necessarily their fault, as there are many myths and misconceptions around emotions that have come to be common knowledge. Test your knowledge of emotions with this T/F quiz, and then read on for practical tips to put these 7 emotional intelligence facts into action:
Emotional Intelligence Facts Quiz
Decide if each on is ✅True or ❌False, the scroll down to see how many you got right
1. There are "good" and "bad" emotions
2. When making important decisions, it's best to leave emotions out of it
3. Naming an emotion lessens its intensity
4. When people feel attacked, they are more likely to see your perspective
5. Verbalizing others’ emotions tends to build trust
6. Emotions are contagious
7. A person's empathy level is a permanent character trait
1 There are “good” and “bad” emotions
False! Most of us have been socialized to think of some emotions as “good” and others as “bad.” Happiness is good, for example, and anger is bad. But this way of thinking misunderstands the function of emotions, and often traps us in a struggle against our own emotions when we inevitably experience “unpleasant” feelings like fear, anger, or jealousy. As an example, think about fear. It isn’t necessarily fun to experience fear, but it’s essential. It alerts us to a threat, and primes our brains and bodies to respond effectively. Similarly, anger clarifies what’s important and provides the motivation to fight injustices. When we think of some emotions – or all of them – as enemies, we ignore valuable data. “Vilifying our own emotions is the biggest obstacle to practicing emotional intelligence ,” says Joshua Freedman, one of the world’s leading experts on emotional intelligence; “Emotions serve a purpose, and there is value in all feelings.”
The first step to practicing emotional intelligence is to stop fighting our own emotions. For more on this, read Josh’s article,
2 When making important decisions, it’s important to leave emotions out of it
False! Have you ever been told to “leave emotions out of it” or “not be so emotional”? I know I have! This advice, and the underlying idea that emotions are the problem, is deeply ingrained in many cultures. But it’s not supported by research. In fact, suppressing emotions has been found to increase their intensity and psychological distress (more on this in a moment), and reduce happiness, one’s ability to make decisions, and one’s ability to think clearly. These last points are particularly ironic, considering the whole purpose of “leaving emotions out of it” is to make rational, clear headed decisions – and it has the opposite effect! This article breaks down the remarkable research that helped bust the myth of leaving emotions out of it:
To be clear, practicing emotional intelligence isn’t about blindly following emotions, either – it’s the middle path of navigating them effectively. And this simple technique is quite helpful for navigating strong emotions…
3 Naming an emotion lessens its intensity
True! One fact about emotional intelligence: If left ignored or unchecked, emotions often intensify. Thankfully, there’s a simple trick to overcome this tendency, with a catchy phrase to remember it: Name it to tame it. Research has found naming emotions to be remarkably effective at reducing the intensity of that feeling, which opens the door for us to make intentional choices – to blend thinking and feeling more in an optimal way. Some of the most fascinating research on this topic came from Dr. Michelle Craske’s lab at UCLA, and her work with tarantulas and people with fear of spiders. The results? Naming emotions reduces their intensity.
One important caveat to this fact is that your ability to name emotions will depend in part on the depth of your emotional vocabulary: The more words we have for different complex feelings, the better we can understand and navigate them. Plutchik’s model of emotions is a great place to test your emotional vocabulary and start expanding it.
A quick recap of these first 3 emotional intelligence facts:
- emotions are allies
- leaving emotions out of it is bad advice
- name it to tame it
Now let’s look at a few more related to our relationships and interactions with others.
4 When people feel attacked, they are more likely to see your perspective
Very false! One of the basic rules of emotional intelligence is that when people feel attacked, they defend. Why? At the most basic level, the brain’s top priority is survival, to protect itself. Belonging isn’t far behind, because it’s been intimately linked to survival for millennia. When people feel attacked – even if their actual survival isn’t at stake – it triggers a stress response, the famous Fight or Flight response. Josh Freedman describes what happens next:
“This biological system is highly effective for coping with certain threats, such as a tiger stalking you in the jungle. You don’t negotiate with tigers. You don’t innovate. If you want to survive, you run like heck, or hope you’ve got a big sharp stick handy. Adapted for these “survival threats,” our bodies respond to stress by shutting down many systems related to long-term thriving (such as immunity, reproduction, empathic response, even analytical thinking) and put all the body’s resources into core muscles. It means that when we feel stress, we are biologically programmed to be less creative, less compassionate, less visionary.”
When someone feels attacked, they are rarely going to “see your point of view” – they are biologically wired not to. And the key word here is feel. Emotion is about perception, not objective reality. Does the person perceive a threat? If they do, it triggers this response. To practice emotional intelligence, be aware of this cycle, especially when you are in a position of power or authority.
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5 Verbalizing others’ emotions increases trust
True – mostly! Building trust is a complex and time consuming task, but one simple trick is to verbalize others’ emotions, especially unpleasant ones (ie “You seem upset” or “You sound frustrated”). Just like naming our own feelings reduces the intensity of that feeling and has other positive effects, naming others’ emotions increases interpersonal trust, per research published in ScienceDirect. One important caveat: Mislabeling emotions has the opposite effect in terms of trust, so be careful to observe and make sure before verbalizing other’s emotions (eg if someone is feeling sad, saying, “You seem so happy!” = dissonance)
6 Emotions are contagious
True! Emotions spread remarkably quickly, mostly unconsciously, and through a variety of mechanisms – ranging from voice inflection to body posture to tiny facial expressions. To understand the phenomenon of emotional contagion, it helps to understand the evolutionary history and basic purpose of emotions.
What’s the purpose of emotions? They serve to focus our attention and motivate us to action in a way that helps us survive and thrive. They provide information about our interior world and about our relationships. And for this survival function to operate optimally, we are highly sensitive to emotional signals in the environment. One person’s emotions are affected by others’. Just as herd animals would benefit from rapidly passing messages about risk and reward, emotional contagion seems to be adaptive for humans to function in groups. This system can enable a rapid communication of opportunity and risk, mediate a group interaction, and help humans attend to social rules and norms such as maintaining harmonious interaction with a powerful ally. Emotional contagion highlights the need to practice emotional intelligence:
7 A person’s level of empathy is a permanent character trait
False! Empathy – recognizing and appropriately responding to emotions – is a foundational element of emotional intelligence. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they are feeling, and let that guide how you respond. The good news is that empathy is a learnable skill. Paradoxically, empathy is something we are biologically wired for, and a skill we have to learn and refine. It takes effort, which is why the empathy-related skill in the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence is called Increase Empathy.
Here are two practical tips to increase empathy: First, recognize that bias is a biological fact. It will be easier to have empathy for people we relate to, for people we perceive as part of our in-group. Studies have linked empathy on a neurological level to different levels of exposure to different racial groups. Secondly, even well-intentioned efforts at empathy can fall into common “empathy traps,” which you can read more about here. Empathy is a skill that we must continually improve, and the good news is, it’s a learnable skill – just like emotional intelligence in general.
Emotional intelligence can be improved
Emotional intelligence can be learned and developed. Our brains have a remarkable ability to keep learning and growing throughout our lives – and emotional intelligence skills are no different. They can be learned and improved with focused attention and effort. Considering the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report lists emotional intelligence as one of the critical skills of the 21st century, and it’s been linked to better effectiveness, relationships, wellbeing and quality of life, that’s great news. For tips and resources on how to improve yours, check out How to Develop Emotional Intelligence. Or, for a limited time, take the world’s leading emotional intelligence assessment for free.
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