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Emotional Intelligence and Work-Life Balance

This lesson is a part of an audio course Achieving Work-Life Balance by Russell Clayton

In our previous lesson, we talked about time management techniques to help us achieve balance. That directly impacts the time component of work-life balance – in effect, helping you create more time in your day by doing things like reducing distractions or outsourcing. In this lesson, we will talk about the emotional component of work-life balance, and we'll learn how to build our emotional intelligence to help us be more effective at work-life balance.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage the impact of emotions on our relationships with others. This includes how we express ourselves, handle social relationships, and deal with challenges. And there are two parts of this: understanding others and understanding ourselves.

Having self-awareness – being aware of our own emotions – is a great place to start. After all, Plato said, "Know thyself." Here we're looking to accurately assess our own thoughts and feelings while also assessing how those emotions might impact others.

But another side of emotional intelligence – and one that research particularly supports for work-life balance – is social awareness and empathy. Here we are looking at the emotions of our spouse, our children, our colleagues. When we are aware of others' emotions, we are better able to understand what people are going through. And empathy takes this a step further and helps us understand the perspective of others and what they are going through. Not only are we aware of the emotion – for example, sadness – but we are able to feel, to some degree, that person's emotion.

This idea of social awareness and empathy might sound a bit touchy-feely – and that might not be your preferred style – but, research tells us it works when it comes to balancing work and life. Here's how: social awareness helps in reducing the friction between our loved ones and us, or us and our coworkers. Research in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, as well as my own research published in the Journal of Business, Industry, and Economics, shows that emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of work-life balance. And, as an added bonus, emotional intelligence is also strongly associated with reduced stress – meaning those who act with emotional intelligence are much less stressed than those who lack emotional intelligence.

Here are 3 action steps you can take to build your emotional intelligence immediately:

Step 1. Identify your strengths and weaknesses

What gives you energy? What roles lead to increased frustrations for you? Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate ALL the roles that frustrate us. But are there one or two things we can reduce our involvement in? I'll give you an example: from the time my children were born until now. I have not been very good at giving them a bath. For whatever reason, it just frustrated me. So I had a conversation with my wife and asked if she would take over bath duty, and I would take over some other area of childcare for us (by the way, that led to an increase in the number of stinky diapers I changed – but changing diapers didn't frustrate me at all – so it was a good situation). Much like saying "NO" strategically from our time management lesson, we cannot eliminate all frustrating roles…I still give baths to my children from time-to-time….but we can reduce the frequency of the frustration.

Step 2. Expand your circle of empathy

This is a concept Jessica Stillman of Inc. Magazine wrote about some time ago. Pardon the cliché – but this way of building emotional intelligence is about getting outside of our comfort zone. That is, there are many situations in which we are able to easily empathize with others because we have some level of familiarity with them. For me, I can empathize with an author who is struggling with writing…because I have been there in my own writing. I can empathize easily with a new parent whose child is in the neonatal intensive care unit (or NICU) because my child was in the NICU for a week immediately following birth. However, there are other situations in which I no familiarity at all – and this is what expanding our circle of empathy is about. For instance, I have never had to walk 3-4 miles for clean water like many in developing nations have to do on a regular basis. But by stretching my brain to "put myself in their shoes," I can begin to understand how that might feel. It forces me to look at situations involving people with whom I have little in common and is a great way to build our empathy for situations that hit closer to home.

Step 3. Increase your emotional literacy

With this strategy for building emotional intelligence, we attempt to describe how we are feeling using only three words – and two of those words are usually "I feel…" For example, "I feel frustrated." – "I feel happy." – "I feel confused." Here's an example of how this might play out. Imagine you are at the grocery store, and you are trying to check out so that you can make it to your next errand. However, each line at the check out has 3 or 4 customers in it - and it looks like you are going to be there awhile. Now, you might be tempted to think to yourself (or maybe even say out loud), "This store is stupid!" or "These people are crazy for buying 45 items at one time!" (referring to the customers in front of you). What if I try to describe this scenario in a 3-word sentence? "I am impatient." That more accurately reflects what is going on. The customers in front of me are likely not crazy, and the store isn't stupid. The simple reality is that I am impatient – and by naming that emotion, I am better able to handle it. I now realize that I am simply impatient, and there is power in realizing that.

Remember, the research tells us that being emotionally intelligent is a great way to increase our work-life balance and reduce stress!

Your task going forward: Reflect on the 3 strategies we just discussed for building emotional intelligence and decide which one you'd like to pursue first. Try one out for 4-5 days and see how it works for you. Then consider a second strategy to increase your emotional intelligence even more.

In the next lesson, we will talk about using physical exercise as a strategy for managing the intersection of work and life.

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Written by

Russell Clayton

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