You’ve probably heard the term “emotional intelligence.” It’s a topic that’s coming up in media and in discussions among HR professionals. As you probably already know, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify your own feelings and another person’s feelings and the ability to use that knowledge to improve relationships. Emotional intelligence is a framework created by researchers from Yale and University of New Hampshire three decades ago to talk about the way people manage themselves and others based on understanding their own emotional reactions. The concept was introduced worldwide when Daniel Goleman introduced the concept of “emotional intelligence” in his widely read book, Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. From there, the phenomena took off and leaders across workplaces in every industry began paying more attention to how employees manage feelings—and how emotions play a role in interpersonal relationships and productivity.

When the concept of emotional intelligence was introduced to the masses, according to Inc., it became the missing link to why people with average IQs outperform those with the highest IQs 70% of the time. Success, when defined by high-performance in the workplace, is no longer just predicted by intellectual intelligence. Employers now admit that emotional intelligence plays a crucial role in the success of relationship-building, management, customer empathy, and high performance. What makes this skill so vital to success at work?

In the end, success is strongly influenced by our personal qualities, including our ability to interact successfully with others. Those with high emotional intelligence are able to pivot quickly, remain flexible, work with others, be more honest and transparent in their communication patterns, and so much more.

Here are 6 ways to build and flex your emotional intelligence muscles—and why it’s so important that you do.

#1: Gain emotional awareness

As we move from the information age into the intuition age, it’s critical to become fluent in our emotions. Communicating and reading emotions will help us understand ourselves and others better. Our emotions are a universal language that will help us to navigate the changes going on all around us. When we become emotionally intelligent, we become more present to ourselves and our nervous system begins to change -- how our brains work and how we respond to how we feel. When we’re aware of our emotions, we have the chance to reframe situations and change how our brains process events. Through emotional intelligence, we become emotionally savvy enough to choose how we’ll respond to external stimulus, instead of being driven by our emotions.

When emotional awareness is lacking, people are more likely to create and participate in negatively charged situations. For example, if an employee is quick to lash out in anger, or shut down and disengage when emotions flare up, team members may talk negatively about the individual or simply shut down and avoid meeting with and collaborating with that person. Becoming aware of emotions, and when they are coming and going, allows individuals to be accountable in the moment and respond positively. In the workplace setting and in other social settings, this awareness improves personal relationships and creates more engaged, more productive teams.

On the other hand, when emotionally intelligent people find themselves in a situation where others may be in conflict, they will approach it first from a place of understanding. They may start by getting curious and asking for clarification so that the other members feel heard. When they start to feel emotionally charged, they will take proactive action, such as excusing themselves briefly from the meeting or using deep breathing to shift their brain and allow themselves some space to work out an appropriate response. Taking it one step further, these individuals will recognize the particular people or topics that trigger them and take proactive measures by putting strategies in place for themselves to control potentially negative situations or hot topics. Emotional awareness and maturity enables employees to make the best possible game-time decisions—instead of letting emotions control their actions and decisions.

#2 Learn empathy

Emotionally intelligent people make connections. In doing so, they are better team mates and employees. Emotionally intelligent people can pivot, adjust to change and be flexible, their communication is more honest and transparent. This type of behavior creates an environment for more engaged, productive, trusting teams.

Emotional intelligence supports our ability to show empathy, and empathy is the crux of what creates connection. When we have the ability to truly understand the perspective of another person, without judging them, we can identify and recognize their emotions, and then respond in a way that promotes collaboration and cooperation. In the words of Brene Brown, “Empathy is a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” Self-reflection and recognizing our emotions are the critical building blocks to emotional intelligence.

#3: Be vulnerable

Emotional intelligence allows us to be vulnerable when we are in a place of uncertainty and risk. Emotional exposure and vulnerability is the language of love, belonging, joy, and transparency. Those are the things that create bonds and the glue between team members.

When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and accept vulnerability in others, we don’t apologize for crying during stressful or extreme situations, or for wearing our emotions on our sleeves. During the most difficult times, such as layoffs and major changes at work, emotionally intelligent people accept their vulnerability and the vulnerability of others and create a safe place for people to be authentic. When employees allow themselves to feel vulnerable at work, there’s space for deeper trust, better collaboration, and learning and growing.

Overall, we’re seeing a big shift happening across the workplace to support employees as they bring their whole selves to work. It’s important to integrate work and life, emotions and all, and to allow every member of the team to be their authentic self in every situation. The alternative—keeping work and personal personas siloed does not support building a culture that honors authenticity, engagement, and trust.

#4: Recognize your triggers and learn neutrality

Before you can begin to exercise more control over your emotions, you must understand your own triggers. Let’s face it, we all have them. A person who rubs us the wrong way or a situation that makes us uncomfortable. When you start to recognize your own red flags, take it in and reflect. Ask yourself how you can grow and learn from that situation and then decide how to respond in a neutral, professional manner. Once you do, you’ll find you’re more calm and effective in all situations and able to bring more value to professional and personal interactions.

Being emotionally neutral does not mean that you don’t show emotion. It’s more like being the Buddha in the center of Las Vegas. When there are distractions, chaos, change, and even anger around you, emotional neutrality allows you to hold your own and bring a sense of peace to the chaos. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel passion or disagreement, emotional intelligence is more about cultivating awareness around your emotions and how you choose to communicate those emotions. Emotional intelligence is measured by an individual’s level of self-awareness, empathy, self-confidence, motivation, self-control, and social competency.

For individuals and organizations hoping to reap the benefits of emotional intelligence there is good news. The skills and best practices that lead to greater emotional intelligence can be practiced, observed, and improved upon. Whether growing your own emotional intelligence, or leading others, begin with self-reflection. Take inventory of the areas where you have the most room to improve. Once gaps in emotional intelligence are identified, take specific steps to improve.

There are many books and resources available to support you in increasing your emotional intelligence. In the meantime, start by practicing these steps to improve your emotional intelligence:

  • Take time every day for quiet reflection (mindful meditation).
  • Begin to identify your emotions and communicate how you feel.
  • Refrain from making up your mind on issues before you have all the facts.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Be curious and reach out and connect with new people when there is a need.
  • Put strategies in place that give your brain a break, take a walk, connect with nature, breathe deep.

Self-awareness takes practice. Train yourself to learn what’s happening with your emotions, instead of getting swept away by them.

#5: Get a coach

In a culture where we’re being asked to be comfortable with constant change, emotional intelligence will become a critical part of healthy survival mechanisms. Fear can wreak havoc on our bodies and on our environment. Allowing it to drive our actions and reactions will only take us further from our goals. Instead, we need to expand our awareness and get curious with ourselves and others. The leaders that inspire are those that coach more than advise and direct. Learning to mentor others begins with training yourself and accepting the support of a coach or adopting other self-development tools and practices.

Working with a coach allows individuals to further deepen their state of emotional intelligence. A coach helps people to identify areas for growth where they might have been otherwise blindsided.  When working to build your emotional intelligence muscles, there’s always room for improvement, as you can always become more emotionally savvy. A coach can help fine-tune your awareness, skills, and ability to identify your own emotional states and in turn others’ emotional states.

#6: Adopt a beginner’s mindset

Employees who are able to walk in the door and be curious and excited to learn will succeed as tomorrow’s leaders. Given how quickly technology is advancing and the workplace is evolving, emotionally intelligent individuals come to new situations with a beginner’s mindset. They think, “What is this new situation going to teach me?” instead of “I know it all already,” or “This is how we did things in the past.”

With so much change happening in the world today, especially within our work environment, we must be more emotionally savvy than ever before. Emotional intelligence will continue to grow as a requirement and, fortunately, it’s a muscle you can build with continued self-reflection, awareness, and accountability.

For companies, employing teams of people who are emotionally intelligent will drive the workplace culture and develop the coveted positive employer brand. The benefits of improving your emotional intelligence are endless. Building emotionally aware teams will enable more confident employees that trust themselves, cultivate deeper connections with colleagues and customers, and experience greater career success. Emotional intelligence training is well worth the investment for individuals and organizations.