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Get Smart: Increase your emotional intelligence


Did you ever wonder why some nurses come to work happy and optimistic despite persistent problems, such as staffing shortages and difficult patients? The usual explanation is personality: Some people are simply positive and optimistic; others are negative and pessimistic.

But there’s a better explanation: emotional intelligence—a person’s ability to manage her emotions and the emotions of those she encounters.

Emotions at work

For years, many of us thought we needed to leave our emotions at home and face our jobs, using only our rational minds. But humans are emotional by nature, and nursing is emotional work.

To practice successfully, we need rational intelligence for the science of nursing and emotional intelligence for the art of nursing. Say you find a patient nauseated and uncomfortable. Your rational intelligence analyzes vital signs, sorts through symptoms, and determines a plan of action, but your emotional intelligence feels empathy, stimulating you not only to give an antiemetic but also to wash the patient’s face, talk quietly to him, and help him find a more comfortable position.

Understanding our emotions

Emotions are organized responses to internal and external events stimulated by a positive or negative association. As we go through life, we take in information and create a story that helps us understand our experiences. These stories guide and influence our interpretations of subsequent events. If you learned during childhood that dogs will bite you, you may have a negative emotion about dogs in your future.

Emotions trigger changes in our bodies, minds, motivational levels, and perceptions of situations. If a series of events upsets you, you may experience sweaty palms, a sinking feeling in your stomach, fear that paralyzes your voice, and a sense of submission to the situation. Or you may feel a surge of adrenaline that leads to an irate response: yelling, becoming red-faced, and getting aggressive with others. The reaction you exhibit is based on how you’ve learned to interpret and react to your environment.

The good news is we aren’t bound by the past. We can learn to change our emotional responses by becoming more emotionally intelligent. And developing emotional intelligence can help create collaborative work environments, increase job satisfaction, reduce burnout, and improve self-care and patient care.

Understanding emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence has four components:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • social skill.

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your moods, your changing emotional reactions, and your motivations as well as the ability to know how these elements of your behavior affect other people. Self-management is the ability to control or change your mood and the power to suspend judgment and think before you respond to an emotion triggered by an interaction with others. Recognizing what you’re feeling, why you’re feeling it, and what you’re going to do about it takes considerable perception and discipline.

But without self-awareness and self-management, you’ll be a hostage to your emotions. You’ll imagine the worst, feel overwhelmed by change and challenges, and exhibit toxic emotions that sap the energy of your peers.

Social awareness and social skill require observation and understanding of others. Social awareness requires empathy and recognition of other people’s feelings. It also requires an awareness of workplace culture and the needs of those around you. Social skills are abilities that allow you to manage relationships and build partnerships that are positive and healthy. Social skills promote collaborating and valuing the worth of everyone involved in an experience. Nurses with inadequate social awareness and skill often feel they’re working alone and that everyone is against them. They’re defensive, prefer individual assignments to teamwork, and lack the ability to work well with peers and other healthcare providers.

Developing emotional intelligence

Learning to recognize and be responsible for your emotions is the first step in becoming more emotionally intelligent. Instead of reacting immediately and emotionally, stop and reflect on what you’re feeling. Taking the time to identify feelings leads to an understanding of what causes them and how to better manage them. Try keeping an emotional reflection journal. At the end of the day, log the feelings you’ve had, the situations and people that triggered the feelings, and your responses. (See What blocks emotional intelligence?)

As you become more emotionally intelligent, you can learn to recognize circumstances and people that stimulate negative reactions so you can prepare for them. By labeling your feelings instead of events and people, you claim the ability to change your emotional reactions. When you’re feeling chaotic, overworked, or undervalued, ask yourself, “What can I do to make this situation better?” Maybe your expectations are too high or your beliefs about how your work life should be are outdated. By examining your feelings, you can learn to rethink your situation, turn your emotions around, and make yourself feel better. The by-products of this self-awareness will be less hostility and more flexibility and adaptability, two essential skills for all nurses.

Discover what motivates you and find a way to get it. Do you need respect, encouragement, mentoring, or feedback to stay motivated? Are you getting what you need on the unit where you work? Or do you need to look at other possibilities and perhaps take on a different role in nursing to obtain what you want?

When you begin understanding your own emotions, you’ll be able to identify and empathize with the feelings of others. Recognizing your own anger, frustration, and fear will help you see these emotions in others. And remember, just as you need to validate your perceptions about your own reality, you need to confirm the feelings and reactions of others. Ask them, “How do you feel?” Then, listen without judging. By decreasing how much we advise, criticize, or lecture others we increase our ability to work together. We also support and nurture each other rather than denigrate and disregard the needs and feelings that are essential parts of the emotional labor of nursing.

Be happy, be motivated

Some nursing work environments are simply toxic. To survive and thrive, you must walk away from those situations. But many times, our own perceptions and responses to the environment make work intolerable and exhausting. Developing emotional intelligence can give us the courage to understand and act on our own feelings, to find out what others in our workplace need, and to discard the idea that the power to be happy and motivated lies outside of ourselves.

Selected references

Goleman D. Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam; 1995.

McQueen A. Emotional intelligence in nursing work. J Adv Nurs. 2003;47(1):101-108.

Vitello-Cicciu JM. Innovative leadership through emotional intelligence. Nurs Manage. 2003;34(10):29-32.

Elaine S. Scott is an assistant professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. She is the director of the Nursing Leadership Concentration in the MSN Program and the director of the East Carolina Center for Nursing Leadership.

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