What is emotional intelligence and how do you develop it?

Millennial boss leading corporate team during briefing in boardroom

Finding it hard to reach the next rung on the career ladder? Rather than focussing on practical skills and qualifications, developing emotional intelligence could hold the key to success.

Developed by psychologists in the 1980s, emotional intelligence is a term used to describe how emotions affect our actions and interactions, particularly when dealing with others. In the workplace, a lot of emphasis is placed on developing hard skills, but building emotional intelligence can prove a potent way to overcome challenges and garner influence with the right people.

Here, we’ll take an in-depth look at emotional intelligence, covering what it is, how to develop it and its advantages in the workplace.

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What is emotional intelligence?

What are the advantages of developing emotional intelligence?

How to build emotional intelligence

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage, understand and control emotions in such a way that it has a positive impact. By controlling and understanding your emotions, you’re better placed to overcome challenges, defuse conflict, and communicate and empathise with others.

When we talk about emotional intelligence, there are four main attributes to highlight:

1. Self-awareness – Being aware of your emotions and how they affect your state of mind day-to-day. Emotional self-awareness can help you recognise your strengths and weaknesses and build self-confidence.

2. Self-management – Having the ability to control and understand emotions and how they affect your behaviour. This, in turn, allows you to adapt to change, control impulses and take initiative.

3. Social awareness – Emotional intelligence means you’re aware of other people’s emotions and how they can affect their behaviour and needs. You’re more likely to understand power and hierarchy in an organisation.

4. Relationship management – Having the ability to develop strong relationships, with emotional intelligence helping you to communicate effectively whilst managing conflict and overcoming interpersonal challenges.

Understanding these different facets provides a framework on which to build emotional intelligence, with goals to develop greater self-awareness and control in the key areas associated with heightened emotional intelligence.

professionals meeting

What are the advantages of developing emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a powerful attribute that brings both direct and indirect benefits, helping you achieve personal and career goals. Below, we explore why emotional intelligence is important and the advantages of developing it.

Effective communication

Communication is a soft skill that’s often overlooked when people are looking to move upwards in their career. Practical skills, knowledge and qualifications are often seen as touchstones for success in this arena, but developing sound communication skills are arguably more important.

Developing emotional intelligence can help enormously in improving communication skills. Having the ability to empathise with others whilst understanding their emotions is critical to how you react to a situation and communicate solutions with the wider team.

Stronger relationships

In both your career and personal life, building strong relationships is an excellent bedrock on which to pursue your goals and objectives – whether they’re career-driven or otherwise. Emotional intelligence allows you to develop strong relationships with the right people, opening doors which may otherwise have stayed closed.

For example, having the foresight and knowledge to understand what your manager wants from their team, and how they react emotionally to challenging situations, will stand you in good stead to be able to meet their requirements. This, in turn, builds trust and shows them that you’re someone on which they can rely.

businesspeople communicating

Relieve workplace stress and anxiety

One of the key benefits of developing emotional intelligence is the self-awareness it provides to those who struggle with stress and anxiety, either in the workplace or in everyday life. By recognising emotions, triggers, strengths and weaknesses, you will grow in self-confidence and find it easier to cope with high-pressure situations.

Whether they would admit it or not, many people find it difficult to adjust and adapt to workplace hierarchies and strong personalities; working in a team can itself be an emotional trigger. Emotional intelligence brings greater social awareness, alleviating the anxiety attached to workplace power dynamics and allowing you to work more productively with individuals with which you may not always see eye to eye.

Overcome challenges and defuse conflict

The social complexities of the workplace can be difficult to navigate, and often, conflicts and challenges can arise which require a degree of emotional intelligence to bypass without making the situation worse. By developing sound emotional intelligence, you’ll be better placed to cope with such day-to-day challenges, and provide bias-free solutions which address the key areas of conflict within a group or project.

Emotional intelligence enables you to empathise with different emotions and points of view, even if they’re the polar opposite of your own. Having this ability can make you a highly valued member of the team, showing senior members of staff that your level-headed approach can help bring team members together to overcome challenges.

sharing ideas

How to build emotional intelligence

As you might expect, developing emotional intelligence is easier said than done, and requires a holistic approach to the four points touched on earlier: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. But while getting a handle on your emotions may sound like a tall order given the pressures of everyday life, it is something you can train yourself to do.

Below, we explore the four key elements of emotional intelligence in greater depth, giving you advice on how to build confidence and intelligence in these areas.


The first step in building emotional intelligence is to recognise your emotions and work towards becoming more self-aware. Here are some methods you can use to examine your level of self-awareness:

• Ask yourself: “Do I pay attention to my emotions?”

Do you acknowledge when you’re angry, stressed, nervous, happy or excited? Examining how you feel in certain situations is the key to finding self-awareness.

• Reconnect with your core emotions

Be mindful of your core emotions – how do you feel most often throughout the day? If angry, frustrated or other negative emotions spring to mind here, consider the cause and what you could do to change this.

• Understand how your emotions affect your actions

Emotions have a direct impact on actions, with road rage being an excellent example. Recognising how your emotions, both positive and negative, affect your behaviour can bring about a change in your approach to challenges, situations and people.


This brings us to self-management – how you manage your emotions to cultivate positive outcomes. Our emotions manifest themselves in impulses, feelings and behaviour which we often can’t control, but developing self-management can give you more choice over how you react.

• Learn to deal with stress

Stress affects many people and is one of the foremost emotions which can result in negative behaviours. Learning to manage and deal with stress, both in the workplace and everyday life, will set you on the path to greater self-management.

Understand your emotional limitations

While you may be keen to succeed in the workplace, it’s important to acknowledge your emotional limitations. As soon as work begins to take a negative toll, consider why and what you can do to overcome these feelings.

• Acknowledge your comfort zone

All of us have a comfort zone; an emotional safe space in which we feel in control of our actions and emotions. While life often takes us beyond its limits, you should always balance stressful situations with those within your comfort zone, safeguarding your emotional wellbeing.

laughing office workers

Social awareness

Are you often aware of other people’s emotions? Do you find it easy to read a situation and respond in the appropriate way? Social awareness is a key driver of emotional intelligence, but some people can struggle with it. Here are some pointers:

• Stay mindful during social interactions

At times difficult to do, being mindful of others in social interactions can help you to track emotional themes and provide the appropriate responses. Crucial when dealing with difficult colleagues (let alone customers and clients), acknowledging the emotional state of those around you is an important facet of developing intelligence.

• Pay attention to your emotions

Especially important if you’re working to resolve conflict, being aware of your emotions is one of the pillars of social awareness. You’re more likely to reach a resolution and achieve your goals by putting your own emotions and thoughts aside.

• Gain insight into your own emotions and ways of thinking

Social interactions feed into emotional intelligence in most areas. For example, if you’re listening to someone speak and it’s making you feel angry, you’ll learn something new about yourself – which promotes greater self-awareness.

Relationship management

Building strong, meaningful relationships is a key driver of success, and can help you achieve your career goals even if you lack necessary skills or technical expertise. To build emotional intelligence in this arena, consider the following:

• Understand that you’re communicating all the time

Nonverbal communication is arguably more important than speech, so recognise the signals you’re conveying and how these might be perceived. Building strong relationships requires a positive outlook, whether you’re speaking or not.

• Work to resolve conflict and build bridges

If you can show your superiors that you can work with everyone, they’ll be more likely to promote you to a more senior position. Becoming socially aware is, of course, key to this, as is managing your emotions and putting feelings aside where appropriate.

• Be kind, generous and understanding

Kindness may seem like the softest of soft skills, but it’s a fundamental part of emotional intelligence. How you treat others has a huge reflection on yourself, so consider how others perceive you in social situations.

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