Ask it to yourself. Then, ask someone who will tell you the truth.

When Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence in 1995, few had heard of the concept. The idea was primarily based on a theory formed by two psychologists, John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, who claimed that just as people have a wide range of intellectual abilities, they also have a wide range of emotional skills that profoundly affect their thinking and actions.

Fast-forward to today, and emotional intelligence is experiencing a resurgence. Almost everywhere you look, you’ll see references to EQ, short for emotional intelligence quotient, a term that has become popular and easily recognizable in multiple languages.

But what exactly is emotional intelligence? And, equally important, how can you increase yours?

In their original article, Mayer and Salovey provided the following definition:

Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions.

Notice that emotional intelligence emphasizes practical use. It’s not just knowledge about emotions and how they work; it’s an individual’s ability to apply that knowledge to manage his or her own behavior or relationships with others, to attain a desired result.

Put more simply: Emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

The 1-question test

There are many tests out there that claim to measure emotional intelligence.

I won’t say these tests are junk, but their value is limited: They may give you an idea as to how much you know about emotions and their effect on behavior, but they can’t evaluate your ability to put that knowledge to work in everyday situations.

Rather than trying to quantify your emotional intelligence, it’s more productive to focus on developing a growth mindset.

To accomplish that, I recommend giving yourself a simple, 1-question test:

In what situations do I find that emotions work against me? 

There are many ways you could answer that question.

For example:

  • Your temper caused you to say or do something you later regretted.
  • You agreed to a request because you were in a good mood, only to later realize that you didn’t really think things through.
  • Your inability to understand someone’s feelings caused anxiety or led to a breakdown in communication.
  • You found it difficult to manage conflict.
  • You missed out on a great opportunity because of undue anxiety or fear.

Answering this question is vital, because it helps build self-awareness–which is the first step in developing emotional intelligence. Basically, you’ll never learn to manage your emotions (or understand the emotions of others) if you don’t first understand how your emotions affect you, your thoughts, and your actions.

But here’s the thing: We all have blind spots. We’re affected by unconscious bias. Our perspective is influenced by a myriad of factors, including:

  • where we grew up;
  • how we were raised;
  • whom we associate with; and
  • what we choose to think about.

That’s why it’s not enough to ask yourself the question. You have to find someone you trust, and ask that person the same question from his or her perspective:

In what situations do you find that emotions work against me?

Whom should you ask? It could be your spouse or another family member, a close friend, a mentor, or another confidant. But whoever it is, you must be certain this person is going to be open and honest–and not just tell you what you want to hear. Be clear that you’re working to improve yourself and you need an honest response. Allow this person some time to give the question some thought, and be prepared discuss the answer.

And then, brace yourself.

The goal isn’t to determine whether others’ views about you are right or wrong. Rather, you want to learn the differences between how they view you compared to how you view yourself, along with the consequences of those differences.

Seriously considering this question, along with any honest feedback you receive, helps you build self-awareness. It will help you identify points of weakness that you can then work to strengthen–and begin to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.