Emotional maturity, Part 6: Building emotional intelligence

The last part of emotional maturity is fairly simple: talk about your feelings, and listen to the feelings of others. That’s really the entire thing. But there are two big issues that come up when we put this into practice, the first of which I’ll discuss in this post.

This first issue is simply one of skill. When you talk about feelings, how well it goes over depends a lot on your emotional intelligence and your capacity for empathy.

By way of analogy, did you every play one of those water-ring-toss games? It was a small handheld plastic tank filled with water. In the water, little plastic rings floated around, and your goal was to get them to move them so that they landed on the pegs. Your controls are limited to one or two buttons. Pressing a button would create a current in the water, causing the rings to move around chaotically. You could push the buttons with varying amounts of force, which would change the strength of the current. But that was the extent of your control. It was a pretty frustrating toy to play with, unless you were very patient.

I like to imagine that building strong relationships without emotional intelligence is like playing one of those games, with its crude controls. Building a relationship without empathy is like playing it blindfolded. Your controls (how you talk about your feelings) are so crude, and the result you want (effortless communication and understanding) is so precise, that you have to slog away endlessly for meager returns, and you may never get them all. You can never quite hit the target, and this results in a lot of exasperated criticisms of your partner. (If I tell her what I feel, she doesn’t like it, but if I don’t tell her, she doesn’t like that either. I can’t win.)

But as you gain emotional intelligence, you get a more refined ability to interpret and understand feelings. This is an incredibly useful asset. It gives you more control, and therefore allows you to take more responsibility. It’s a little bit like finding out that the whole time you could have just drained the water, picked up the rings, and put them on the pegs with your fingers. (Or discover that they never fit on the pegs at all, so you were wasting your time.)

The key to building more emotional intelligence and empathy is just to practice, keeping in mind everything we’ve learned from examining ourselves and other people. Like any skill, this can be learned and it gets stronger the more we use it. Listening to your feelings in a critical, reflective way, seems to help build this skill over time.

I want to clarify that this is not just a skill you develop for your romantic partner. When I’m talking about building relationships, I’m not just talking about romantic relationships, but also family, friends, maybe even strangers who seem really nice. To me, a relationship is when you are close enough to a person that you can share how you feel and have an interest in how they feel.

Sadly, in another sense, this is not actually a broader definition. By this metric, a lot of people who are nominally in a relationship, are not really in a relationship. Sometimes we go through the motions of being with someone, but we don’t actually understand or care about what that means. Relationships that are rife with cheating, lying, and abuse are often not really relationships by this standard, even though they are presented as such to the outside world.

So to make your relationships stronger, the key is to say how you feel, and listen to how your partner feels. You can never be wrong, because feelings aren’t facts. And the more you do this, the more skillful you’ll get, over time.

That’s it. That’s the only thing you need to know. Just talk about feelings.

So why is this so hard?

In the final post I want to explore a few obstacles that we, collectively, put in the way of this otherwise simple and intuitive process of bonding with other people.

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