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?
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.
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.
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 relationships.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: April 2013
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