Answer by Nicole Gravagna, Neuroscientist, author of MindSET Your Manners:
Learning to use emotional intelligence is like learning to walk. When you have never done it before, there's a lot of stumbling, but once you get it down, you pretty much got it. You can get fancy once you learn to walk - dance, ski, run, ice skate - or you can just walk. Emotional intelligence is the same kind of thing.
Emotional intelligence, sometimes called EQ or EI, is the measure of your ability to use emotional awareness in everyday life. Your body was built to have emotional awareness, so once you get the hang of it, you don't have to work at it much.
Unfortunately, emotional awareness is like walking in a physical way too. If you never did any walking, your legs would be too weak to allow you to walk for very long. You might get in a few steps and collapse. Imagine if no one told you that your legs would get stronger. You'd assume walking was impossible for you.
Emotional awareness is just like walking in the sense that you can't just start being aware all the time. The part of your brain that allows you to be aware of your emotions will be very weak if you haven't spent your life until now being aware. Don't worry. You'll get stronger. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a specific part of your brain that is used when you are consciously aware of what you are feeling. When scientists take pictures of the ACC, they can see a visible thickening of that region of the brain in a short time when people start to use it consciously.
There are two skills that you need to learn to develop your emotional awareness:
1) Noticing - When do you notice that you are upset? In the moment? A few hours after the onset of being upset? Or do you often take days or weeks to realize you've been bothered by something? Noticing is a skill that you can develop over time. People with high EQ will notice in the moment that they are having an emotion. They will also be able to notice with great precision, exactly which set of emotions is occurring, where in the body they feel it, and who in the room shares those emotions with them. You can probably imagine how having the ability to notice all those things in the moment can change the outcome of a conflict.
2) Feeling - How do you feel through a problem in your life? Do you try to pretend you aren't having a feeling? Do you try to stifle it? Do you act out your feelings by shouting when you are angry or becoming hysterical when you are sad or fearful? Feeling is a skill that you can develop over time. People with high EQ will be able to schedule time in their day or week to privately feel emotions that they chose not to feel during the work day. Some people call this decision to plan time for their feelings, scheduled suffering. Other people call it emotional hygiene. The idea is that your body produces feelings to get your attention. If you never give your feelings your attention, then it will keep making bigger and bigger feelings until you can't help but feel them.
When you are trying to learn how to increase your emotional awareness, it helps to find someone who already has a high EQ. Just being around someone with a high EQ can allow your body and brain to fall in line. Humans are copy cats. Without consciously trying, we tend to act like the people we spend time with.
To start exercising your ACC, you can do the following exercise. The next time you realize you are upset, think about your body for a full minute. Do you feel sweaty? Hot? Where is the sweat? Can you pinpoint if there is any pressure in your chest or head? Noticing sensations in your body is a fantastic exercise that strengthens the ACC. All you have to do is notice. The longer you notice the way your body feels, and the more often you notice, the stronger your ACC gets. Soon, you'll recognize your own feelings a lot sooner and your EQ will rise accordingly.