Imagine yourself in this situation: A friend asks you to a party. You learn that
all the girls in your group were invited — except for Paula. How do you think
Paula will feel if she finds out?
A. angry B. sad C. hurt D. excluded
E. confused F. nervous G. embarrassed H. indifferent
You probably came up with your answer by putting yourself in Paula's shoes and
imagining how you'd feel. Most people in this situation will feel some or all of emotions
A through D: angry, sad, hurt, and excluded. It's not as likely that someone who is
left out will feel confused, nervous, embarrassed, or indifferent.
Being able to predict how other people might feel is a part of emotional
intelligence (EQ for short). It's a skill we can all develop with practice.
When we understand how other people are likely to feel, it can guide our
interactions with them. For example, in the party example above, what if
Paula asks: "Are you going to Regan's party?" Knowing that she wasn't invited probably
influences how you respond. You might say (or avoid saying!) any of the following:
A. "Yes, I'm going — are you?" B. "Yes, I'm going.
I feel awkward telling you. Is it true she didn't invite you?" C. "Yes, everyone's
going!" D. "Of course I'm going! It's going to be the best party of the whole
year!" E. "Yes. I'm sorry you weren't invited. I don't think Regan meant to
hurt your feelings, I heard her parents only allowed her to ask a few people."
If you didn't know Paula wasn't invited, you might answer with A, C, or D. Because
you know the full story, though, you're more likely to consider Paula's feelings and
answer with B or E. Answers C and D are the kinds of things you say when you know
for sure the other person has been invited.
Reading Body Language
Sometimes you get more information about a situation from what a person doesn't
say: Part of emotional intelligence is reading the signals people send and
taking them into account.
Let's say Paula approaches you, looking upset. She asks: "Are you going to Regan's
party on Saturday?" Her emotional signals (body language, facial expression) clue
you in that Paula knows she wasn't invited. In that situation, you might still answer
with option A, but you'd probably be more likely to choose B or E.
But what if Paula approaches you looking cheerful and says: "Hey, I heard Regan
is having a party this weekend. Are you going?" Based on her body language, you might
conclude, "Oh, she doesn't know and she's expecting an invite."
If you have good EQ, you probably feel conflicted about telling Paula you're going
to the party when you know she's the only one who's not invited. Even though it's
up to Paula to manage her own emotions, you probably feel empathy
for her. You know that how you respond can help her feel supported or make her feel
worse, so you choose your words accordingly.
Making Sense of Reactions
The skill of understanding others helps us predict what people might feel in a
certain situation, but it also allows us to make sense of how people react.
In homeroom at 8 a.m., your friend is smiling, friendly, and full of energy. Later
that afternoon, he looks upset, almost like he might cry. Which explanation is your
best guess for what might have happened between these two times?
A. He had a fight with his girlfriend at lunch, and now they're
not talking. B. He passed the 4th period algebra exam. C. He just found
out he didn't make the final cut for varsity basketball. D. The chemistry teacher
assigned a lot of homework. E. He probably just had a bad day.
You likely ruled out option B instantly: Emotional intelligence tells you that
your friend's reaction looks more like failing an exam than passing. If your friend
had a bad day or a lot of homework (options D or E), he might seem stressed out, tired,
or worn down — but he probably wouldn't be on the verge of tears. Ruling out
those options lets you zero in on what's most likely to be upsetting your friend:
options A or C.
People who are skilled at understanding others imagine another person's feelings
("I think he'll feel awful if I say that to him"). They are able to relate to how
that person reacts to things ("Oh, I completely get why she got angry like that. No
wonder!"). Understanding how others feel, act, and react helps us build better
How to Build This Skill
It's not always easy to predict or understand how someone else feels. Some people
are better at it than others, but just about everyone can improve with practice. Understanding
others is all about watching and listening.
It Starts With Watching
If you see someone trip and fall, you probably wince — ouch! — as if
it happened to you. We have a natural tendency to sense what other people feel just
by watching them. Scientists think there's a biological reason for this. They believe
that brain cells called "mirror neurons" activate in the same way whether we do something
ourselves or watch another person do it.
Try these ways to develop your observation skills:
Look at people's expressions and body language. Next time you're
at the mall, in the coffee shop, or on the subway or bus, try this: Look around and
try to identify how people might be feeling based on their body language, facial expressions,
and what they're doing. The girl with the textbooks on her knee might have an exam
coming up. Does she seem confident — or stressed? What about the guy with his
eyes closed? Is he feeling peaceful? Tired? Upset?
Read books or watch movies that have realistic portrayals of human emotions.
Pay attention to how different characters feel and act. Try to understand why the
characters feel the way they do. Based on those emotions, predict what a character
will do next. Or see if you can explain why a character did what he or she did.
It Improves With Listening
People who are good at understanding others are usually good listeners. Research
shows that the better someone listens, the more connected that person feels with the
person who is talking. This produces a feeling of bonding and closeness.
Most of us rate ourselves as good listeners — after all, listening seems
like such a simple, basic thing to do. But often we're so busy thinking of what we
want to say that we don't listen as much as we'd like. Here are some ways to build
good listening skills:
Practice listening well in everyday conversations. Really pay
attention to what the other person is saying. Train yourself to think of listening
as more important than talking.
Tune in to feelings as well as story. When a friend tells you
about something, try to imagine how he or she might have felt. Make statements that
show you're trying to understand your friend's experience, like: "Oh, that must have
felt amazing!" or, "That must be upsetting for you." You'll probably notice that you
feel closer, more "in sync" with the person. You might find you can predict what your
friend will say next.
Take time to listen to someone in depth. Interview a friend or
family member about a special time in his or her life. For example, ask your parents
about their wedding day or get your grandparents to tell you about having their first
child. Try to imagine what the experience was really like for them. Ask them to tell
you more about how they felt and why.
Turning Understanding Into Compassion
After building your skills in understanding others, how do you use that knowledge?
If you're like most people, you use it to help and support the people you care about.
This is compassion, and compassion helps us form relationships. Try
these three ways to be more compassionate:
Ask others what they need. If a friend is going through a difficult
time, ask what you can do to help. If your friend says, "I don't know," think about
what you'd want in the same situation, then offer to do something similar.
Show a sincere interest in others. Be curious about the people
you know — not in a nosy or fake way, but in a way that shows you want to understand
them a little better. For example, ask about the kinds of things they like to do,
or about their feelings, ideas, and opinions.
Act with kindness. When you hear gossip, ridicule, or unkind
teasing, make it your first reaction to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving
end. That can help you tune in to other people's feelings and refuse to join in.
Even small acts of compassion can build positive social connections (try saying
"hi" to someone who is sitting alone at lunch and see how it makes you feel). Scientists
now know that strong social connections influence our health, happiness, and even
how long we live.