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The unsung power of soft skills—and how to use yours

by Christine Yu

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Works well with others. Listens. Manages conflicts.

Since preschool, we’re taught that these are traits we ought to develop for personal and professional success. Yet, these relationship-based characteristics are often relegated to the realm of soft skills, touchy-feely qualities that are hard to quantify and have an intangible impact.

But some researchers beg to differ. David Caruso, Ph.D., a research affiliate at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and his colleagues argue that emotional intelligence or EI—the ability to perceive, understand, and manage our emotions—isn’t about how to get in touch with feelings or how to be happier. Instead, it’s a critical, hard skill that can help us make better decisions and feel more productive. [Editor’s Note: if productivity is what you’re after, tune in to the Packcast to hear what the Editorial team thought of the Productivity pack.]

The intelligence of your emotions

Discussions about feelings haven’t always been incorporated into the workplace. But in recent years, the conversation has shifted, and emotional intelligence is now considered among the prerequisites for success alongside technical skills, like mathematical ability, and IQ. (Even the World Economic Forum cites emotional intelligence as a critical skill for tomorrow’s workplace.)

The concept of emotional intelligence or EI has been around for over a quarter of a century. The idea was first described in a 1990 paper by Peter Salovey and Jack Mayer and was later popularized in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence”.

“Emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately read emotions, the causes of emotions and how they change, and to manage emotions,” says Caruso. It represents a specific set of abilities that requires not only inward focus but also the capacity to tune into those around us. Unlike fleeting moods, emotions can provide data. Since emotions can be essentially social in nature, they also convey information about others around us.

Caruso explains that when we accurately perceive how we feel in the moment (and why), we can make better decisions, feel more productive, and accomplish our goals. “It allows you to do everything better,” says Caruso, whether that’s deep strategic analysis or being a good friend. It can even help you avoid burnout. If your work is primarily relationship-based, emotional intelligence can be a real asset.

Researchers have found that higher levels of emotional intelligence can offer a competitive advantage, can lead to better health and career outcomes, greater life satisfaction, and students may even perform better in school. Some also say it’s a better predictor of the quality of long-term relationships—people with higher quotients of EI are better at managing conflict and creating a positive work environment.

But it’s not a panacea

As interest in emotional intelligence has grown and the list of its purported benefits expands, the definition of EI has become murky. Caruso says that emotional intelligence is often mistaken as the pursuit of wellbeing or happiness—how to be a people person or how to be in touch with your feelings. “It’s not about how to be happy all the time,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest stumbling blocks [to understanding emotional intelligence].”

Caruso also cautions that EI isn’t any more important than IQ or general intelligence—it doesn’t guarantee success nor is it a panacea. In fact, some researchers have noted a dark side of emotional intelligence—that those who are better are reading the emotions of others are prone to using that knowledge for personal gain. For example, a study published in Psychological Science found that those who rated high on a scale of Machiavellianism (in other words, they can be manipulative) and emotional intelligence were more likely to have publicly embarrassed someone at work for personal gain. Another study linked narcissistic exploitativeness with better emotional recognition.

Translating emotional intelligence into practice

How do we practice emotional intelligence? Caruso suggests trying to match an emotional state with a specific task or activity.

For example, if you’re feeling blue, you may also be more aware of details and able to wrestle with a difficult problem or analysis or edit a document. In contrast, if you feel happy and joyful, it may be ideal to think big and brainstorm new ideas or initiatives. Anxious or angry? While most of us would consider these emotions unacceptable in the workplace, there’s also an upside. You may be better able to parse arguments and find clarity.

If a mood doesn’t match the task at hand, try to change what you’re working on or change your mood. “Let’s say I’m really bummed and I have to go do something that needs a lot of energy, I have two choices. I can either cancel it or engage and manage my emotions,” says Caruso. But he cautions that if you constantly find yourself switching emotional gears, you may be setting yourself up for burnout.

The best part? Since EI is a skill, you can improve it. Caruso suggests observing people and matching their demeanor, expression, and action to basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Rather than asking neutral, open-ended questions, ask fixed ones such as “On a scale of zero to ten, what did you think of my presentation?” This can give you concrete data to process. Or if you’re unsure how to read a situation, you can try to crowdsource for an answer.

“If you’re not good at [emotional intelligence], you don’t have to give up on the underlying skill,” says Caruso. “You can get better at it.”


Artwork by KAREN HONG

Christine Yu

Christine Yu is a freelance writer based in New York City. She’s written about health, wellness and lifestyle for publications including The Washington Post, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and Redbook. Find her on Twitter @cyu888.

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