Emotional intelligence (EI) has a distinct definition: identifying and managing emotions, including the emotions of others, when involved in interpersonal communication. However, when breaking down its meaning, you’ll find that EI is a much more complex and elemental skill.

The Meaning of EI
To be an emotionally intelligent person is to not only be aware of your own emotions but to also apply them in problem-solving situations, which includes controlling them as well as guiding others in doing the same. It’s sometimes referred to as your emotional quotient (EQ, as opposed to IQ). Some psychologists believe that having a high EQ is even more important than having a high IQ.

Consider a past argument you’ve had with a loved one: either you or the other person may have become angry or upset, and thoughts and feelings were then expressed impulsively. You may have said something you regretted, resulting in a contentious relationship for many months. While these life situations aren’t always avoidable, they can be better managed and result in stronger relationships through EI.

In general, emotional intelligence consists of four primary components:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship management

Being emotionally self-aware in a conversation with another person—whether there’s conflict present or not—is crucial. Research has determined that teams with leaders who had strong self-awareness performed better and had higher energy levels as opposed to those working under leaders who lacked emotional self-awareness. Why? Because people who are in tune with their emotions, both good and bad, will have a firmer grasp on reality.

How you manage emotions can greatly affect the outcome of an interaction. This includes being in control, adapting, striving to have a positive outlook, and being achievement oriented. Namely, how are you controlling your impulses? It doesn’t mean if you’re angry you suppress that anger. Self-managing entails being able to control that anger so you’re not yelling or throwing punches; rather, you’re having a meaningful conversation that accomplishes something. Your friend can know you’re angry at him, and why, but it doesn’t have to result in a months-long feud.

Social Awareness
Another key element of EI is being an empathetic listener—this is often what people associate most with emotional intelligence. If you find yourself interrupting conversations frequently or thinking solely about your response when someone is talking versus reflecting on what they’re actually talking about, you may need a crash course in social awareness. It requires focus, maintaining eye contact, and picking up on cues (a lot of which are found in someone’s body language). Otherwise, you could offend the other person, miss an important element of what was said, or feel a lack of a genuine connection.

Relationship Management
Relationships take on many different forms: boss, mentor, friend, partner … the list goes on. This component asks you to take a look at how you communicate in every relationship in your life. Does your communication style lean toward the negative versus the positive? How are you with receiving feedback? Do you avoid conflict or approach it unabashedly? Answering these questions may help you realize why certain relationships in your life are better than others and vice versa.

Enhancing Your EI
Now that you are aware of the various components that make up emotional intelligence, it’s time to put them into practice. For example, think about how you conduct yourself in the workplace. No matter what position you hold, emotions play a large role in your day-to-day work life. Strengthening your EI will better help you understand your own reactions, as well as those with whom you work closely.

It’s easy to say you’re going to try and be a more self-aware person who listens more thoughtfully and manages social interactions better, but actually doing so requires consistent effort. You may find yourself having to pause more when talking, interrupt less, and take things less personally.

Say you have a meeting with a coworker you don’t get along with, and you also happened to get into an argument with a close friend the night before. Now this meeting isn’t just one you already dreaded; there’s also an added layer to your premeditated displeasure. If you have a low EQ, you’d be aggressive right out of the gate, looking for any way to let your discontentment be known to your coworker. You most likely wouldn’t be focused on how the other person is feeling or what they’re saying. However, if you have a higher level of EQ, you’d be able to recognize that the prior argument with your friend was heightening your negative emotions; you’d be aware of it but would still strive for a productive meeting. You might even be able recognize why you don’t like this coworker in the first place, and perhaps work on resolving that problem.

Working to better your emotional intelligence doesn’t happen overnight. It’s small situations that help boost your EQ over time. And you may start to realize things about yourself that shift what you thought was true. Is your coworker really interrupting too much, or are you overly touchy? Did the person on the phone with you have an attitude, or is a fight with your partner clouding your perception? Were you being too indirect in a meeting with your manager, or was he being a bad listener? Once you tune in a bit more carefully to the various interactions life throws at you, you’ll be surprised by what you learn about yourself and others.

The Key to Healthy Relationships
Don’t wait—start working on your emotional intelligence today. It can foster better working and personal relationships and create a higher level of self-understanding. You can’t control what other people are thinking or feeling, but you can control your reaction. Strengthening your EQ can make you a visionary leader, a thoughtful friend, a loving partner, and an overall kinder human.