Helping clients uncover emotional intelligence is key to therapist’s work

By Catherine Robertson Souter
August 20th, 2021
Amy Wood, Psy.D.
Amy Wood, Psy.D., a clinician based in Portland, Maine, author, and motivational speaker on emotional intelligence.

At the base of everything that a therapist does, helping patients to reach a level of emotional balance is key. There may be many modalities used in the therapy room, from CBT to psychodynamic therapy, but the bottom line is to help clients get there.

Since it first was defined in the 1990s, the concept of an intelligence around dealing with emotions has gained wider acceptance professionally and in the wider world and in rating potential for success.

“It used to be considered that IQ was a good predictor of success,” said Amy Wood, Psy.D., a clinician based in Portland, Maine, author, and motivational speaker on emotional intelligence.
“But IQ measures textbook knowledge not the capacity to get along with people in the world and to manage your own thoughts and behavior. I would say essentially that is what therapy is all about; that is what you are helping people with.”

While IQ is pretty much a set quotient, emotional intelligence, or EQ, (emotional quotient) can be improved on throughout a lifespan. The main components of improving EQ, said Wood, are based around five central tenets of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, relationship management, and motivation.

“All of those are essential when it comes to success,” Wood said, “You can’t get along well in life unless you work at being emotionally intelligent. With emotional intelligence, there is always room for improvement and the higher your EQ, the better your life gets.”

Although a therapist may, of course, already work with emotions, does it make sense to incorporate tools developed specifically around increasing emotional intelligence into your practice? Yes, say experts, because research has shown that people with a higher EQ tend to perform better in life–from school to relationships to work–and are more likely to achieve career and personal goals.

But all this does not come just from understanding that being aware of one’s emotions but from learning how to regulate and motivate oneself.

“Insight and awareness are not enough, said Robin Stern, Ph.D., the co-founder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (CEI) and a psychoanalyst in private practice.

“Understanding emotions is a fantastic first step but what you do about them is a totally different matter. Being skillful with your emotions, in the service of your goals, is essential. It is very practical and very concrete and super helpful to be teaching skills and tools of emotional intelligence in a clinical practice.”

The CEI, a research and training center within Yale School of Medicine, has developed a program for schools to enact system-wide training for increasing emotional intelligence. The researchers have created a number of tools that can help people practice key skills like the “Meta Moment,” or pausing to step outside yourself to decide how your “best self” might respond to a situation.

They have also created a “Mood Meter” app to teach self and social awareness and to check in with your emotions and track them over time.

“In my own practice,” said Stern, “I encourage patients to use the Mood Meter to check in with their emotions and notice patterns. We can all be learners about our emotions.

‘What does it mean to you that you are feeling depressed on Monday mornings or that you regularly feel joy on Wednesdays? What else is happening at those times?'”

Emotional intelligence tools can be directly incorporated into a therapeutic practice.

“All of these things naturally come up in therapy,” said Stern, “When I am listening to a patient saying, ‘I am so stupid,’ and I may ask, ‘Can you imagine a different way to talk to yourself?’ Turning negative self-talk to positive self-talk can be very powerful in lifting your mood, creating confidence, and enhancing wellbeing overall. You can teach and learn the tools and strategies of emotional intelligence at any age – they are accessible and very helpful in daily life.”

To learn more about the emotional intelligence skills that can be brought directly into therapy, there are many options for further reading. Wood suggests starting with the book that started the movement, “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman (Random House, 2005). The YCEI website has links to various studies and articles. Continuing education courses in emotional intelligence are also beneficial.

“If there is one course you are going to take to make the most impact on your life, make it emotional intelligence,” she said. “I have found in my work as a psychologist, and personally, having done variety of different professional development workshops, that learning more about EQ always takes me to a new level.”

Of course, the best teacher will also be someone who has studied for themselves, she added.

“In order to be good at your work, if you are a therapist, you have to practice what you preach,” Wood said. “If my job is to teach others how to work with high emotional intelligence, I have to do it myself.”

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