What Are the Top 7 Barriers to Improving Your Emotional Intelligence?

By Dan Newby, PCC

Author of 4 Books on Emotions, Emotional Intelligence Coach, and Coach Trainer

The concept of emotional intelligence has been growing over the past thirty years and many new models and tools have been created that enhance the basic idea. However, the broader adoption of the concept is still limited because of the lingering myths and misunderstandings. If you read articles on emotional intelligence, you will find a list of qualities of emotionally intelligent people, but how we develop those qualities is not often addressed. There is a significant gap between emotional intelligence as an idea and as a practice. Even those who consider themselves to be practitioners of emotional intelligence cannot take full advantage of it because of these barriers. In this article, I want to highlight some of the common barriers that keep people from embodying the concept of emotional intelligence.

For the past 20 years, I have been practicing a powerful method of coaching called "ontological." Ontology is a branch of philosophy based on the study of "being." It helps us understand what constitutes a thing rather than how or why it exists. Ontologically, if you look at what constitutes you the human being, you'll see three things: You process intellectually, have emotions, and take action with your body. These three elements act in dynamic coherence to produce the person you are. All of the barriers listed below are rooted in ontological principles, and reflect my experience of its transformational power in the lives of thousands of people.

Barrier #1 - You cannot improve your emotional intelligence if you believe that emotions are fixed.

You probably have heard people say, "he is hot-headed," "she is the jealous type," or "that's just the way I am." Judgments like these based on emotional patterns often imply that people are born with a particular emotional make-up, and we can do nothing to alter it. This belief is not true. Although we are all wired in a specific way, we have been expanding our emotional intelligence and competence during our entire life. We don't cry in public as a frustrated baby might, and we don't usually talk back to our boss like teenagers sometimes do. There may be exceptions, but the good news is that we all can enhance our emotional intelligence through intentional learning.

Many organizations use EQ assessments as tools in talent acquisition and development. While measuring is an excellent place to begin improvement, it is often used as a criterion to exclude people. For instance, what if someone lacks ambition? What can we do to stimulate it? What can we do to ensure that ambition becomes sustainable for that person? All of these fall into the territory of learning emotions and transforming rather than assessing emotions. So, if you consider yourself low in emotional intelligence or have a low EQ score, that does not mean something is wrong. On the contrary, you can improve your emotional competency as long as you give yourself permission for learning. If you want to improve your emotional intelligence, you must treat it as a learning domain instead of simply a trait you were born with.

Barrier #2 - You will not become emotionally intelligent by simply reading this article.

In this article, I will explain a few practical basics about how emotions work and the steps required to master them. In the end, you will have some ideas "about" emotions, but this type of learning occurs through insight and is cognitive. The same is true if you read a book on emotional intelligence. That alone won't make you more emotionally competent. If you want to elevate your emotional intelligence, you need to engage in "immersive learning" which means you have to experience your emotions, reflect on them, and improve your relationship with them.

An example would be of learning to play the piano. We can't play piano by studying the theory of music alone. However, when we begin practicing piano, we experience emotions, and our entire body is animated. This is the learning that allows us to give a recital, and we can say we are learning ontologically. We can apply the same analogy to watching a cooking show on television vs. going into the kitchen and cooking a dish. One great thing about ontological learning is that it sticks like when you have learned to ride a bicycle. Ontologically learning emotions is powerful because it will help you unlearn old habits and cultivate new habits that will lead to new outcomes.

Barrier #3 - You cannot leverage emotional intelligence if you decouple emotions from actions.

You are reading this article because you are curious to learn how to improve your emotional intelligence. Curiosity is the fundamental emotion that drives us to learn. The vast majority of searches on Google are powered by curiosity. In other words, emotions are the energies that move us. Just reading a travelogue may not move you to pack your bags and buy a ticket at once, even if you have plenty of disposable cash and time available. Emotions such as awe, inspiration, and even nostalgia move people to visit new places, and it may be one of these that put you into action. To magnify your emotional intelligence, you need to maintain your curiosity and keep exploring.

Just as many emotions move us into action, others keep us from acting. On a weekend afternoon, when we lie down on the sofa and don't want to do anything, we are still experiencing the an emotion, perhaps laziness or contentment. Fear may keep us from resigning from a good-paying job to start a new business. We may skip a party and stay at home because we believe it will be boring. Emotions determine what we do (Eg: Curiosity), how we do things (Eg: Impatience), why we do them (Eg: Respect), who we do them with (Eg: Trust), and if we do them at all (Eg: Complacency). Being emotionally intelligent means you are aware of the emotions that are driving your actions and inactions.

Barrier #4 - You cannot be emotionally intelligent by decoupling emotions from language.

Think of your school days and how you leveraged and expanded your IQ. Imagine if you hadn't developed your linguistic abilities; how could you understand the theory of relativity, solve a math word problem, or read a book on world history? Just like you have expanded your IQ through linguistic literacy, you need emotional literacy to grow your EQ. Being emotionally literate means you are fluent in emotions, just like you are fluent in reading and writing in your chosen language. Day-to-day, most people only recognize or use the name of 20 or 25 emotions. Although there is no universal list of emotions, there are probably around 250. Simple math tells us that we are only using about 10% of our emotional potential.

Another way language plays a crucial role in your emotional intelligence is by helping you identify the emotions underlying others' behavior. We cannot see emotions directly, so we must identify them using cues from body language and what is said or unsaid. When an activist says, "this government shouldn't be doing this to us," we can hear the emotion of resentment. When a failed student says, "There is no point in trying again," we can listen to the emotion of resignation. For most people, shame, embarrassment, and guilt appear the same, but they are trying to tell us something different, and each exists for a unique purpose. The ability to hear the emotion driving what others say (or don't) is what helps emotionally competent people make deeper connections with people around them and stand out from the rest of us.

Barrier #5 - Your positive thinking and emotional intelligence conflict.

A common misconception is that an emotionally intelligent person is a good person who is kind at heart, well-behaved, and generous. Being emotionally intelligent is not about being positive all the time. This conflict is because emotions like kindness and generosity are adored in most cultures, and emotions like greed and cynicism are looked down on. Because of this, we try to avoid "negative" emotions and even feel guilty about having them. The problem with denying certain emotions is that we miss the valuable messages they offer us.

Just like you can't stop breathing, emotions are part of human makeup; we can't avoid them. Some emotions like sadness may be uncomfortable, but without sadness, how will we connect with our care for something or someone we miss? Our IQ helps us apply the power of reason to solve our problems. When you resolve your problem, your emotions shift. Similarly, emotional agility to shift our emotions and adapt to change is one of the most critical skills you need to develop to improve your emotional intelligence. For instance, if someone betrays you, you will probably feel anger because you believe it was unjust. Our automatic response will be to want to punish the person for the betrayal. However, we can choose at that moment and may want to withhold our punishment because it may not resolve the situation or damage the relationship. Perhaps it would be more helpful to craft an appropriate response. This ability is the power you can gain by developing your emotional intelligence.

Barrier #6 - Being emotionally intelligent is not just about being empathetic.

You have probably heard a lot about empathy and its central role in emotional intelligence. What is not often clarified is that there are two ways in which we use the word empathy. One is a generalized awareness of emotional energy, noticing what is happening for others emotionally. The other is as a specific emotion that allows us to "feel what others are feeling." In this sense, empathy is one of more than 250 emotions, and it doesn't serve in every situation.

If empathy is your central focus, you may miss addressing certain barriers to your emotional growth. A leader who feels deep empathy for an employee they need to lay off may find themselves unable to have the needed conversation. In that case, other emotions could support them to fulfill the commitments they've made as a leader. It might be the respect for the company and the employee, dignity in the way they have the conversation, or courage to have a conversation that is difficult for everyone involved.

Or take the example of a doctor or a nurse treating cancer patients. Every day, they deal with the suffering of people from all walks of life, including children. Although empathy is essential other emotions such as compassion may serve better at times. Even the emotion of denial is important when we face difficult situations as it lets us adapt to the intensity of the experience bit by bit.
There are many situations in life where we have to maintain our emotional center to not get caught up in others' emotions.

Barrier #7 - You can't make use of your emotional intelligence without mastering its four components. 

Intellectual intelligence is our capacity to understand and process information. Similarly, emotional intelligence is our capacity to understand and work with our emotions effectively. However, if you want to take advantage of your emotional capacity, it is essential to master the four components of emotional intelligence as listed below.

  • 1. Emotional Literacy:  Emotional literacy is your fluency in noticing and naming your emotions and the emotions of those around you.
  • 2. Emotional Agility: Emotional agility is your ability to respond to change quickly by overcoming your emotional barriers.
  • 3. Emotional Resilience: Emotional resilience is your ability to bounce back from adversities and regain your emotional center.
  • 4. Emotional Independence: Emotional independence is taking ownership of your emotions and being independent of others emotionally.

Want to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence? You have to Figure Out Your Objective First.

You could decide to develop your emotional intelligence because everyone says it is a good idea. You could also work on it to help you achieve your goals or solve a problem. While the fundamental idea of emotional intelligence remains the same, the context in which it is applied also matters in its effectiveness. For example, the emotional competency required for a coach is different from that of a leader. If we want to raise emotionally intelligent children or teach emotions to school children, that is a different area. Suppose you are facing a personal or professional challenge. In that case, your priority needs to focus on navigating the emotions related to or provoking those challenges rather than mastering the whole range of emotions. You may achieve that over time, but it will dilute your efforts if you are overly ambitious.

In our work, we help people from all walks of life access the power of emotional learning simply and practically. We have worked with leaders in fortune 500 companies to transform their leadership competency and trained thousands of coaches to use emotions as a tool in their coaching. We have also helped parents coach their children using emotions, developed a social-emotional learning curriculum for school systems, and trained airline pilots to improve their emotional skills to enhance their situational awareness and decision-making. As you can see, the application of emotional intelligence is very broad, and a one-size-fits-all approach is not suitable. We don't teach and certify you in emotional intelligence, but we make it work for you.

Want to Share Your Emotional Learning Objective? We Can Design a Custom Learning Path For You.

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Personality Development
Leadership Development
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About Dan Newby, PCC

Dan Newby is a long-time coach, teacher and the author of 4 books on emotional literacy, co-creator of Emoli™ Emotion Flash Cards, teaches online courses, and delivers masterclasses worldwide. He has more than 8500 hours of coaching experience and has taught emotional intelligence to thousands of people globally.

Dan was a Senior Course Leader for Newfield Network for eight years. In those years he led coach training programs in the U.S., Amsterdam and at the University of Calgary. He has worked with several school systems in the U.S., global commercial enterprises and NGOs.

Dan’s passion for elevating emotional literacy fuels his writing, teaching, and development of games to help people learn the value of emotions and the many ways they enrich our lives. His quest for emotional skills development combined with his work as an ontological coach and CEO of one of the premium coaching schools globally helped him move deeper into this territory of learning and become the teacher he is today.

Dan was born in the U.S. and has lived in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.