by Rachel Vilsack

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand emotions – in yourself and others – and to use this information to manage your behavior and relationships. Most of what makes us successful at work and in our relationships is emotional intelligence, not our IQ.  On the job, emotional intelligence becomes a powerful tool when working in teams, managing interpersonal issues, adapting to change and eliciting trust.


It Starts with You

Building emotional intelligence starts with knowing yourself. What are your emotional triggers? Maybe you get angry when someone cuts you off in traffic or frustrated at a co-worker who interrupts your workday with non-work related conversations. Our emotional brain can take over our thinking brain when threatened. And emotional habits become engrained neurological pathways.   While allowing our emotional brain to lead us into action when we are in a life and death situation is likely to result in a better outcome, it has the potential to harm relationships if we aren’t aware that we are triggered.


Understanding emotional triggers is important because we have 10 to 15 seconds to identify them before they can have a lasting impact on our mood and thoughts. It can take up to six hours to recover after being triggered. More importantly, triggers impact how much our brains can process. We can use eight to 12 pieces of information when not triggered, but only one when we are triggered.  This can really impact our performance.


Once you’re aware of what triggers you, you can take steps to self-manage. These steps might include:

  • Taking a deep breath – Notice any physical signs that you are triggered, like a clenched jaw or rapid heartbeat.
  • Count to 10 – Try to manage in the moment by creating a pause and quieting the mind.
  • Sleep on it – Instead of sending an emotionally charged email, wait until the next day to see if what you wrote is really the best response.
  • Remain curious – You might be tempted to implode (shut down, remain quiet, etc.) or explode (yell, lash out, etc.); instead remain curious by listening to what the other person is saying.
  • Own your feelings, seek some separation, and reach an agreement of when you will reconnect – Notice if you’re owning your feelings or blaming someone else. If it’s blame, you might want to create some distance and talk later.


Moving from Self to Relationships

Emotional intelligence doesn’t just end with the self.  It can also help us manage relationships. This might include being aware of others by reading their signals and choosing to turn into where they are. Think about stepping into someone else’s shoes, like your co-worker who wants to chat. Maybe the person is going through a difficult time and strikes up conversation as a way to connect with others. Or try acknowledging someone else’s feelings. Maybe the driver that cut you off was late for an important meeting. (We’ve all been there, right?)


That doesn’t mean that everyone gets a free pass, rather you are working to change your reactive habit patterns. You can build trust with your co-worker by being honest about where you’re at emotionally. You might actually be under a deadline and can’t take time out to talk to your co-worker right now. Set aside some time to talk later, if you are able. And you could suspend judgment on the driver that cut you off.  The person may actually be very nice, and not a jerk! Focusing on your emotional intelligence can be a powerful tool in any personal or professional situation.


Special thanks to Annie Tietema, whose presentation on emotional intelligence was the basis for this article.


2 thoughts on “How to Build Stronger Relationships

  1. This was a great post and a good reminder for those of us who choose to focus on our “reactive” energy versus our “proactive” energy. Our rational brain takes a backseat when we are “triggered” into an emotional state that seems to override a reasonable and healthy response. Outlining what we can do to minimize our spontaneous emotional (whether positive or negative) responses to others is a habit worth forming so that we can take control of how we want to be perceived through our actions or behavior. It is an empowerment tool. One that I wish was posted in schools, courtrooms, and other highly emotional places. It starts with the self though and creating a space for yourself to build these healthy habits will project out and be healthy for anyone you come into contact with whether it is personal or professional. Thanks for the great article.


  2. Emotional intelligence is such an important aspect of discovering more about ourselves and others. It is very true that to better understand individuals we encounter, that we must first have knowledge of our own emotional strengths and weaknesses. I am in the mental health field and work extensively with individuals in the addiction realm. Emotional boundary crossings are constantly an issue and it has required me to constantly be aware of my emotional triggers and act accordingly.


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