Using Emotional Intelligence to Enhance Relationships

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The best things in life – success, happiness, love – depend on our ability to create and maintain great relationships. Most of us do a good job with relationships at the start, only to stumble down the road. Why do relationships develop such challenging problems? Oftentimes, relationship problems are due to a breakdown in the skills of emotional intelligence. Fortunately, it’s never too late to develop these skills and raise your emotional intelligence abilities. Once you’ve learned the five key emotional intelligence skills, you’ll be able to create and sustain secure, successful, long-lasting relationships.

How does emotional intelligence help our relationships?

Many people put their best foot forward in a new work setting or when looking to attract a mate, but stumble while trying to maintain their relationships over the long term. That’s because keeping a relationship healthy and fulfilling requires a unique skill set that many of us don’t have. This skill set is known as emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, control, and effectively communicate our own emotions, and to recognize the emotions of other people. When our emotional intelligence skills are well developed, we have a solid emotional foundation that helps us build strong relationships and communicate clearly.

The skills of emotional intelligence help you:

* Build rewarding, lasting relationships
* Stay calm and focused, regardless of the circumstances
* Understand your own motivations, feelings, and needs
* Recognize the difference between damaging and helpful communication
* Accurately “read” other people
* Defuse arguments and repair wounded feelings
* Find more playfulness and joy in your relationships
* Transform conflict into an opportunity for building trust

If you have trouble with any of these skills and would like to build stronger, more satisfying relationships, take hope. Emotional intelligence isn’t something you’re born with – it’s learned. You can continue to learn and develop the skills of emotional intelligence throughout your life.

Why relationship advice doesn’t always help

Emotions are the building blocks of each relationship in our lives, and the power of those emotions cannot be overlooked. Emotions override our thoughts and profoundly influence our behavior – often without our awareness.

Most people seek relationship advice to find answers to problems they believe are responsible for their conflicts—without realizing there are more fundamental issues at the core of those problems. They are attempting to heal the surface symptoms of their dysfunctional relationships, without examining the real emotional issues that are simmering beneath. But until those fundamental issues are addressed, the problems and conflicts will continue.

Consider the relationship problems of these individuals:

Fred: Fred experienced emotional and physical pain early in life, and is determined to keep his family together. But his wife is threatening divorce. In a bestseller, Fred found steps for changing his behavior and opening a relationship discussion with his wife. Sadly, most of what Fred relays about his good intentions is lost, since his nonverbal communication—the true language of love—speaks only of his needs and ignores hers.

Allison:
Allison gets attention for her good looks and sense of humor, but she never feels comfortable with herself. She has read many books on what men want, she dates a lot, but each time she finds someone she really likes, he stops calling within a short time. She blames those who disappoint her, but it doesn’t realize that her inability to relax and appear interested in others cause of her relationship problems.

Alexis: Alexis, whose mother was depressed when she was young, has a degree from one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. She normally looks and acts like someone in charge of herself, but she has an Achilles’ heel. Alexis’s inability to confront conflict has sidetracked her career. In spite of therapy, coaching, and good intentions to the contrary, she remains stuck and unable to advance.

In each of these examples, supposedly helpful relationship advice proves ineffective. Why? Because the true source of the relationship problems – the underlying emotional intelligence issues – was never addressed.
What is your current emotional intelligence skill level?

Your emotional intelligence is your set of key relationship skills or abilities that help you establish strong relationships and deal with relationship problems. Find your emotional intelligence skill level by answering usually, sometimes, or rarely to the questions in this quick relationship quiz.

Test your emotional intelligence

* Do you feel connected when talking to most people? Or are you easily distracted?
* Are you comfortable with pauses? Do you feel at ease when no one is speaking?
* Do you sense when someone feels troubled before being told?
* Do you judge or criticize some of your emotions or feelings?
* Do you pay attention to your gut feelings when making important decisions?
* Do you immediately notice when you become stressed?
* Do you know how to quickly calm yourself down when you’re stressed?
* Do you laugh, play, or kid around with others?
* Do you use humor to negotiate rough spots?
* Can you easily deal with differences and disagreements?

Answering usually to most of the questions indicates that you have a good start toward emotionally intelligent communication in your relationships. If your answers were primarily sometimes or rarely, you may need some help developing your relationship skills.

Relationship help: The five key skills

While every relationship is unique, there are five emotional intelligence skills that are of vital importance to building and maintaining healthy relationships.

Relationship help skill 1: The ability to manage stress

The ability to manage stressStress shuts down your ability to feel, to think rationally, and to be emotionally available to another person, essentially blocking good communication until both you and your partner feel safe enough to focus on one another. This damages the relationship. Being able to regulate stress allows you to remain emotionally available.

The first step in communicating with emotional intelligence iis recognizing when stress levels are out of control and returning yourself and others, whenever possible, to a relaxed and energized state of awareness.

To learn how, see How to Manage Stress: Tips to Quickly Relieve Stress in the Moment

Relationship help skill 2: The ability to recognize and manage your emotions

Emotional exchanges hold the communication process together. These exchanges are triggered by basic emotions, including anger, sadness, fear, joy, and disgust. To communicate in a way that grabs or engages others, you have to be able to access your emotions and recognize how they influence your actions and relationships.

However, your emotions may be distorted, numbed, or buried – especially if you’ve experienced early-life traumas such as loss, isolation, or abuse. Unfortunately, without emotional awareness, we are unable to fully understand our own motivations and needs, or to communicate effectively with others. In order to be emotionally healthy and emotionally intelligent, your must reconnect to your core emotions.

For step-by-step advice on how to reconnect to your emotions, see Emotional Awareness: Managing and Dealing with Your Emotions and Feelings.

Relationship help skill 3: The ability to communicate nonverbally

The ability to communicate nonverballyThe most powerful forms of communication contain no words, and take place at a much faster rate than speech. Using nonverbal communication is the way to attract others’ attention and keep relationships on track. Eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gesture, touch, intensity, timing, pace, and sounds that convey understanding engage the brain and influence others much more than your words alone.

The way we talk, listen, look, and move will produce a sense of interest, trust, excitement and desire for connection – or they will generate fear, confusion, distrust and disinterest.

Nonverbal communication isn’t about words, but it’s not necessarily silent; tone of voice or a well-placed sigh can say a great deal. And, it is a visual language. If a conversationalist is standing stiffly, the message he sends may be quite different than if he is visibly relaxed. An obvious eye-roll or a subtle shrug can speak volumes—even without the person’s conscious intention. So, nonverbal communication is vital to keeping our relationships strong and healthy.

Part of improving our non-verbal communicant involves paying attention to:

* Eye contact
* Facial expression
* Tone of voice
* Posture
* Gestures
* Touch

Nonverbal communication is the lifelong pulley that consciously or unconsciously sends either positive or negative signals to others. Nothing reveals more to others about us, or attracts others to us, than wordless communication.

For more on developing this essential skill, see Nonverbal Communication Skills: The Power of Nonverbal communication and Body Language.

Relationship help skill 4: The ability to use humor and play in your relationships

Playfulness and humor help you navigate and rise above difficult and embarrassing issues. Mutually shared positive experiences also lift you up, help you find inner resources needed to cope with disappointment and heartbreak, and give you the will to maintain a positive connection to your work and your loved ones.

Using playful communication in your relationships helps you to:

* Take hardships in stride. By allowing us to view our frustrations and disappointments from new perspectives, laughter and play enable us to survive annoyances, hard times, and setbacks.
* Smooth over differences. Using gentle humor often helps us say things that might be difficult without creating a flap.
* Simultaneously relax and restore energy. Play relaxes our bodies and recharges our emotional batteries.

To learn more, see Playful Communication in Relationships: The Power of Laughter, Humor, and Play.

Relationship help skill 5: The ability to resolve conflicts in your relationships

The way you respond to differences and disagreements in personal and professional relationships can create hostility and irreparable rifts, or it can initiate the building of safety and trust. Your capacity to take conflict in stride and to forgive easily is supported by your ability to manage stress, to be emotionally available, to communicate nonverbally, and to laugh easily.

The ability to resolve conflicts in your relationshipsConflict in relationships can be a deal breaker and a heart breaker. Two people can’t possibly always have the same needs, opinions and expectations—and that needn’t be a bad thing! But when conflict is resolved in a healthy way, it can be a cornerstone for trust between people. When conflict isn’t perceived as threatening or punishing, it fosters freedom, creativity, trust and safety in relationships.

Resolving conflict in a positive way involves:

* Staying focused in the present. When we are emotionally present and not holding on to old hurts and resentments, we can recognize the reality of a current situation and view it as a new opportunity for resolving old feelings about conflicts.
* Choosing your arguments. Consider what is worth arguing about and what is not. Pick your battles wisely.
* Being able to forgive. If you continue to be harmed protect yourself.  But if not conflict resolution involves releasing the urge to punish.
* Ending conflicts that can’t be resolved. It takes two people to keep an argument going. If you can’t find common ground, let the argument go.

Once you know how to remain emotionally present, and manage stress, you can avoid overreacting or under-reacting in emotionally charged situations. And with the aid of nonverbal communication and humor you can catch and defuse many issues before they escalate into conflict.

For more, see Conflict Resolution Skills: Managing and Resolving Conflict.

Learning the skills of emotional intelligence

Together, the five key skills of emotional intelligence help you build strong relationships that last. The good news is that the skills of emotional intelligence can be learned by anyone, at anytime. But there is a difference between learning and changing, or applying what you’ve learned to your life. To learn in a manner that produces real change, you need to engage the emotional centers of the brain in ways that connect you to others. The best way to do this is through interactive, nonverbal, sensory-based exercises.
A free, online learning program

EQ Central, a Helpguide-affiliated website, offers a free emotional intelligence training course. The step-by-step, self-paced course includes six articles and six video lessons filled with real-world examples and hands-on exercises that will help you develop more powerful and effective relationships.
EQ Video Lessons

MASTER the five key skills with a
free video course
Related links for relationship help
Helpguide’s Relationship Help Series

* Managing Relationship Stress
* Recognizing and Managing Your Emotions
* Nonverbal Communication
* Playfulness & Humor
* Conflict Resolution Skills
* Developing Emotional Awareness

Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Robert Segal, M.A., and Melinda Smith, M.A. contributed to this article. Last modified: April 2009.