How can the 2000-year-old teachings of Stoic philosophers help you improve your emotional intelligence, a concept popularized just 30 years ago?
The short answer: Quality lasts. They wrote about emotions with such intention, meaning, and experience that their quotes don’t just stay relevant as time rolls on; they pick up a new sense of meaning and momentum. In fact, the Stoics’ philosophies about emotions stand the test of time so firmly that we can often draw a straight line between their writings and current studies of emotions.
So what exactly is Stoicism? The Stoic philosophers are a school of philosophers, praised for their approachability. They emphasized topics still relevant today, like emotions, resilience, happiness, and the importance of knowledge, among many other things.
What follows are 8 Stoic lessons in emotional intelligence. Absorb these lessons to learn more about Stoicism and improve your EQ in the process.
8 Stoic Secrets to Help You Build Mental Toughness
- Slow your emotional reactions
- Listening is an empathy strategy
- Tap into the superpower that is collaboration
- Carve away your clutter
- Lead yourself
- Memento mori
- Feedback is data
- Be authentic
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #1: Slow your emotional reactions
“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘Hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from—let me put you to the test.’” —Epictetus
Think about a time when your first impression of someone missed the mark. This happens more frequently than you might expect. That’s because our first impressions are quick and often misguided. We jump to snap conclusions about a new person or an idea. The driving force behind these initial impressions? Our feelings. We experience events in the emotional center of our brain before the rational center. Learn to delay responding based on your emotions, and you give your rational brain time to catch up and monitor the way you react. This is the basic premise of emotional intelligence. Instead of being quick to judge or quick to assume, approach new people and situations with curiosity and the sense that there’s much more to learn. Catch yourself as you form impressions and start to hold that impression up into the light to assess it more carefully.
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #2: Listening is an empathy strategy
“Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.” —Marcus Aurelius
Call it active listening, leaning in, stepping into others’ shoes…call it whatever you want. The thing that good listening always boils down to is genuine curiosity. The best listeners are good at listening because they genuinely want to hear what you have to say, to understand you better. Listening is not an end goal. It doesn’t mean you agree either. It’s a way to understand someone better. That’s why people emphasize so many little strategies when they talk about improving your ability to listen. They talk about how you engage, step in to respond, ask a question, or summarize what was said. Instead of getting caught up in all these little strategies, zoom out to the bigger goal: understanding the person you’re talking to. When you make understanding your goal, everything else falls into place.
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #3: Tap into the superpower that is collaboration
“We are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature.”—Marcus Aurelius
Despite all the emphasis placed on individualism, we are wired to connect. It’s a kind of superpower that you can tap into to learn, grow, and feel good. Consider these examples:
- Cooperative Learning: Research on students who work together (cooperative learning) shows increased motivation and persistence, more positive attitudes, faster work, better memory of what they learned, and higher average achievement.
- Innovation: Neil Armstrong has the distinction of being the first person on the moon, but landing on the moon required an incredible number of people on multiple teams with a wide range of expertise. There were rocket scientists to build the pad, computer engineers, software engineers, technicians, geologists to identify a landing spot on the moon, and specialized tailors to develop life-support suits…the list is a long one. No single person could master all these skills and knowledge in their lifetime, but through collaboration, teams of highly specialized experts were able to send Neil and his crew to the moon.
- Mentor-mentee relationships: It’s no coincidence that so many successful philosophers, writers, and athletes apprenticed under successful philosophers, writers, and athletes. If there’s one shortcut in life, it’s the ability to learn more quickly and effectively from people who have done it already.
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #4: Carve away your clutter
“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” —Marcus Aurelius
To back it up a bit, it’s worth qualifying this quote with the fact that the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius knew clutter extremely well. He was a philosopher, father of 14, and the emperor of all of Rome. His point is that clutter makes us feel overwhelmed and stressed out, but so many of those feelings are unnecessary. They only get in the way of the most important things we want to get done. In reality, there are usually one or two big things you need to work on. Those are the things that will leave you feeling good at the end of the day. Emotionally intelligent people whittle their days down to the absolute essentials because they know how closely tied our emotions and productivity are.
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #5: Lead yourself
“Real power is to be in your own power.” —Seneca
Regardless of your position at work, home, or with your friends, learn to lead yourself. Your values are your power source. Reflect on, understand, and adapt your values as often as possible. That way when something surprising or challenging arises, your values are top of mind as you decide how to react. Get good at leading yourself in this way, and you will build your confidence and self-assurance. This will in turn make you a natural leader to others, regardless of your position or title.
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #6: Memento mori
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” —Seneca
My friend has a poster with a checkbox for every day of his life through the age of 100. As he goes to bed each day, he checks off the day. At first glance, it seems morbid or a bit bizarre, but it’s actually a beautiful way to shift your perspective. When emotions start to build up and pile on—you’re overwhelmed, you’re uncomfortable, you’re scared of change to come—this reminder of the bigger picture can swing you back into the present moment. Imagine whatever is happening to you now in three days, three months, three years, at the end of your life…As time passes, most things that feel all-consuming fade in importance. As Seneca put it: “Draw further back, and laugh.” The idea isn’t to trivialize important emotions. It’s to manage your emotions with intention and monitor how much energy and time you devote to an emotion so you don’t have future regrets. strategies to improve emotional intelligence
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #7: Feedback is data
“Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right. They cannot be guided by your views, only their own; so if their views are wrong, they are the ones who suffer insofar as they are misguided.” —Epictetus
Sure, criticism is often helpful, but it’s important to recognize when criticism goes sour so you can distance yourself accordingly. Don’t waste valuable energy and effort pushing back or taking over the top feedback to heart. The key to this is like Epictetus says; it’s about empathy and recognizing that people who criticize with such intensity are the ones who ultimately suffer.
Emotional Intelligence Lesson #8: Be authentic
“It never ceases to amaze me: We all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own.” —Marcus Aurelius
There’s an interesting fan phenomenon with authors who win over cult followings. When their work is tested on readers before being published, usually only 1 in 10 people like their work. But, 1 in 10 don’t just like their work; they love it. Perhaps more interestingly, the other 9 actively dislike it. They aren’t just “not into it.” They actively do not like it. They have bad things to say about it, and they want to say those things to anyone who will listen. My favorite recent example of this is the virtuoso writer Stephen Wright’s recent book Processed Cheese and its reviews on Amazon (my opinion: this book bleeds authenticity and quirk on every electric page, but I’ll save that for another time). Here are back-to-back top reviews:
“Probably one of the worst books I’ve ever had the misfortune to open.”
“A new masterpiece from one of America’s greatest living writers.”
From Insights to Action:
Tapping into your authenticity is what makes work engaging. It makes work memorable, gives your work its unique style, and makes your work more rewarding. This is a core trait of emotionally intelligent people: they derive their sense of satisfaction from within, not from the approval of others.
Emotional intelligence affects how you manage behavior, navigate social complexities, and make personal decisions that achieve positive results. EQ is a skill that you can develop with conscious effort and practice, and it has been linked to innumerable business outcomes like improved performance, enhanced collaboration, and increased leadership capacity. The above eight strategies are just a few of the many actionable practices that can improve your EQ.
For easy-to-implement strategies to improve your emotional intelligence, check out Emotional Intelligence 2.0. To learn more about emotional intelligence training and TalentSmartEQ’s programs and solutions, please contact TalentSmartEQ at 888-818-SMART or visit: https://www.talentsmarteq.com/contact/