Can emotional intelligence be learned? 4 techniques to practice

Is emotional intelligence more like IQ, or can you learn your way to higher EQ? Practice, experts say, is the key: Try these 4 techniques to start improving
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The question of whether emotional intelligence can be learned, it turns out, is not a simple one to answer. In articles and books on the topic, “there are these claims that IQ is fixed, but EQ can be learned. Very few people question that assumption,” says Dr. David Caruso, a management psychologist and research associate with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “It’s a common misconception that emotional intelligence can be learned or easily learned.”

However, says Caruso, it can be improved. What’s more, IT leaders may be particularly adept at doing so.

[TEP_CALLOUT_TEXT_RIGHT:“The most analytical, intelligent, and skeptical individuals are the best audiences for EI improvement.”]

“We find that the most analytical, intelligent, and skeptical individuals are the best audiences for EI improvement because it’s all about acquiring hard skills,” says Caruso, co-author of A Leader’s Guide to Solving Challenges with Emotional Intelligence.

What CIOs and other IT leaders benefit most from is having a sort of GPS for emotions. In the same way that those with poor spatial intelligence can better navigate the world with a GPS, those with more limited innate emotional intelligence can learn to incorporate tools that help them better navigate the world of emotion. “You just have to learn how to use it,” Caruso says.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Specifically, there are four skills that IT leaders can master with the help of some techniques that, with practice over time, can improve the application of EI in the workplace.

1. Mapping emotions

The first emotional intelligence skill to understand is the ability to perceive and read emotions – your own and those of others. Helpful hint: If you are naturally bad at this, asking someone how they’re doing won’t help. “If you rely on typical interactions [for this data] and don’t pick up on other clues, stop asking,” Caruso advises.

Instead, there are remedial questions IT leaders can work into their interactions to get a better read on another person. For example, “Is this still a good time for you to discuss this?” Or “What’s on your mind today?” or “On a scale of zero to 10, how is x going – and what can I do to make it better?”

In his work, Caruso employs a “mood map:” A 2 x 2 grid charting energy level on the x-axis and pleasantness on the y-axis. High energy and low pleasantness, for example, tend to indicate anxiety or anger, while low energy and high pleasantness tend to indicate contentment.

2. Matching emotions to tasks

That mood map comes in handy when matching an individual or team’s emotional state to a task – another key EI capability for IT leaders. “We’re not pushing happiness,” says Caruso. “And being anxious is not necessarily a bad thing. The important thing is understanding how these emotions impact thinking.”

Anxiety, for example, can sharpen focus. Happiness or joy (high energy and pleasantness) is conducive to creativity. Contentment can be good for coming to a consensus.

[TEP_CALLOUT_TEXT_RIGHT:“If you have a brainstorming session and the team seems anxious, that’s not a good match.”]

“The key for a CIO is to read the room,” says Caruso. “If you have a brainstorming session and the team seems anxious, that’s not a good match. As a leader, you either have to change the tone of the room or change the agenda to match the tone.”

An IT leader could take some time to ease the team’s anxiety so the tone is more pleasant and high-energy for idea generation. As energy settles down, that’s a better state for critically assessing those ideas. When it comes to tasks like implementation or budgeting, low energy and pleasantness (which correlates generally to sadness) is a better fit for the work.

3. Understanding the meaning of emotions

Cognitive empathy – understanding the meaning of others’ emotions – is necessary for IT leaders who want to motivate others. Unfortunately, many managers and leaders simply assume what makes them happy makes others happy.

So when they want to motivate or reward a team, they may arrange a fancy dinner for everyone simply because they’re a food and wine connoisseur. However, their team members may hate long dinners and prefer to pick up their kids and make a meal at home. “Suddenly that leadership attempt to inject some positivity backfires completely,” Caruso says.

An emotionally intelligent leader, on the other hand, will do some emotional due diligence to get to know the source, causes, and trajectory of another person’s emotional state. “Then when there are budget cuts and they have to do more with less, you understand what your staff is feeling, and you know them well enough to know what will inspire them or motivate them to take on this new project,” says Caruso. “They’ll also be more likely to trust you and be candid with their feedback – something else that is essential to success.”

4. Moving emotions

Ultimately, an emotionally intelligent leader focuses on influencing emotions in order to set the best tone for certain work. There are a number of ways to do this. “Everything signals something, but how you move the emotions of others will depend on the group,” says Caruso.

“You can use tone of voice, pacing, setting, day of the week, or time of day to change the tone. As the leader, you deliberately behave in an emotionally intelligent manner, carefully engaging in moving your emotions and those of your team to set the best tone to achieve the task. You will notice how the team is collaborating, communicating, and progressing, always ready to step in to help move the team in the right direction.” Sometimes it just takes a little tweak; other times it will take more work.

The hard part

One key to improving EI is sustained practice – especially in high-stakes situations. “When people read this stuff, they’ll say it seems pretty easy. It is really easy,” says Caruso. "What’s hard is to do it well on a consistent basis and in real time. It takes practice to develop these skills. Then as you acquire them, you have to practice them under stress.”

Another useful exercise for leaders: Note what’s worked and what hasn’t with a kind of EI post-mortem or after-action review in situations where you applied the approaches described above. “That can give you insight into what went well and where you blew it,” Caruso says. “The more of those you do, the better prepared you will be.”

[ Read our related article, 8 powerful phrases of emotionally intelligent leaders. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.