Emotional intelligence is a skill, and some people are better at recognizing and communicating emotions than others. Among the Big Five personality traits—openness, extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism—several studies have found that people high in extroversion tend to have higher emotional expressiveness, while people high in neuroticism tend to be less expressive.
Like other skills, the ability to communicate feelings can be strengthened through practice, and a big part of it is first recognizing the emotions you’re having, as well as what’s causing them.
I spoke with the psychologist David Caruso, who is a co-founder of the Emotional Intelligence Skills Group (not the actor with the sunglasses from CSI: Miami), and who trains organizations and schools on emotional intelligence, about overcoming personal and cultural barriers to expressing emotions.
A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Julie Beck: What are the benefits of being good at expressing your own emotions?
David Caruso: So we like to say that emotions are data, and emotions communicate meaning and intent. It’s critically important to know that I’m either irritated with someone because they’re late for a meeting or I’m concerned because they’re late for a meeting and maybe something’s happened to them. So since emotions are a form of data or information, it’s important to accurately convey those to people and in a way that they will also accurately perceive.
Beck: Is there a difference between the benefits of communicating it to other people and just recognizing it in yourself?
Caruso: I think if you don’t know it in yourself to start with, your communications will be somewhat off, a little bit. How do I feel about this situation? And what do I want the other person to learn? Or what’s the message I want to communicate? So it’s got to start with that accurate self-awareness. And certainly the benefits are clarity of communication, [fewer] misunderstandings between people.
To do it all the time can actually be exhausting, if you don’t do this automatically, if you have to really manually kind of process the information. It takes more time; it can be emotionally exhausting as well. So this is not necessary for routine communications. But I think for the more important things it’s absolutely critical.
Beck: Obviously different people are better or worse at this. Are there certain personality traits or factors that are linked to people having more of a natural ability to communicate their emotions?
Caruso: So emotional intelligence is truly an intelligence in our theory and in the way we’ve measured it.
Beck: Who’s “we” in that?
Caruso: “We” would be … Emotional intelligence is sort of a Rorschach, it means whatever you want it to mean. So this is the ability model of emotional intelligence that says emotional intelligence is a standard intelligence, emotions are data, emotions can help you think, you can reason about emotions, and also you can reason with emotions. That is a theory first proposed by Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey and they are two of my closest friends and colleagues. Jack is a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and Peter is a professor of psychology and currently president of Yale University. That’s the “we.”
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