We often equate emotional intelligence (EQ) with empathy – the ability to be aware of, understand, be sensitive to, and vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another. While truly a demonstration of high EQ, and a powerful way to connect and build relationship, simply “turning on” one’s empathy won’t attain the full depth and value of one’s emotional repertoire. First, empathy is more complex than that, and second, strength in EQ requires deep, personal work. To raise EQ, one must start with self-awareness.

Daniel Goleman, a thought leader of emotional intelligence, provides a good framework for understanding what it is and why it is so compelling, speaking to both personal and social competencies.

Personal competency

Starting with an inward look, personal EQ is being able to name your emotions (preferably as you are experiencing them), understanding their triggers, choosing a healthy and appropriate way to respond, making an honest assessment of your strengths and areas for growth, and understanding what motivates you.

Knowing what motivates you can help you create the necessary circumstances to thrive. Goleman speaks to how motivation taps into one’s achievement drive, commitment, initiative-taking readiness, and optimism to persist. Collectively, this affords us a stronger sense of self-worth and efficacy. High EQ is also a necessity for healthy stress management and personal accountability.

EQ can help you identify when your emotional tank is running low – i.e., tired, stressed, anxious, in a funk, or languishing. Naming these emotional states is the first step in making a conscious choice in how you manage your work, your energy and your relationships.

Social competency

This is where the complexity of empathy comes in. When integrated into how you show up, empathy helps you understand, support and develop others. It can program one’s thinking into an anticipatory, service-oriented mindset – expanding the ability to be inclusive and raising awareness of the emotional currents and dynamics in groups (i.e., the ability to read a room).

Research speaks to two kinds of empathy: affective – sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions, and cognitive (“perspective-taking”) – identifying and understanding people’s emotions. With affective empathy you are mirroring the emotions of others in such a way that you experience an identical resonance. That means you actually feel what the other person is feeling – often absorbing someone’s delight, enthusiasm, hopes, stress, anxiety, and fear. In this way, emotions can be contagious.

Beneficial empathy requires boundaries so you don’t become entangled in another person’s emotional state. The invitation is to step into a “witness position” – being fully present to hear the story without judgment of trying to fix it, and simply allowing the person to be seen and heard in a heartfelt, safe space, without getting consumed by it.

Compassion fatigue, normally reserved for those on the front lines of caring for others who are suffering, has creeped into the vernacular of non-health-care professionals. It’s a feeling of running on empty, and it shows up with feelings of anger, dread, exhaustion and hypersensitivity. Boundaries can help us preserve cognitive empathy while fueling our own needs for sustainable care.

Without EQ, we can experience an emotion as “the truth” about something, especially when we have a visceral reaction. A common dynamic at play: we have a difficult emotion and our defenses go up. In that space, we create a story about what is transpiring – making others wrong and protecting ourselves (ego). In a matter of minutes, we have crafted a narrative that we find difficult to surrender – after all, who doesn’t like to be right?

Commonly, when we react with low EQ, we slip into more of a victim head space. We express attitudes and behaviors that are more rigid, we fail to adapt our style, and we have weak relationships, unrealistic goals, an insatiable need for recognition, a preoccupation with appearance, and a relentless, burnout-producing striving mentality.

How many of us have had the experience of blowing up over something minute? Overreacting to a situation? Feeling frustrated, challenged, and defensive at a meeting? Oftentimes if we are passionate about an issue, uncertain about an outcome, and/or feeling out of control, our emotions are more explosive. If we understand the root causes, we can manage emotions in a more honest and productive manner. If we can own the reason we overreacted to an email – perhaps it was not exactly about the subject, but more about our fears of making a mistake or frustrations of not feeling appreciated or respected or (insert real trigger here) – then we can begin the deeper emotional work that brings mastery and equanimity.

Empathy is also demonstrated in the adeptness of gaining a desirable response in others. This does not mean posturing or manipulating, however. It means doing the deeper work to influence, inspire, communicate, lead, change, strengthen connections, and collaborate. When empathy is used as a tool to simply get what you want, you break the bond of trust. Simon Sinek explains that effective leadership isn’t so much about taking charge, but rather about “taking care of the people in your charge.”

How will you raise your EQ?

Research indicates that empathy is rooted in our brains and our bodies, making this an evolutionary human journey – and the first step in taking compassionate action – for ourselves and others. Compassion, according to Merriam-Webster, is a “sympathetic consciousness of (our and) others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Learning how to be compassionate in an empowering, respectful and caring way is the key to bringing joy to your role and transformation to your workplace.

Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or karen@natzel.net, and she will forward you Goleman’s EQ guide.