Many argue that emotional intelligence (EI) is more important than traditional intelligence, boosting academic and career success, leadership skills, and mental and physical wellbeing (Larsen, Buss, Wismeijer, & Song, 2017).
Made popular by Daniel Goleman’s (1995) bestseller more than 25 years ago, EI combines the awareness of our emotions with the ability to use them to enhance our thinking (Mayer, Roberts, & Barsade, 2008).
Our capacity to reason about our emotions plays a crucial role in communicating and relating to one another (Larsen et al., 2017).
This article introduces EI, what we mean by emotional awareness, and tools to measure and increase this vital ability.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions, but also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.
Daniel Goleman (1995) suggests that scoring well on traditional intelligence measures (e.g., IQ tests) is not a reliable predictor of success outside of the classroom.
Our view of human intelligence is too narrow, suggests Goleman (1995). Instead, we should consider emotional intelligence (EI) when attempting to understand our thinking, decision-making, and personal success.
Based on the research of Yale psychologist Peter Salovey, Goleman (1995) highlights five characteristics of EI:
Knowing our emotions
We must be sufficiently self-aware to recognize our emotions as they happen. People with greater clarity regarding their feelings manage their lives better, “having a surer sense of how they really feel about personal decisions” (Goleman, 1995, p. 43).
Managing our emotions
Building on self-awareness, it is vital that we are able to manage our emotions. The skill helps us handle distress and upset and bounce back from the inevitable setbacks of life.
Emotional self-control is crucial for “paying attention, for self-motivation and mastery, and for creativity” (Goleman, 1995, p. 43). Besides keeping impulsiveness in check and delaying gratification, motivation can help us get into a flow state and boost our performance.
Recognizing emotions in others
Empathy builds on our emotional self-awareness. This vital people skill keeps us tuned in to others’ needs and wishes and can be hugely important in sales, teaching, and healthcare professions.
Handling our relationships
Relationships are, according to Goleman (1995), an art that relies on managing emotions in others. Such a skill is hugely beneficial in our interpersonal effectiveness and underpins our capacity to lead and be popular.
Notably, according to Larsen et al. (2017), more recent research suggests two models that help explain EI:
The ability model views EI as an ability that we can measure through tasks involving emotional reasoning and emotional problem-solving. Key characteristics of the model include “perceiving, using, understanding and managing emotions” (Larsen et al., 2017, p. 312).
The mixed model of EI combines traits and abilities. It includes many non-cognitive variables, such as emotional self-efficacy, emotional regulation, and emotional dispositions.
Both models provide valuable lenses through which to view EI and increase our understanding of emotional awareness.
Emotional Awareness Explained: 7 Examples
Modern researchers identify emotions as cognitive, behavioral, and biological reactions to our surroundings and personally significant events (Gross, 2020).
Our awareness of such emotions is vital to emotional intelligence, writes Goleman (1995).
Why is emotional awareness important?
“Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence,” and it helps people “recognize how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance” (Goleman, 2018, p. 1).
An emotionally aware person likely (Goleman, 1995, 2018):
Knows that tight deadlines bring out the worst in them, plans early, and puts in place the resources needed before the pressure hits.
Has a good understanding of their goals and values and is clear on where they are heading and why. They change jobs when they realize that their career no longer aligns with their values.
Examines their feelings and states openly when they can’t get behind a decision at work. They can assess themselves honestly and point out when their opinions have changed.
What is social-emotional awareness?
The social aspect of emotional awareness allows us to understand others, recognize their feelings, and act successfully in our relations with them. Examples of social-emotional awareness in practice include (Goleman, 1995):
Initiating and coordinating their actions
Reducing the likelihood of conflict and resolving it when unavoidable
Reading emotions, displaying empathy, and being good at forming relationships with others
Identifying and showing insight regarding others’ needs and motives
Once we understand the nature of emotional awareness, we can foster it and use the insights gained to improve how we perform and relate to others in our professional and private lives.
Your Best Work Self
Robert Kaplan (2018) suggests that it is vital for professionals to understand what they love about their career. What fuels their passion?
Your Best Work Self is an exercise that can help you think back to a time at work or elsewhere when you performed at your best.
You may have gotten out of the habit of thinking about and remembering when things went well. But with practice, you will recall many such occasions and can use them to become more aware of what factors and emotions affected your happiness and performance (Kaplan, 2018).
Emotional Mental Models
Visualizing and reflecting on how you would cope with different situations can offer further insight into your emotions.
Use the Emotional Mental Models worksheet to improve emotional awareness by visualizing yourself in imagined situations. Such as:
You have one year left to live.
You have enough money to do anything with your life.
You are guaranteed success in any profession you choose.
You are telling your grandchildren how you spent your life.
Your older self is telling your younger self what to do.
Think about how you could use such emotional insight in the future.
Recognize emotional patterns
Improving emotional awareness can be helped by learning how to recognize emotional patterns: “when you have been hooked by your thoughts and feelings” (David & Congleton, 2018, p. 67).
While this is not always easy, with practice we can learn to recognize telltale signs.
Reflect over the last week and ask yourself:
When have my thinking and emotional responses been most rigid?
When has my inner talk felt old and repetitive?
Improve emotional awareness by identifying when you are stuck in a rut, as it can help you initiate change and break free.
Label your feelings
In the heat of the moment, especially when a lot is going on, our minds can become crowded with thoughts and feelings (David & Congleton, 2018).
The simple act of labeling our emotions can help us take a step back and look at how we feel more objectively.
Try it out:
“I’m upset that my partner is talking to their ex,” becomes, “I am having feelings of upset about my partner talking to their ex.”
“My manager is wrong, and it makes me so angry,” becomes, “I am having the thought that my manager is wrong, and I am having feelings of anger.”
An objective, meta-cognitive view can be more mindful, offering valuable insights into your emotions that are less clouded by what is happening at that moment.
6 Techniques, Worksheets, and Exercises
The following worksheets and exercises will help you gain additional insight into the emotions behind what you do and why:
Why Do You Do What You Do?
We can improve emotional awareness by identifying and reaching a better understanding of the source of feelings (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009).
The Why Do You Do What You Do worksheet encourages you to get into the habit of understanding the emotions and motivations behind what you do.
The exercise asks you to think of a situation when your behavior was unexpected or unwanted and consider how you felt, recalling prior events with a similar impact.
Understanding Emotion Versus Reason
Often without realizing it, we allow our emotions to decide how we respond to a situation. While occasionally helpful, it can often lead to feelings of being out of control (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009).
What perceptions do other people have of me in the workplace? What could I do to improve how people see me and make me more successful?
Reflect on what you have learned and think of the changes you might like to make going forward.
Developing emotional awareness with meditation
Ashley Bush (2015) recommends a simple 10-minute breathing meditation when you find yourself overreacting to an emotional situation or person.
Breathing normally, gently focus attention on the sensation of breath, slowly in and out.
As you breathe in, say to yourself, “Breathing in, I am calm,” and as you breathe out, say to yourself, “Breathing out, I am relaxed.”
While the exercise is relatively straightforward, it can calm the body and mind, and when ready, improve emotional awareness.
Stop Light for Self-Awareness game
Daniel Goleman (1995) describes how schoolchildren have been taught to use a “stop light” model to help manage their impulses and emotions.
Try out the Stop Light for Self-Awareness worksheet yourself or with children to learn a simple technique that will help you avoid outbursts you may regret later.
With practice, the steps can help you visualize regaining control. They are beneficial for children, and the process can be re-imagined as a car driving down the road and responding to different lights that flash up.
Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves (2009) suggest committing to a 15-minute journey throughout the day to become more socially and emotionally aware.
Whether at work or a place of study, take a short walk to become better at noticing what was previously hidden from you. How does the environment feel to you? What are people doing and saying? When are they moving around most, and when are they still?
Try different days or times of the day. Become more connected to where you are and the people you are with to be more socially and emotionally aware.
Emotional Awareness Checklist
Labeling and understanding your inner emotional experiences, also known as emotional awareness, is considered the building block of emotional intelligence and a helpful skill to develop.
The more you practice this emotional awareness checklist, the better you will become at noticing and understanding your emotions.
Importantly, negative emotions may naturally get more of our attention, however, we shouldn’t forget to notice our positive emotions and the valuable feedback they can give us about what’s important to us.
Can Expression Therapy Help? 4 Activities
Individuals who have been through trauma or experienced conditions such as depression and anxiety may have a tough time expressing how they feel.
Expression therapy can help them process feelings and memories, and offers techniques and mediums to encourage them to share their emotions (Hollimon, 2020):
Music has been shown to lift people’s moods and ease anxiety.
Art provides a valuable way for clients to interact with emotional aspects of their lives and gives them the confidence to focus on the positives.
Research suggests that dance is successful at easing stress and anxiety and offers a feel-good physical release to negative thoughts.
Keeping a diary or journal is a well-known technique for connecting with emotions, and writing them down in confidence can help process how we feel.
Expression therapy teamed with emotional awareness techniques has also proven highly effective at managing pain, helping patients with irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and cancer treatments (Lumley & Schubiner, 2019).
How to Measure It: Questionnaires & Scales
Measuring our emotions can help us increase awareness of how our decisions, situations, and actions align with our mood (Wilson, 2018).
The Emotional Quotient Inventory 2.0 is a widely used assessment of emotional awareness and emotional intelligence available online.
The Profile of Emotional Competence measures five core emotional competencies, including emotional identification, understanding, expression, regulation, and use. It is available for download.
The Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire is freely available for academic and clinical use. The questionnaire can be used in either short or long form and measures multiple factors, facets, and the global trait EI.
Telling an Empathy Story This exercise encourages the use of empathy to understand another’s emotional experience.
My Feelings, My Body This worksheet encourages children to practice emotional awareness and express how they feel through drawing.
17 Emotional Intelligence Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.
A Take-Home Message
Emotional intelligence is key to success in many aspects of our lives. It includes both being aware of our emotions and using them effectively to enhance our thinking.
According to Goleman (1995), our traditional view of human intelligence may miss out on vital emotional factors necessary for motivation, relationship building, and leadership.
Awareness of our emotions – cognitive, behavioral, and biological responses to the situations and environment in which we find ourselves – provides a great deal of self-knowledge and valuable input into the goals we set and how to work toward them.
Being a professional with a deep awareness and understanding of our emotions offers a vital competitive advantage; while at home, it can strengthen relationships and improve communication.
Why not try out some of the tools, assess yourself or your clients on their emotional intelligence, and review some of the literature on emotional intelligence? Knowing how you emotionally react to a situation can help you manage future recurring or new situations and retain or regain control.
Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart.
Bush, A. D. (2015). Simple self-care for therapists: Restorative practices to weave through your workday. W.W. Norton & Company.
David, S., & Congleton, C. (2018). Emotional agility. In Harvard Business Review (Ed.), Self-awareness (pp. 59–74). Harvard Business Review Press.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.
Goleman, D. (2018). The first component of emotional intelligence. In Harvard Business Review (Ed.), Self-awareness (pp. 1–10). Harvard Business Review Press.
Gross, R. D. (2020). Psychology: The science of mind and behaviour. Hodder and Stoughton.
Harvard Business Review (Ed.). (2018). Self-awareness (HBR emotional intelligence series). Harvard Business Review Press.
Hedges, K. (2018). How are you perceived at work? In Harvard Business Review (Ed.), Self-awareness (pp. 59–74). Harvard Business Review Press.
Hollimon, N. (2020, August 3). What is expressive therapy? WebMD. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/expressive-therapy
Kaplan, R. S. (2018). Two ways to clarify your professional passions. In Harvard Business Review (Ed.), Self-awareness (pp. 49–58). Harvard Business Review Press.
Larsen, R., Buss, D., Wismeijer, A., & Song, J. (2017). Personality psychology: Domains of knowledge about human nature. McGraw-Hill Education.
Lumley, M. A., & Schubiner, H. (2019). Emotional awareness and expression therapy for chronic pain: Rationale, principles and techniques, evidence, and Critical Review. Current Rheumatology Reports, 21(7).
Mayer, J. D., Roberts, R. D., & Barsade, S. G. (2008). Human abilities: Emotional intelligence. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 507–536
Wilson, H. J. (2018). You, by the numbers. In Harvard Business Review (Ed.), Self-awareness (pp. 87–108). Harvard Business Review Press.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.
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