Encouraging Emotional Intelligence in Counselling
For many people, emotional intelligence (EI) is an innate strength; some people can perceive, control, and evaluate their emotions with ease, while others require practice in this area. EI is something that everybody in our society ought to have; it’s the ability to manage emotions effectively and respond accordingly to various situations. This ability is necessary for anyone who wants to function well in a society – it pertains directly to our ability to interact well with others and respond effectively when situations are less than ideal.
Counsellors who work with clients should be aware of the various ways that EI can be encouraged, so that they can guide their clients in the right direction. By taking note of someone’s emotional state and helping them to not only understand it but also to manage it effectively, counsellors can help their clients become more balanced individuals. In this article, you will learn what emotional intelligence is, what benefits it can offer an individual, how to measure it, as well as a range of strategies what you can use to help clients in this respect.
What is emotional intelligence?
EI is best described as a way of thinking that enables people to perceive their own emotions, understand the emotional states of others, and behave appropriately in response (Cherry, 2022). People with high EI can feel empathy for others, determine their own emotional responses (including those suppressed by a person), and think through situations before responding emotionally. Emotional intelligence is strongly linked to many positive outcomes. Those with high EI are more likely to become financially successful, have happy and healthy marriages/relationships, have healthier relationships with their children and parents, earn higher salaries, and have better family relationships (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). They are also more likely to avoid dangerous situations (such as driving under the influence), interrupt negative thinking patterns, and use healthy coping skills rather than self-destructive ones. The ability to think about one’s emotions and understand them may be particularly helpful for those who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders – both seem to relate to reduced emotional intelligence.
Here are some key features of a person with high emotional intelligence (Drigas & Papoutsi 2018):
– An ability to identify how they are feeling
– An ability to identify how others are feeling
– An awareness of strengths and weaknesses
– The ability to let go of mistakes and forgive others
– The ability to accept change
– Curiosity about oneself and others
– The capacity for empathy and sympathy
– The ability to manage emotions in real-time
The ability to regulate emotions is a skill that anybody can learn with practice. With time and experience, many people can develop an innate sense of how they are feeling and manage their own emotions and those of others effectively.
How can you measure emotional intelligence?
As a counsellor, you want to be sure that you are enacting an appropriate intervention for your client, and you want to be able to monitor the effectiveness of that intervention. For this reason, it is useful to know the tools that are used to assess emotional intelligence. For instance, several questionnaires are available to assess EI. One such questionnaire is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test which was developed to evaluate the respondent’s ability to perceive, use, understand, and regulate emotions (2002). It is a performance-based assessment that is easily administered in corporate, educational, research, and therapeutic settings, making it a good choice for counsellors wanting to gauge their client’s level of EI.
There is also the Multidimensional Emotional Intelligence Assessment (MEIA) which was designed by Fox, Tett and Wang to measure EI across 11 distinct facets (2020). This test can be used to understand emotions, build self-awareness, develop people skills, and help with guidance in a variety of circumstances. It is a reliable and valid measure of EI that can be administered easily via an online platform at sigmaassessmentsystems.com. For counsellors seeking a brief yet comprehensive personality-based measure of EI, the MEIA can provide this service for the client and for the counsellor themselves.
How to develop emotional intelligence
The following tips may be helpful for counsellors who are interested in fostering emotional intelligence in their clients. Firstly, pioneers in the field Salovey and Mayer (1990) have identified four levels of emotional intelligence that are person should aim to move through in order – these are:
1. Perceiving emotions: The first step is to be able to acknowledge that emotions are occurring in the first place. This might involve understanding nonverbal signals from other people or associating internal bodily states with certain emotions. Some clients, especially those who have suffered from trauma, may have a sense of detachment from their bodies, making it difficult to discern emotional states. As such, this lack of internal data will make it harder to recognize emotional states in others. Practicing mindfulness and other self-awareness exercises can help clients to perceive their emotions more effectively.
2. Reasoning with emotions: Once an emotion has been identified, the second step is to learn how to think about emotions appropriately. Many people will shut down in the presence of strong emotions, but emotions can be used to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Developing a sense of curiosity and openness toward emotions can help to facilitate this process, and result in less aversion towards certain experiences.
3. Understanding emotions: The third step is understanding the meaning of emotions in more detail and recognising complex relationships between different emotions. Once emotions are perceived and reasoned with, a person can evaluate them and find the underlying causes of them. This is where emotional intelligence really starts to develop, as it fosters the ability to become less reactive to emotional content and learn to listen deeply to emotions and discern their origins.
4. Managing emotions: Finally, in the fourth step we learn to regulate emotions effectively. This involves a person developing their ability to problem-solve and identify healthy coping strategies for dealing with an emotion. It also involves being able to use the skills learnt in previous steps – perceiving, reasoning, and understanding – to resolve emotional conflicts peacefully. This is the highest level of emotional intelligence.
Knowing the aforementioned four steps is one thing but knowing how to guide a client through them is another. There are a selection of specific skills and exercises that clients should practice if they want to move through the steps to become more emotionally intelligent. Generally, building emotional awareness through mindfulness helps to propagate EI within oneself, and learning to perceive nonverbal cues helps to attend to others; outlines of these two angles are as follows:
Building Emotional Awareness
Perceiving emotions is the foundational skill of emotional intelligence, and mindfulness has been identified by research as being one of the most efficacious ways of developing this capacity. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgement or interference. Mindfulness is correlated with greater clarity of feelings and thoughts, and less reactivity and distraction, making it the perfect catalyst for emotional intelligence (Feldman et al., 2007).
Mindfulness generally involves meditative exercises; clients will sit or lay down, and use the breath and other sensations (i.e., the feeling of feet on the floor, or sounds in the room) to anchor them into their experience. As they enter an observational state, they are encouraged to simply notice how their experiences arise, change, and pass away. When using mindfulness to develop emotional awareness, clients are encouraged specifically to connect to their emotional state. The key focus here is not necessarily on the breath or on acceptance, as per common mindfulness strategies; rather, they are merely becoming familiar with the process of having and noticing feelings. If the client has difficulty identifying their emotions, the counsellor can provide them with prompts to explore the characteristics of their emotions such as where it is located in the body, how it feels (e.g., warm, cold), how big or small it feels, or perhaps what colour they associate with it.
Regularly performing this exercise will habituate the brain to approach emotions with curiosity rather than avoiding for repressing them. As such, the processes of emotional functioning will become more familiar, resulting in greater emotional intelligence.
Decoding Emotions by Analysing Speech, Body, and Face
Created by Hugo Alberts, this exercise helps clients to accurately identify and understand the emotions of other people through ‘reading’ their body language and other nonverbal cues. This is a very valuable skill, as research has shown that cultures all around the world express emotions through similar facial expressions (Friesen, 1972). Similarly, it has been found that deciphering body language can accurately provide insight into emotional states such as anger, fear, pride, joy, and more (Gelder & van der Stock, 2011). Speech patterns are a more nuanced area than body language and facial expressions, but valuable nonetheless; people use thousands of micro semantic terms to express their emotions beyond the words themselves (Sabini & Silver, 2005). By learning to attune to these three aspects of communication (face, body, speech), a person will be able to exercise enhanced emotional intelligence with the people in their life.
One activity to develop this skill is to use videos that the client is familiar with (e.g., films or tv shows) and to spend time evaluating how the actors use speech, body, and face to communicate their emotions. Depending on the client’s current level of EI, they might be able to identify the emotions being expressed but not understand the role of nonverbal cues to communicate this. This is where the counsellor can provide deeper insight into the emotional content of other people.
Another strategy here would be to guide the client towards greater familiarity with their own nonverbal conduct during different emotional experiences. By keeping a journal, the client can take note of what their speech, face, and body language is like during various experiences throughout the day. Over time, they will come to understand how to decipher these elements, and aptly associate them with emotional states.
Having covered the internal (emotional awareness through mindfulness) and the external (nonverbal cues), the client can then use these new understandings to develop further practical skills. A person can embody emotional intelligence by practicing empathy, active listening, and assertiveness.
Empathy is the capacity to understand another person’s experience through their frame of reference (Cuff et al., 2014). Whilst an aspect of empathy is being able to relate other people’s experiences to your own, it goes one layer deeper; it is positioning yourself within the other person’s perspective and relating to them from that place. This is what is meant by “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is a useful skill to practice because it both requires and fosters emotional intelligence; EI is required to relate fully to another person and is developed further through this process. It is recommended that counsellors encourage their clients to approach other people’s emotions with empathetic concern to provide comfort and support while also developing their own EI.
Activate listening can help conversational partners interact in more meaningful ways. It offers people space to explore their feelings, disclose important information, and feel like they are heard, validated, and cared for. Joseph Topornycky has identified some fundamental attributes of active listening (2016). These include:
• Being non-judgmental: Reserving judgment allows speakers to exercise freedom in exploring and expressing their ideas and feelings.
• Patience: Being patient when somebody is speaking, and not rushing them or interrupting them, is crucial for them to feel heard and understood.
• Minimal encouragers: These are small indications of engagement, such as nods and smiles, as well as words like yep, mm-hmm, uh-huh, and more.
• Questions: Asking the person questions will show that you are interested in what has been said and are engaged enough to want to know more.
• Summaries: It can be a useful bonding behaviour to repeat what the person has just said back to them, but in different words.
All these attributes contribute toward a greater emotional awareness of others, and as such, a greater emotional awareness of oneself.
This one might surprise you, but developing greater assertiveness can help to develop EI. Many people lack EI because they have not been encouraged to explore of express their feelings in the past; it is like a language that they have not learnt to speak. But by learning to express oneself truthfully and appropriately, a person can better come to terms with the emotional content of their lives (Makino, 2010).
One way to do this is through role playing. In counselling, a client can practice expressing what is most important for them in the conversation (for example, “I feel worthless, like nobody cares about my opinion”) and then offer themselves assurance as if they are another person (for example, “I really value your opinion, and I am interested in hearing it.”). This allows the client to express their true feelings without inducing guilt or anger, and entrains them to be self-reliant in their ability to assert themselves.
Emotional intelligence is a valuable skill because practicing it fosters interpersonal connections between conversational partners as well as increases self-awareness for the individual, which may lead to better decision making. Counsellors can encourage their clients to develop emotional intelligence through mindfulness learning about nonverbal communication. Using these understandings, the client can then practice empathy, active listening, and assertiveness when interacting with others. These strategies will help them move through the stages of emotional intelligence, improve their relationships, bolster their mental wellbeing, and improve overall life outcomes.
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