Emotional Intelligence: Understanding the role of empathy and social skills


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In this series on emotional intelligence, we’ve learned what a complex and important topic it is, and how it directly impacts so many areas of our lives, including our relationships, career successes, and even how we set and achieve goals. To round out this series, we will explore the last two key components of emotional intelligence: empathy and social skills, and discover how our competencies in these areas benefit not only ourselves, but others as well.

Understanding empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, or, at least their emotional reactions to things. It’s about us being able to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, and even though we may not have personally experienced what they are going through, we understand and anticipate the situation (good or bad) and recognize that there are feelings and emotions attached to it. This doesn’t mean that we have to share those emotions with them, we just need to “get where they’re coming from”. However, before we can be empathetic, we need to have a good sense of our own self-awareness and gain insight into our own emotions. This is how we improve ourselves and expand our mindsets – by seeing things from another person’s perspective. Think of a close friend who may share some news about landing a dream job, going on a great adventure, or overcoming a serious illness. An emotionally intelligent person would likely respond to them with enthusiasm and delight, even if they haven’t personally experienced those things. The same goes with any sad, bad or shocking news someone may have; we know that being empathetic is important, even if we don’t know all the right things to say or do. It’s important to acknowledge and respect the feelings of others, even when we don’t agree with them or their decisions. Another sign of an emotionally intelligent person is knowing to avoid making comments or statements that are judgemental, cruel, or indifferent. It would be a very cold and lonely world if people always responded with “I really don’t care” to the many events, feelings and happenings we all share with one another.

It’s a social enterprise

We are social beings, there’s just no escaping it. Emotionally intelligent people are genuinely interested in others, and use social skills to build and manage relationships in our personal and professional lives. Unless we happen to be lighthouse keepers, we really have to be social at our workplaces. This doesn’t mean going out after work with the gang every Friday, or inquiring about everyone’s lunch plans. What it does mean is that we have to be respectful, considerate, and cooperative if we want to succeed at work. As the saying goes, “IQ gets you hired, EQ gets you promoted”. We also have to be sensitive to diversity of all kinds. We grow and learn so much from people who come from different cultures or backgrounds than us, as we get the opportunity to see things through a different lens. In today’s global, multi-cultural society, we are so fortunate to get to meet so many new people with different experiences to share.

Another skill of people with emotional intelligence is the ability to spot the power dynamics in an organization or group, and understand the different roles people play. This way, we can better situate ourselves and recognize our role in relation to everyone else’s. We can also build relationships by opening up and making ourselves vulnerable to some degree to break down emotional and interpersonal barriers. Enhanced social skills help people work well in teams, build rapport, lead others, and manage conflicts successfully.

Putting it all together

The secret behind improving both our empathy skills and social skills is surprisingly easier than you’d think. It starts with becoming a better listener. As humans, we’re often so focused on what we are going to say next that we miss most of what others are really saying. When we simply tune out distractions and pay attention to the words being spoken, as well as the non-verbal cues such as: tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language, we learn so much about what is really being communicated. This allows us to respond more appropriately. However, a more difficult challenge for people everywhere is the fact that so much of our communication is now sent digitally, leaving us little to work with – other than some clever emojis. To improve all our interactions, we need to clarify, ask more questions, and avoid jumping to conclusions. We also need to make sure that we send clear messages ourselves, with honesty and integrity.

Finally, developing emotional intelligence helps us to better serve and support the people in our lives. It becomes a wonderful domino effect: when people feel understood, respected and supported, not only do we personally reap the benefits of improved relationships, but we bring happiness those we serve, who in turn share that with others. As Daniel Goleman said with regards to emotional intelligence, “It’s a different way of being smart”, and in my eyes, it’s a different way of bringing happiness and fulfilment to ourselves and others. We’re all sharing this journey together, let’s make it amazing.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” – Margaret Mead