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Emotional Intelligence in Academia: Building Stronger Relationships With Professors and Peers

First named in the 1960s, Emotional Intelligence, or EI, gained more traction in the 1990s as it became a subject of popular science and productivity books. However, the concepts behind emotional intelligence have been around much longer, and can be found in almost any social animal. Although there is some debate about exactly what emotional intelligence is, or whether it can be measured, understanding those concepts can have a powerful effect on your relationships.

A high emotional intelligence means that you can work better with those around you, navigating the unspoken barriers that can hinder communication. Emotional intelligence can help you develop a stronger connection with professors and teachers, improving mutual understanding and, through that, the quality of support you receive. And it can mean that your relationship with peers is better, so your formal and informal work together is more effective.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a much-debated topic. But although the academic debate continues, pondering issues like whether it’s actually an ‘intelligence’ or just a set of traits or behaviors, when it comes to practical application, that debate is irrelevant.

Emotional intelligence refers to the range of abilities or behaviors you use to with emotions. Several models have been proposed by researchers, but generally, they all share three broad features: self-awareness of your emotions and how they affect you; recognition of the emotions others are feeling; and the ability to change or shape your behavior effectively in light of those emotions.

It’s important to stress that emotional intelligence does not seek to disregard emotion and achieve a Mr. Spock-like reliance on logic, but instead acknowledging and working with emotions positively. It also means recognizing that emotions can be incredibly nuanced, so you aren’t just aware of an individual emotion, but the range of that emotion and how emotions can combine. For example, consider the different types of fear you might feel on a roller-coaster ahead of a drop, or standing on the edge of a cliff of the same height. Or how, if you are a fan of rollercoasters, your fear might be accompanied by excitement and anticipation, while your friend, who doesn’t like theme parks, might be feeling dread and anxiety.

How emotion intelligence differs from other skills

Most of our academic lives focus on learning the ‘hard skills’, acquiring knowledge or abilities that we can continue to apply afterward. And, once we have learned them, we can have them for life. Emotional intelligence, however, is a ‘soft skill’. Soft skill trainers now often refer to the soft skills as ‘power skills’, to reflect that they are incredibly difficult to master and require constant practice.

A key difficulty with emotional intelligence is that it can be hard to know exactly what you are feeling, you are not an impartial observer, and everyone will have experienced difficulty in precisely identifying feelings. And if you can’t always know how you feel, it’s impossible to know exactly how others are feeling. Good emotional intelligence, therefore, requires constant effort to not just recognize and adapt to emotions, but to constantly calibrate. It can be surprisingly hard work.

How emotional intelligence strengthens relationships

Some suggest that emotional intelligence is little more than values or traits, like courtesy, or just a rebranding of empathy. But whatever it might be, the impact is still incredibly powerful.

Simple examples can show how it might work. You might be feeling trepidation about seeing a professor to ask a question about the course. Going through an emotional intelligence framework, you might start to define that feeling. The trepidation might be anxiety because you genuinely don’t understand something and fear you never will, or might be because you are afraid the professor may view your question negatively. Thinking about the professor, you might wonder how they would feel, are they overwhelmed by other students and assessments and feeling pressure from work.

You can use these to frame your approach. You can analyze your own feelings, possibly even rationalizing them — plenty of students struggle with things occasionally, and it’s a professor’s job to help. Thinking about their workload might help you frame your question, ensuring it’s focused and makes efficient use of their time. The result is addressing the problem in a way that is considerate of both sides emotions and feelings.

An example of working with peers might see you excited about a project, but frustrated others are not sharing your excitement for the work. Thinking about why that might be helps. They might be that they struggle with the subject, and that gives you a chance to offer help. Or they might simply find the topic dull, but that creates the opportunity for them to take the lead on a different piece of work they enjoy. Again, it enables you to address the perceived problem positively for everyone concerned.

Working with emotions

At its heart, emotional intelligence means acknowledging and working with emotions. Research indicates that emotions have a powerful influence on our lives, and can make us irrational, a topical example is reluctance to vaccines, despite the overwhelming evidence of their safety and protective qualities. And many people happily drive every day, but are scared to fly, despite driving being much more dangerous.

By understanding your own and others’ emotions, you are empowering yourself to work with those emotions, so your effort is on accomplishing goals, not fighting feelings. It’s perhaps no surprise that the best leaders are often those that are identified as exhibiting traits that are associated with emotional intelligence.

But it is a skill that you constantly have to work at, and while it comes more naturally to some than others, we can all use practice. And it’s simple to start, when you are dealing with someone, just ask yourself three simple questions: what are they feeling, why might they be feeling that way, and how can you act differently to acknowledge that feeling?

You’ll be surprised how taking a few seconds to practice your emotional intelligence can make even the most difficult situations much easier.