Emotional intelligence is your ability to identify emotions (in both yourself and others), to recognize the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior.
It begins with learning how emotions work, but it goes much further. Specifically, how do you start putting that knowledge into practice? In other words, how do you make emotions work for you, instead of against you?
The thing is, you can’t control your instinctive feelings, and you don’t really want to.
For example, if you see something that makes you angry, you should get angry; that anger can protect you or move you to positive action. But you also have to be careful, because your anger can get you into trouble–if you give into uncontrollable rage.
The key, then, is to control the reactions to your feelings–to make sure you’re acting in a way that you won’t later regret. As you can imagine, this skill takes practice.
And it all begins with focusing on your thoughts.
Every action begins with a thought. If you can learn to control your thoughts, you’ll learn to manage your emotional reactions as well.
Your ability to manage thoughts could be compared to the control center of a media player. Consider how each of the following techniques can help you focus both thinking and actions:
1. The pause button.
The pause could be as simple as taking a moment to stop and think before you speak or act. It can help you resist feeding internet trolls (which only gets you more upset) and keep you from making inappropriate jokes at work. The pause is especially helpful when we’re in an emotional state, because it helps us to think things through, rather than acting purely on how we feel.
But remember: The pause is easy in theory, difficult to practice. Added stress or unusual circumstances can surprise you, and easily override your ability to use the pause.
Practice consistently, though, and you’ll turn the pause into a useful habit.
2. Volume control.
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize when emotions are beginning to run high. Volume control is the ability to dial those feelings back, or get them under control.
For example, let’s say you’re in the middle of a disagreement with a friend or family member. As the discussion gets heated, it’s natural for you to raise your voice, and your partner will respond in like.
But if you learn to recognize that your emotions are running high, or your voice is getting louder, you can dial it back, so to speak–and keep the discussion more calm.
3. The tuning dial.
Have you ever spoken to someone who isn’t really paying attention? How did it make you feel?
Yet, we often do the same thing, unintentionally. Maybe we’re scrolling through our phone while they’re trying to tell us something. Or, we’re thinking of what we want to say next, instead of truly listening.
Instead, tune into others as they speak to you, with the goal of understanding and empathy. Doing so will help you build stronger relationships.
In addition to tuning in, you should also practice hitting the mute button (on yourself). Resist the urge to interrupt, and give others the chance to fully express themselves.
5. Record and erase.
If your conversation partner says something that’s new to you, it will take time to process and fully understand the meaning behind their words. Therefore, it’s helpful to mentally record what they’ve said so you can think about it later.
This doesn’t mean you should replay hurtful words over and over, or bring back things that were said in the heat of the moment. In these cases, you should use your erase button–realize the person probably didn’t mean what he or she said, and be willing to leave it behind.
Erasing hurtful words or actions may not be easy, but it’s essential to learning to forgive, forget, and move on.
While taking a pause can help you and others calm down, serious problems won’t just go away.
It’s important, therefore, to use playback–by returning to the topic at a later time. With a little forethought, you can pick an ideal time and location to speak, providing the best chance for a more calm and reasonable discussion.
7. Fast forward.
In certain situations, we may be tempted to act against our own values. Caught up in the moment, we let emotion get the best of us and do something we know we’ll probably regret.
If you find yourself in this predicament, take a moment to fast forward.
Forget about how you feel right now.
Instead, ask yourself:
- How will I feel about this decision in a month? A year? Five years?
- How will it affect my family, friends, or others who care about me?
As the saying goes: Never make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.
If your feelings are starting to take over, press fast forward to help you regain clarity–and resist making a decision that will haunt your future.
Emotions are part of what make us human. You shouldn’t suppress them, or try to “remove” them from the equation. Instead, you should embrace your emotions and learn from them–so that you gain more control over your thoughts and actions, and avoid becoming a slave to your feelings.
That’s what I call Emotional Intelligence.
Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.
A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.