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4 Ways to Grow Your Emotional Intelligence in Relationships

Written on September 20th

September 2018

You may have heard the expression: you are rarely upset for the reason you think you are. While this is wonderful and wise guidance, it only works if you have the emotional intelligence that is necessary in order to uncover the various layers of what you are really upset about — and why.

Emotional Intelligence

This common disconnect from our true emotions happens for a variety of reasons. In fact, very few people are ever taught how to access and express their most authentic emotions in healthy ways.

Instead, you probably grew up in a house where:

– there were certain feelings you weren’t “allowed” to have or that were perceived as wrong, bad, or weak (such as anger, embarrassment, or sadness)
– you lacked role models who identified their more vulnerable feelings and expressed them with an open heart
– you witnessed your caregivers unhealthily manage their emotions by burying them, stuffing them with food, avoiding them with alcohol, taking them out on others, etc.

Knowing the full extent of what you are actually feeling in any given moment is not an awareness that most people possess. In fact, the majority of adults are disconnected from their inner landscape and emotional world.

self reflection

Even if you identify as an “emotional” person, it doesn’t mean you are connected to your feelings and what they are communicating. Instead, you likely feel overwhelmed with emotion and then get in your head about it.

Cultivating your emotional intelligence is essential in relationships so that you:

– can avoid misdirecting your emotions at each other
– don’t waste time and energy arguing about the surface issue
– communicate your emotions in a way that prevents defensiveness and promotes empathy instead

When your emotional intelligence is strong and you can readily identify what’s really going on underneath the surface, it creates:

– greater closeness and emotional intimacy between you
– a deeper connection to your own inner wisdom
– a much easier time talking about what’s really going on (i.e. it’s never just about the dishes or sex or co-parenting or whatever you think!)

In this month’s blog, we teach you four keys to building your emotional intelligence and uncovering what’s really going on underneath whatever you are upset about.

Here they are…

(1) Get to know your emotional jackets.

Several years ago, we attended training by relationship pioneers Gay and Katie Hendricks. They taught us a term we love: “emotional jackets.” These are the emotions we wear on the surface that may be easier to feel or express.

emotional jacket

Underneath the emotional jacket, however, there are some less obvious emotions. For example, underneath the jacket of anger may actually be fear. And, underneath fear, might actually be guilt.

Once we take our emotional jackets off and express the more vulnerable feelings, we are able to recognize what’s really going on for us.

For example, you may tell your beloved, “I’m mad at you for…” When you take that emotional jacket off, you discover that you are actually just scared (i.e. “I’m scared we’re not in this together or that I’m a failure or that I made a mistake.”). You also realize you feel guilty about not being a better mom and are angry because of your unhealthy habits.

The above is just an example, and emotional jackets show up in a countless variety of ways.

emotional jacket

The key is: whenever you feel an emotion, start getting curious about what might be underneath that “jacket.” What are you really feeling upset, scared, ashamed, worried, guilty, embarrassed, insecure, etc. about?

When we guide couples to share the more vulnerable emotions that are underneath how they typically react, their partner naturally shifts from being defensive to more empathetic, openhearted, and understanding.

It takes practice, but this gets easier and easier! Next time you are upset with your beloved, before expressing it or criticizing them for something, take a moment to be with yourself. Is there anything else you feel underneath the more obvious emotion?

(2) Expand your emotional vocabulary.

In order to identify your emotions, you need words for them. Although the basics (ex: mad, sad, happy, scared, nervous, excited) are valuable, expanding your vocabulary of feelings-words will fine tune your ability to accurately identify the subtleties.

In our office, we regularly give our clients a list of feelings. When we do, they go from naming just one or two feelings before receiving the handout to identifying 10 or more after receiving the handout! The more you expand your emotional vocabulary, the more precise you can be.

To get started with this, we encourage you to take a peek at the feelings list provided by the Center for Nonviolent Communication below…

Feelings when needs are met

Feelings when needs are not met

(3) Scan your body.

There is a whole field of “body intelligence” emerging because we’re realizing just how profoundly our bodies reflect what we’re feeling and thinking. For example, when you are nervous or stressed about something, you probably feel jitters in your stomach or heaviness in your chest.

The same is true for everything you feel emotionally — it has a corresponding response in your body. Therefore, when you stay tuned into what’s going on in your body, you are able to keep a close pulse on your emotions.

Every morning, I (Christine) have an individual practice where I do a body scan. I sit in our meditation room my with eyes closed and scan my body from head to toe — simply with my awareness — and I listen to what my emotions and body are trying to communicate to me and to what they need from me. This simple practice of mindfulness allows me to get quiet enough to listen to and tend to my inner world.

meditation - step 3

In the busyness and fullness of life, most people are quite disconnected from themselves. We don’t process what we are feeling, or we get in our heads and overthink it.

Instead, when we take a moment to actually be with ourselves, it prevents us from unconsciously leaking out our emotions and from them coming out sideways in our relationships. Plus, it allows us to befriend, rather than resist, our emotions. Every feeling we have, if we intentionally listen, is an invaluable guide towards helping us live a more peaceful and harmonious life.

We invite you to start a new practice:

(1) Scan your body from head to know with gentle awareness, curiosity, and mindfulness, simply taking note of whatever you feel, without clinging to or judging any of it.
(2) Think of what you can do to best support yourself with whatever you are feeling. Maybe it’s an action you need to take, or perhaps it’s just some comforting words you can say to yourself that you’ve been longing to hear.

(4) Uncover what you are really longing for.

In Human Needs Psychology, there is the basic understanding that everything we say or do is a strategy to get our needs met. When our needs are met, we feel good. When our needs aren’t met, we feel some sort of distress. In this way, your upsetting emotions are incredible symptoms that an underlying need isn’t being met.

When you actually identify the need underneath the emotion, it can be so grounding and clarifying. Below is a list of universal humans needs provided by the Center for Nonviolent Communication. This list is not comprehensive, but it gives you a wonderful starting point.


The closer we can get to the essence of what we are needing (ex: connection) rather than the drama of what we think we are upset about (ex: our partner being on their phone too much), it opens up much greater connection with both ourselves and one another.

Let’s give you an example of how this all looks.


“You are always on your phone.” (said in a critical or harsh tone)

This above example makes your partner wrong (which will provoke defensiveness) and focuses too much on your partner and not enough on you and what you are feeling.


“I feel scared we’re drifting, and I feel guilty that I’ve been letting it happen. I’m worried you might be questioning us too, and that terrifies me. I miss you. I feel this emptiness in my heart when there is distance between us. I love you so much. I long to feel closer to you again.”

The first scenario creates disconnect — from yourself and each other. On the contrary, the second version keeps you in your heart and allows you to better speak to theirs. It also allows you to address the real issue (and opportunity!) that lies underneath.

couple mediating together

Next time you feel upset, we invite you to pause and get curious about what you are longing for more of in your life. Rather than attacking, blaming, or judging your beloved, speak to your own longings and needs and about how you can, together, discover a wonderful new solution for getting them met.

We hope these 4 tips for cultivating your emotional intelligence are helpful! Rest assured, you absolutely have what it takes to be better aware of your emotions and to manage them in a way that allows you to come to your relationship more centered, grounded, and at peace.

Want to know another fabulous way to stay on track with personal development?! Our Thrive in Love couples retreat is approaching on September 29-30. The retreat is nearly full, but we still have space if you are looking for an incredible way to get maximum and life-changing value out of two transformational days. People who experience inner peace and self awareness don’t simply come to it out of luck. They intentionally nurture this part of themselves– and you can too. This upcoming retreat is a POWERFUL place to start, and you will learn so many tools and insights to prevent unnecessary stress and deepen love, connection, and happiness instead.

We hope to see you soon and send an abundance of love and blessings, today and always!
Christine and Bret


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