How to Better Practice Emotional Intelligence at Work

Being emotional” often gets a bad rap. Particularly in the workplace, where outbursts, arguments or even vulnerability can not only undermine an individual’s credibility, but also serve as grist for today’s gossip mill and live on in company lore for years.

But learning to manage and respond appropriately to the negative emotions that can accompany our workdays isn’t just a means to avoiding hushed conversations and looks of confusion. Developing solid emotional intelligence may actually bolster your workplace performance and career success.

Here are a few tips and tactical ways to address your emotions and practice better emotional intelligence at work. Doing so will create a better path for yourself, and a better work environment for you and your co-workers.

Why emotional intelligence is crucial at work

“Being emotional can lead us to make impulsive decisions, which can damage work relationships and the organization’s performance,” says Aaron Leiva, a Chicago-based industrial and organizational psychologist. “Additionally, being emotional comes with the association that the individual is being controlled by their emotions, rather than being the one controlling them.”

Whereas emotional intelligence, first coined by researchers John D. Mayer, Ph.D. and Peter Salovey, Ph.D., is “the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you,” according to a Harvard Business School article.

“Tapping into feelings is inevitable, whether we do it with awareness or consciously repress them,” Leiva adds. “I suggest truly paying attention to them because they are cues to help you make decisions.”

Financier Warren Buffet shared a valuable piece of advice from a mentor concerning handling emotions in Gillian Zoe Segal’s book Getting There: A Book of Mentors. The book features essays from 30 leaders across various fields in which they share their secrets to success. 

“He said, ‘Warren, you can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow.’ It’s such an easy way of putting it. You haven’t missed the opportunity. Just forget about it for a day. If you feel the same way tomorrow, tell them then—but don’t spout off in a moment of anger,” Leiva says.

This is a prime example of how to exercise caution and emotional intelligence at work when it might be easier to just react. 

How you deal with conflict and setbacks, how you encourage people when they’re down, your ability to negotiate or get things done—all of those things touch on emotional intelligence,” Mark Craemer, a management coach and organizational development consultant, told “It’s your [emotional intelligence] that enables you to be effective in your role, get promoted and do well in the workplace.” 

How to practice better emotional intelligence at work

So how exactly can you be less reactive, and practice better emotional intelligence?

Manage feelings of frustration through assessment, labeling and positioning

Leiva recommends first acknowledging that anger or frustration is a secondary emotion. Then identify what is at the root of the anger. “There is something primary driving the anger, such as feeling overwhelmed, guilty, exhausted, worried, offended, hurt, anxious, etc,” he says.

Next, he recommends labeling and expressing anger to ourselves or others. “By saying something like ‘I am feeling anxious about the deadlines for the project this week,’ it provides clarity and soothes the nervous system,” Leiva says.

The third step is understanding that people are not the emotions themselves, rather they are simply experiencing them. This enables you to objectively process any feelings of frustration. “This helps perceive the emotion away from our self-identity while allowing us for better processing and increasing our emotional intelligence,” Leiva says.

And that processing allows for problem solving and brainstorming about the situation and next steps, rather than staying mired in the negative emotions.

Regulate the nervous system through breath work

Leiva strongly advocates for learning to breathe correctly to help you maintain a sense of calm in a stressful environment. “When someone feels calm, their breath is deep and slow rather than shallow and fast, which can be observed in emotions such as anger. Learning when you are in fight, flight, freeze or fawn versus rest and digest is key to not reacting quickly when distressed with negative emotions,” he says.

According to the Harvard Health Blog, belly breathing instead of chest breathing can change how we react to stress. “Belly breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the head down the neck, through the chest and to the colon. This activates your relaxation response, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure and lowering stress levels,” the article says.

Can you make a shift?

Shifting your focus from negative thoughts and emotions to more positive and uplifting ones can improve your mood. For example, if you are feeling down about a recent failure, remind yourself of your strengths and successes rather than dwelling on your shortcomings,” says a Healthnews article.

Either way, Leiva says that you must find a way to address your emotions. “Hiding true emotions is not healthy by any means, so creating a psychologically safe environment is key to decrease self, team and organizational stress while increasing well-being and happiness,” he says.

Photo by David Gyung/Shutterstock

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.

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