Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are seen on stage during the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation 4th Annual Saint-Tropez Gala at Domaine Bertaud Belieu on July 26, 2017 in Saint-Tropez, France.
Leonardo DiCaprio is known for having high emotional intelligence.Anthony Ghnassia/Getty Images for LDC Foundation
  • Higher EI can make it easier to navigate conflict, meet your own needs, and cope with stress.
  • You can boost EI by cultivating empathy and working to become more aware of yourself and others.
  • Journaling, meditating, and therapy can all help you get better at naming and expressing emotions. 
  • Visit Insider's Health Reference library for more advice.

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to identify, understand, and manage your own emotions, while also recognizing and empathizing with the emotions of others.  

These skills can have a profound impact on your ability to build and maintain strong, healthy relationships since they can help you communicate, manage stress, and navigate conflict more effectively, says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice. What's more, high EI is linked to career success and higher salaries.

High vs. low emotional intelligence

In general, people with higher EI have an easier time naming and expressing their emotions, making decisions about how to satisfy their emotional needs, and remaining calm and composed in stressful situations, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Urban Balance

On the other hand, those with lower EI may become quickly overwhelmed by their emotions, have a harder time making decisions when emotions are running high, or feel misunderstood by others. 

Keep in mind that it's possible to have strong emotional intelligence in some areas but not all, according to Manly.

Below, psychologists share some key signs of higher EI, plus tips on cultivating these skills.

1. Practicing self-awareness

Having self-awareness means you can generally recognize your own emotional states and understand how your behavior impacts others.

"Those who are self-aware are able to reflect on and appropriately express their feelings, needs, and motivations," says Manly. "Self-awareness requires stepping back, slowing down, and turning inward throughout each day."

Manly recommends engaging in mindfulness meditation in order to build self-awareness. Mindfulness involves focusing on the physical and emotional sensations you experience in the present moment, so it can often promote greater self-awareness. 

Journaling can also help boost self-awareness, says Manly — but for best results, make it a point to write freely, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, rather than editing or judging your own thoughts as you write.

2. Identifying your feelings in the moment

Being able to name what you're feeling is an important aspect of EI, says Daramus, because it helps you process that emotion and then figure out what you need. 

A person with higher EI may be able to recognize how anger feels and then use that emotion as an indicator that something needs to be addressed — from feeling neglected by a partner to having one of your boundaries crossed by a boss, says Manly.

"This skill can be improved by making friends with the five basic emotions of joy, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear.  Learn how each of these feels in your body," says Manly.

Anger may feel like heat centered in the chest, while anxiety may feel like a fluttering in your stomach, says Manly. Once you know the physical symptoms of your emotions, you'll have an easier time picking up on them as they arise.

3. Expressing your emotional needs

The ability to share what you need from others in order to deal with certain emotions is another sign of higher EI. This might mean saying something like: 

  • "I'm feeling sad and I think I need to be alone." 
  • "I'm really anxious and I think I need to talk about it."
  • "I'm feeling so excited about my new job, and I'd love your undivided attention while I tell you about it."

On the other hand, if you don't communicate your needs, you risk not getting them met, which can contribute to feelings of frustration and resentment. 

Ultimately, that resentment may lead you to behave in passive-aggressive ways, which might further weaken and strain your relationships.

That's why Daramus advises practicing naming your emotions to yourself as well as others as they come up. For instance, rather than expecting your partner to know when you're feeling hurt by something they said during an argument, try telling them outright.

4. Noticing others' emotional states

Family, friends, coworkers, and others around you constantly communicate how they're feeling via nonverbal cues, says Manly. 

Recognizing these signals — like facial expressions, changes in tone of voice, and body language — will allow you to respond in a way that's helpful, thus building a sense of trust and emotional intimacy.

The first step to strengthening this skill is simply paying attention when interacting with others, according to Manly. When another person is sharing something with you, challenge yourself to actively listen with all of your senses.

You may be tempted to ignore certain negative emotions in others that make you uncomfortable, such as sadness or anger — but acknowledging those emotions without feeling the need to "fix" them can go a long way in building EI, says Manly.

5. Having empathy for others 

Empathy describes the ability to tune into and appreciate others' emotional experiences — to put yourself in their shoes, so to speak. Having empathy builds trust, emotional safety, and connection in relationships, says Manly.

A 2014 study found that finding a shared identity with someone can promote empathy. So, when interacting with someone, try to find similarities you share instead of focusing on differences. You might have different political beliefs, but maybe you have similar careers or grew up in the same small town. 

Reflective listening also offers a simple way to work on building your capacity for empathy, says Manly. 

In short, reflective listening can help you gain a better understanding of another person's perspective.

6. Managing and regulating your emotions

A crucial element of EI is being able to regulate and respond to your emotional states in a healthy way, says Manly. 

Emotional regulation, for instance, might mean meditating, journaling, or exercising to cope with stress instead of suppressing or avoiding it.

In order to better control and regulate your emotions, consider taking a time-out to breathe and reflect when a strong emotion arises, says Manly. 

For example, if you're in the middle of a conflict, you might say, "I'm feeling frustrated right now, so I'm going to go for a walk, but I'll be back in 30 minutes and we can revisit this." 

Keep in mind that in certain circumstances, such as during traumatic events, even a person with higher EI may have difficulty with emotional regulation. Try not to blame or criticize yourself if this happens, since this can fuel a cycle of suppressing uncomfortable or overwhelming emotions. A habit of hiding or tamping down your emotions can eventually cause more outbursts down the line, which can lead to additional self-criticism and frustration.

Can you boost your emotional intelligence?

Manly and Daramus agree that EI can be developed and improved

In fact, a small 2019 study found that senior managers experienced a boost in certain areas of EI after engaging in a 30-hour training course on emotional intelligence. Participants experienced significant improvements in their ability to: 

  • Perceive, understand, and accept their own and others' emotions 
  • Manage and control their own emotions
  • Be self-reliant
  • Cope with stress
  • Maintain a positive attitude

Here are some strategies that Manly and Daramus recommend for boosting EI:

  • Practice naming your emotions. As soon as you notice an emotional response to something, identify it internally, write it down, or share it out loud. Regularly remind yourself that no emotion is "good" or "bad."
  • Take care of your physical needs: When you're tired, hungry, or otherwise not looking after your own physical needs, it's much harder to manage your emotions, says Manly. That's why it's important to maintain a well-balanced diet, get plenty of rest, and engage in some kind of regular physical activity.
  • Consider working with a therapist: Working with a psychotherapist can build a foundation of self-awareness, says Manly, building a greater understanding of your own emotional tendencies and triggers.

Insider's takeaway

Emotional intelligence starts with social and self-awareness — the ability to simply recognize your own emotions and the emotions of others. 

Once you have sufficient self-awareness, you can develop other areas of EI, such as expressing your emotional needs, regulating your emotional states, and having empathy for others.

While some people may naturally have greater EI than others, these skills can be learned with deliberate practice. 

Since different emotional coping strategies work for different people, Manly and Daramus advise experimenting with a variety of different options like journaling, creative expression, and meditation to find what's most effective for you.

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