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‘Get Off Your Ass and Talk to People Face-to-Face’

And other tips for improving your emotional intelligence

On two separate occasions in August 1943, legendary military commander George S. Patton walked into a field hospital in Italy and slapped a “shell-shocked” private. Today, we’d diagnose the soldiers as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but to Patton they were mere cowards.

The incidents dogged Patton for the remainder of his career, eliciting the rebuke of Congressmen, newspapers columnists and General Eisenhower, and possibly costing him the venerated rank of four star general, according to retired Brigadier General Thomas Kolditz. Patton might have been one of the greatest military leaders the world had ever seen, but his tragic flaw was a lack of “emotional intelligence” — the ability to recognize and manage one’s own emotions, and the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence was first introduced to the masses in 1995 by Daniel Goleman, in his aptly titled book Emotional Intelligence. Twenty years later, emotional intelligence is now considered a necessary trait not just for business and military leaders, but for workers of all stripes. Google introduced emotional intelligence training in 2007, and by 2012, the course was so popular that the waiting list was in the thousands and its curriculum has become the basis of a nonprofit consulting practice called the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. An increasing number of employers are factoring emotional intelligence into personnel decisions nowadays, with some contending it’s more important than IQ.

The problem for men is they generally lack emotional intelligence, at least relative to women. The good news is that, unlike core personality traits, which tend to be rigid, emotional intelligence can be learned.

For a crash course in how to improve emotional intelligence, MEL turned to Kolditz, a social psychologist who spent 34 years in the U.S. Army, 12 as the chairman of the Department of Behavioral Science and Leadership at the Military Academy in West Point. (Kolditz is now the director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University, where he’s offering leadership coaching that includes emotional intelligence training.)

His tips on how to be a more emotionally intelligent, and thus more effective, worker are below:

Reflect

Psychological research says the key to emotional development is experience, Kolditz says. “But it’s not really going through the experience [that causes change] so much as it is reflecting on the experience.” That is, you won’t learn from an event unless you make a concerted effort to process what happened and why you reacted the way you did.

Reflection can be achieved through therapy, speaking with a mentor or journaling at the end of each day, Kolditz says. But Kolditz also suggested workers use an app called Mood Meter. Designed by a team at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Mood Meter asks users to plot their mood on a grid at different times of the day and give brief explanations of why they’re feeling that way. “Over time, it trains you to both recognize your emotions and manage your emotions yourself.” Like any skill, emotional intelligence is gained through repetitive practice.

Watch a tearjerker

In the same vein, Kolditz recommends people “put themselves in emotional positions.” This doesn’t mean you have to fly home and confront your parents about the various ways they disappointed you. You can read an emotionally heavy book, watch a tearjerker or turn on a political pundit whose takes you know will piss you off. “When you deliberately do that,” Kolditz says, “you’re consciously exercising your emotions.” Watch lots of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, basically. [Editor’s note: Do not do this.]

Don’t check your email when you’re angry

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written stupid emails because I was angry,” Kolditz says. (Same, Tom. Same.) Avoiding this misstep is as easy as simply stepping away from your computer and phone until you’ve “resolved” your anger, he says, and can craft a more poised response.

Ask someone how they feel, not think, about an idea

“Too often when we’re vetting ideas, we go straight to, ‘What did you think about this?’ And we don’t ask colleagues how they feel about the idea,” Kolditz says. Asking about feelings can be especially helpful in avoiding ethical lapses. Often, people will go along with an ethically shaky idea if you ask them if they think about it. But they’ll only express their misgivings if you ask them how they feel.

“Get off your ass” and talk to people face-to-face

The best way to avoid emotional intelligence-related mishaps is to understand technology’s limits when it comes to emotion, Kolditz says. Email is a terrible medium for conveying emotion, even with emoticons, and messages are often misinterpreted. You might think you’re being efficient by sending a short email, but the recipient might think you curt or dismissive.

Instead, “get off your ass” and talk to people in person whenever possible, he says. Failing that, use Skype or FaceTime to approximate a real conversation. And only use email as a last resort.

When digital communication was introduced to the U.S. military in the 1980s, “these old-timers who had been in Vietnam hated it,” Kolditz remembers. Kolditz asked the detractors to explain their position considering calling in an airstrike digitally was, ostensibly, more accurate than doing it over the phone.

“They said, ‘Listen, sonny. When I was in Vietnam, we could figure out who needed the airstrike first because we could hear the panic and fear in their voice. When this digital communication comes in, how are you going to prioritize that?’”