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Master Domain Knowledge, Not Platitudes, to Cultivate Emotional Intelligence Be wary of the all-too-common, cursory approach to understanding the nuances of EQ.

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Ask almost anyone what it means to be emotionally intelligent and they will tell you ... something. But if you don't really know what you're looking for, it can be extremely difficult to identify blind spots and develop your own skills. Moreover, when clichés trump the scope and depth of knowledge needed to help others learn and improve — to become more effective leaders — there is an instant loss of credibility and a neutralizing effect on the team. If you're not careful, this is where a cursory understanding of emotional intelligence might take you.

But EQ is a complex concept, so hanging your hat on superficial knowledge and cherry-picking elements to improve on can be counterproductive. If you want to cultivate emotional intelligence in yourself and others, forget platitudes and challenge yourself to develop a comprehensive approach to substantive mastery. Understanding the unique domains of EQ and their facets can help you to skillfully navigate the nuances of leadership development and identify performance gaps that undermine effectiveness.

As Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis explain in Harvard Business Review, there are four domains and 12 competencies to EQ. "In order to excel," the authors say, "leaders need to develop a balance of strengths across the suite of EI competencies. When they do that, excellent business results follow." The domains are as follows:

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is your ability to identify and comprehend your own thoughts, emotions and behavior. It involves being keenly sensitive to your intrapersonal experiences and the willingness to be vulnerable and honest with yourself. This dimension is all about self-investigation and confronting the soul of who you are and how you show up in the world.

Emotional self-awareness

To develop greater emotional self-awareness, sit still with your emotions and develop resonance with them. Do you see a pattern? Links to events, activities or an internal dialogue? Ask yourself whether you've explored the universe of emotions that exist outside of those you experience most regularly. Work to cultivate a greater wheelhouse of emotions and become attuned to how each emotion can serve you, as well as how some may not. Being emotionally self-aware can help you to understand your emotional triggers and be sensitive to the people, situations and circumstances that provoke varied emotional responses within you. It will also help you to make better decisions based on those triggers.

Related: 4 Ways Emotional Awareness Enhances Leadership Skills

2. Self-Management

Self-management is your ability to extract the data gleaned from the self-awareness dimension and use it to engineer your thoughts, feelings and behavior as you interact with the world around you. This is intentional, self-directed work and requires acknowledging areas where you need to improve, exercise restraint and step up to the plate. Self-management is a skill set that helps even the most capable of leaders ascend to the ranks of the world-class. It has four elements:

Emotional self-control

We are human and prone to the occasional emotional outburst. However, to avoid the consequences associated with impulsiveness, we must learn to self-regulate. In other words, we must not allow our emotions to dictate, causing us to react rather than respond to emotional stimuli. This is especially important in situations than can have unwelcome fallout, such as getting into a nasty verbal confrontation with your boss. By setting standards of behavior, developing a set of prescriptive strategies and tactics to help us overcome compromising situations and scrupulously monitoring our emotions, we can avoid the worst results.


To be adaptable requires embracing patience and flexibility. Things don't always work out as planned, and we have to allow for that, otherwise we'd probably lose it on a daily basis. Understanding that, we must be open to making necessary adjustments that serve the greater good. Such pivots might include changing the time, length or scope of a meeting, managing the new stress associated with an escalated deadline or stopping everything to respond to a dire emergency. Adaptability helps us go with the flow and change our approach, rather than self-destruct when circumstances shift.

Achievement orientation

No matter how committed you are to accomplishing a particular goal, there will be times when your motivation will wax and wane. To remain oriented toward achieving it, reach for what psychologist and author Angela Duckworth refers to as "grit" in her New York Times best-selling book of the same name. Grit is a hearty combination of passion and the perseverance needed to push past what she calls the "plateau of arrested development." The latter is the proverbial wall that appears when the dream-seeker is too weary to persist, has lost all hope or succumbs to the negative influence of critics. Understanding the multifaceted aspect of this element is critical; it involves more than merely having the disposition to achieve. You must also dig deep and confront challenges to achievement as you work to bring your success into fruition.

Positive outlook

We've all heard that perception is reality, and in many cases, it can be. However, if we leave our perceptions unchecked, we often end up processing inaccurate information as we strive to make good decisions. Perception — think: first impression — is the unfiltered lense through which we experience the world around us. We should certainly double-check our perceptions. We should also consider whether a change in perspective might influence the context of what we perceive. Are your current circumstances truly adverse to your well-being? Or could a variation in outlook alter the way you feel about them? Because outlooks can be positive or negative, remember that whatever vantage point we choose to adopt will determine how well we manage our circumstances.

Related: 4 Strategies to Regulate Your Emotions in Stressful Situations

3. Social Awareness

Social awareness is your ability to identify and comprehend the thoughts, emotions and behavior of others, as well as appropriately respond to social cues, norms and everyday situations based on their context. This dimension urges the leader to shift the focus away from themselves and consider the well-being and worldview of others. By thoughtfully examining the perspectives, values and experiences of individuals and communities at large, you are encouraged to expand your social reach and confront cognitive biases. This is especially true when those vantage points differ wildly from your own. It has two elements:


Empathy is your ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Exercising empathy provides you with a more accurate assessment of what someone may be feeling and why, which in turn helps you to respond more appropriately and usually with greater compassion.

Organizational awareness

To understand what's happening at the organizational level in any environment means looking beyond the surface to develop a solid understanding of the complex dynamics at play. For example, cultural norms and the emotional climate can impact employee engagement, interpersonal relationships and performance. Identifying root causes and confronting hard truths are inevitable aspects of this process. The latter also help you avoid what neuroscientist Gleb Tsipursky refers to as the ostrich effect — the tendency to avoid negative information by ignoring it. Organizational awareness also supports your ability to influence change because it positions you to advocate for best practices.

Related: 3 Simple Ways to Increase Empathy at Work

4. Relationship Management

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." When John Donne wrote these words, it was clear that he understood the social imperative of human interaction and the inherent connectedness of the human spirit. We are naturally social beings, rarely in a position to completely avoid all human contact. This is why relationship management is such a critical aspect of our existence. When you manage your relationships well, you are equipped to skillfully navigate your social environment and purposefully interact with the individuals you encounter along the way. It has five elements:


Does your example impact others in a positive way and inspire them to learn, grow and aspire to higher heights? Influence is a force multiplier that enhances every relationship: It boosts trust, promotes rapport and increases the desire for others to self-police and support your leadership vision.

Coaching and mentoring

The desire to help others grow to improve their knowledge, skills and performance is an integral part of relationship management, especially in a leadership development context. Whether formal (coaching) or informal (mentoring), fostering long-term learning and development in others through honest feedback and support maximizes their overall success, which is exactly the point.

Related: How Leaders Can Best Manage Conflict Within Their Teams

Conflict management

Do you know how to identify and manage conflict when it occurs? You should. Conflict management is an opportunity to improve problem-solving skills, increase productivity, strengthen relationships and boost goal achievement. Rather than attempting to avoid this common friction, instead work to effectively navigate it. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument identifies five modes for handling conflict. They include: competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating and avoiding. Effective conflict management also translates in other areas, for example providing unpleasant feedback. This skill is particular useful in helping others to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect, "a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area."


Although working independently may have its advantages, working in teams does, too. Teams represent an opportunity to leverage collective intelligence and brawn to get more accomplished faster. Sounds like a no-brainer, but working well in teams can be challenging. If you fail to establish norms and cohesiveness, working in a team can be disastrous. But when you develop a team that is high-performing and emotionally astute, success is can be the inevitable outgrowth of an otherwise risky collaboration.

Inspirational leadership

Think how you lead doesn't matter? Think again. Inspirational leaders distinguish themselves by the desire to provide direction and create common purpose at the cultural level. They deploy IQ and EQ to their advantage, enhancing their ability to drive change and increase engagement. In an environment where people feel valued and energized to get things done, you can expect esprit de corps to rule the day and build the kind of momentum that fuels self-sustaining, high-performing ecosystems.

The decision to improve your emotional intelligence is an important one. Delve into these four domains and their facets as you work toward your success.

Karima Mariama-Arthur

Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport

Karima Mariama-Arthur is the founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, an international consulting firm located in Washington, D.C. that specializes in professional development. She trains, coaches and consults for individuals and organizations on the dynamics of complex communication and high-performance leadership competence. 

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