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Strengthening Emotional Intelligence

Everyone benefits from strengthening emotional intelligence, resilience, and mindfulness. Each term expresses an aspect of emotionally mature, spiritually centered leadership that helps organizations, groups, and families function well.

Emotional intelligence includes the ability to contain anxiety and recover after difficulties. When multiple demands and pressures confront a person, emotional intelligence is the quality in a person that exudes forbearance, patience, and confidence. Emotional intelligence draws power from the frontal cortex and tames the reptilian brain.

Emotional intelligence can be learned. Essential practices for building emotional intelligence includes developing self-awareness, using humor, being empathetic, having curiosity about people and the world, physical exercise, telling stories of courage, living with gratitude, and incorporating play.


Self-awareness includes recognizing your emotions and containing them. Containment is different from repression. Containment means being aware of your emotions and not letting them control you. You both feel them and know that you can choose how to react to them. “Be angry, but do not sin,” is a saying from Christian scripture. Feel your emotions powerfully but do not allow them to control your behavior. When we are aware of the powerful emotions inside us, we are more able to choose forbearance in the face of threat, compassion in the midst of fear, and respect for all in polarized times.


Next, embrace the power of humor, especially self-deprecating humor. Humor and laughter are the lubricants for smooth relationships. Closely related to humor are optimism and seeing the good in life rather than dwelling on what is wrong.


Empathy builds emotional intelligence. Empathy is the practice of imagining walking in another person’s shoes. Emotionally mature folk use their empathy and imagination to feel the other’s pain and joy. Empathic people listen not only to the words but to the inner meanings and the emotional core of the other.


Emotional intelligence is also rooted in curiosity.  Inquire into subjects that are new to you. Develop a new hobby. Read a book. Most importantly, ask questions. When our ancestors gathered around the campfire, and the conversation turned to the next day’s activities, questions were central: What food supplies lay over the horizon? What will happen if we cross the sea? What if we plant this seed over there? What if we heat these rocks? Curiosity is central to our species. It is how we spread from the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia to the farthest reaches of the globe. Curiosity inspired Albert Einstein to discover the Theory of Relativity, Neal Armstrong to walk on the moon, and Madame Curie to discover radioactivity.

 Physical Exercise

Physical exercise strengthens our resilience. Facilitators need to have all eight cylinders firing. Our brains need energy and abundant oxygen. Regular exercise of the body, heart, and lungs makes the brain work better, faster, and with greater precision.

Stories of Courage

Tell stories of courage and savor them. Emotional intelligence and resilience are dependent on remembering the previous perseverance and courage of both ourselves and others.  The world is awash in stories of abuse, fear, and violence. While we must not turn our eyes away from suffering, we need stories of triumph in the face of darkness, courage in the face of fear, decency and compassion in the face of hatred and intolerance. Courageous stories inspire us to be better leaders and better human beings.


Live with gratitude, and you will deepen your well of resilience. When we give thanks for the people in our lives, the beauty around us, and the kindness of others, it is impossible to be sour. Gratitude rewires the brain. We move from negativity to hope. The thousand picky details we are prone to complain about fade away. Our hearts and minds fill with good things.


I love to sit down on the floor with my three-year-old granddaughter and help her piece together picture puzzles. Playfulness comes in many forms. Dance, tease mildly and play games. Play with your pets. I have two dogs, Kate and Grace, who love to hike, chase squirrels in the backyard, and try to climb trees.  They also love to hike.  Play hide-and-seek with your children or grandchildren. Take a class in ballroom dancing. Organize a poker party. Watch Black Panther, Groundhog Day, or The Runaway Bride. Play and laugh. If you can delight in the joy of play, your capacity to bear with the darker side of life will strengthen. You will sense a difference and others will notice as well.

Building self-awareness, empathy, and humor; telling stories of courage, exercising, developing curiosity, expressing gratitude, and being playful will not only strengthen your emotional intelligence, but they will also change your life. You will have a greater capacity for coping with loss when it comes. You’ll discover that working through conflict is easier. You will enjoy life more. You will bring joy and energy to your work, family, and community.

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Mark Smutny is a professional facilitator, trainer, coach, consultant, author, and founder of Civic Reinventions, Inc.  He helps organizations uncover the wisdom in their diversity, build cohesion, and achieve their goals. He draws upon decades of facilitating meetings, leading retreats, and working with nonprofits and businesses.

His book, THRIVE: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings will be released in E-Book in June. Email Mark at for more information.