Are you emotionally intelligent?

Ever had a chat with a delightful stranger, only to find yourself creeped out, your stomach in knots? Or agreed to do something pleasant, like signing a new lease, planning a trip, or going on a date – and despite all the reasons to do it, you wanted to run and hide? That’s emotional intelligence in action.

Emotional intelligence is nothing more than awareness of emotions and the ability to manage them, both your own and other people’s. We all have them. But not everyone deals with them well, or even recognizes their existence. And by “recognizing” I don’t mean reading chick novels or watching Sleepless in Seattle. Emotional intelligence has no gender divide, and its official lettering is not all chocolate and roses. Nor do you have to eat tofu to get it.

The popularity of emotional intelligence is soaring. Some employers even test it at work lately. That’s because most of our communication is non-verbal. Some believe words only account for a mere 7% of interaction, followed by the tone of our voice, gestures, facial expressions and other indirect stuff. It is also the greatest predictor of success at work, as opposed to intellect.

Luckily, emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) can be improved, while IQ cannot.

EQ can, hands down, benefit everyone. That includes a party-goer who, instead of mingling, obsesses whether there’s spinach in his teeth. Or a partner who yells, believing offense is the best defense. Or the acquaintance who mulls over what she’ll say next, instead of actually listening. Or the gossip mongers at work, who risk alienating others and becoming fresh feed for the rumor mill themselves.

Experts say that once emotion enters the picture, you can’t ignore it. It’s got to be dealt with productively, but letting it fester will lead to disaster. The first step is to learn to become aware. The second is to manage.

I’ve been fascinated with emotional intelligence ever since I fled New York in 2007. I lived in the city that never sleeps for five years, but the stresses of grad school, work, commuting, interpersonal relationships, rent and spastic competition for resources eventually compounded. Ending up in San Francisco, I decided to figure out why, given my promising journalism career at a global company, friends, an amazing Manhattan home, things went wrong. So I took up the study of emotional intelligence and also spent over a year attending classes at a meditation center in the Bay Area.

It turned out that the tangibles – words, numbers, resume lines – don’t matter. It’s the invisible, nonverbal stuff that sets things in motion, and that motion can be magical or destructive.

The meditation center addressed those intangibles. The name they gave it was energy, but it could be called anything – cheese balls or Eyjafjallajökull, for all they care. The classes were comprised of skeptics like myself from all walks of life – engineers, singers, business people. On the first day the students,  cross-armed and tight-lipped, would squint at the teacher and expect her to fail under the scrutiny of our logic. But as classes progressed, I became aware of the complexity of human interaction – the physical sensations, the colors, the vibrations that we can all become attuned to, in our own unique language. That’s how we relate to one another. Words are just the icing on the cake.

As we strive to make smarter decisions, improve work performance, get more gigs, and be better friends and partners, it’s nice to remember that success starts within. All it takes is awareness of our sensations. It’s the barometer that signals “Stop!” “Go!” or anything in between. It sure isn’t as loud as the formulas of our reasoning. But it will end up being more important in the end.

Take a test to check your own EQ here.

And for some inspiration, here are the top ten emotional intelligence moments of 2011.

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