“I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”
In her bestselling memoir, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware shares her patients’ deepest regrets so that others may learn from their mistakes and benefit from their clarity and wisdom.
Of course, there are many reasons why people shy away from expressing their feelings. Sometimes, it’s in an effort to keep peace. Other times, it runs deeper – from being afraid to acknowledge strong feelings (even to ourselves) to being taught to keep certain emotions in check. Particularly in the workplace, showing our feelings is often seen as a sign of weakness.
Contrary to social norms and conventions, paying attention to our feelings and those of others is a key feature of emotional intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that employees with higher levels of emotional intelligence tend to earn more, have better interpersonal skills, make better leaders, and can maintain resilience, ward off stress, and achieve higher levels of well-being (Lopes et al., 2006b; Ryan & Deci, 2001).
The key takeaway is that emotional intelligence matters in every area of your life – particularly in the workplace.
So, what is emotional intelligence and how can you develop it?
Emotional intelligence is often defined as the degree to which we can perceive, identify, and understand emotions and then use this information for personal growth or to deepen our relationships. This intelligence can be applied to problem-solving, decision-making, and how we communicate throughout our daily lives. To be sure, this requires a great deal of self-awareness and attention.
While this emotional awareness comes naturally to some people, others can still get there with a little practice. How so?
- Give other people your full attention.
David Goleman, the author of the international best-sellers Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, suggests that emotional intelligence requires self-awareness and empathy, both of which can be nurtured by becoming more attentive.
In our digital age, we often get distracted by our apps when we should be focusing on the person in front of us. The next time you’re in a meeting or out for lunch with someone, silence your phone and focus entirely on the other person. Within minutes, you will see how being present, open, and attuned can benefit your relationship.
- Be mindful of your emotions.
Practicing mindfulness can increase your emotional awareness and understanding (Charoensukmongokol, 2015). The mere act of noticing your thoughts and feelings over time – without judgement, interference, or repression – will help you to perceive different emotional states within yourself and others. To get started, I recommend listening to a guided body scan meditation on YouTube, or using the apps Calm and Headspace.
- Keep an emotional intelligence journal
Before you can reap the benefits of emotional intelligence in the workplace, you must learn to recognize your emotions. I recommend that you keep a journal for a few weeks to encourage self-reflection. At the end of each day, ask yourself such questions as: What emotions did I feel today? How did this impact my responses to my colleagues or my circumstances? Could I have responded differently to achieve a better outcome? How did my reactions influence others? How did these emotions affect my workplace performance? How sensitive was I to other people’s feelings and emotions? What did I do well and where could I improve?
- Take a step back from the situation to process what happened and calm down.
In addition to being aware of your emotions, it’s vital to know how to manage, regulate, and appropriately express them. The next time you are overwhelmed by a strong negative emotion, try to take a step back and think before you react. Going for a walk around the office or outside in the fresh air can help you to process your emotions and get them under control, so that you can consider all the ramifications before moving forward. Alternatively, if you need to reply to an email, I recommend preparing and saving it in draft form. Once you are in a calm headspace, you can reread it to ensure it’s appropriate. In a word: Many a problem can be avoided by taking a “time out” before reacting.
- Try to see things from the other side.
Often, we’re so focused on what we want and on being right that we rarely consider the fact that someone else may see things differently. The ability to understand a different perspective is beneficial not only during conflicts but also in leading brainstorming sessions, managing projects, and identifying better processes. Focus on understanding different points of view and rationales. Even if you don’t agree with what the other person is saying, it’s important to validate them and show that you understand their position.
Since emotional intelligence is critical to success and well-being, one of the best ways to ensure that you live without regret is to learn how to identify and express your feelings. Emotional intelligence can be developed. So start today!