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Seeing the Light: Emotional Intelligence

lightI squint.

Growing up in the humid Midwest, I traveled to outposts like Topeka, Springfield, and Moline for tennis tournaments.

Staring into the oppressive Midwest sun, I battled talented opponents, suffocating humidity, and an erratic serve. My reward for a decade toiling away in Springberia: a perpetual squint.

As much as you want me to prattle on about my tennis exploits, I will spare you the details. I can see you blinking now.

So how does this seemingly innocuous quirk relate to anything, let alone emotional intelligence? Let me explain.

A speaker’s tone, body language, and eye contact contextualize content. We detect a sense of urgency or an ironic twist through nonverbal cues. A wink, a nod, or a hand on the hip are nonverbal shortcuts for playfulness or exasperation.

My squint? In the professional world, it signifies envy, disdain, and impatience. Who would have guessed that the sun, not Missouri Valley tennis rivals, would emerge as my most stubborn opponent?

Emotional intelligence and professional success are intertwined. As reported in the New York Times, a British study of 17,000 infants found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Noncognitive skills — attributes such as self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — are better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures.

We know emotional intelligence is critical to personal and professional development, but how do we define this amorphous concept? A widely accepted definition: Emotional intelligence is the regulation of our own emotions and the ability to recognize, understand, and influence others’ emotions.

Imagine a grey, overcast Monday. Dragging yourself to the office, you have an unexpected — and unwanted –visitor. Your overbearing boss is waiting, impatiently tapping his foot. Hovering over you, he pointedly questions your work performance. In response, you defiantly cross your arms, smirk during his probing questions, and gesticulate when responding.

Later that day, he berates your workplace performance in a humiliating public tirade. Coworkers exchange horrified looks; you glare at him. When he upbraids you again, your facial expression contorts into a mix of indignation, resentment, and anger. You storm to the bathroom. “I am done working for this jerk,” you seethe. That was 18 months ago.

Your supervisor’s verbal attacks continue. Sighing deeply, you trudge home each night. Something has to change. While the pay and benefits are great, the demoralizing work environment saps you of mental and physical strength.

Setting aside your loathsome boss, let’s focus on what you can control: your nonverbal language. A cool, confident demeanor projects an aura of professionalism. In Forbes, Dr. Travis Bradberry links body language to likability, confidence, and trustworthiness. You are communicating and sending a powerful message when you smirk, clench your fists, and cross your arms in response to your boss’s demeaning behavior.

Emotional intelligence is an innate and learned skill. You can improve your “second language” through repetition. For example, instead of pointing at an object, I now open my palms to gently direct a store clerk. Minor, yes. But not to a beleaguered clerk shuttling between demanding, unappreciative customers.

New York City, among other school districts, has mainstreamed emotional and social concepts in its academic curriculum. Today’s lesson plan: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and relationships.

Looks kill both your personal and professional aspirations. Before you glare, glower, and, yes, squint, remember how you communicate may be more important than what you communicate. Crack the nonverbal code and you will attain a prized status among colleagues and peers: a PhD in (unspoken) communications.


Kahn, J. (2013, September 11). “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” New York Times. MM 44.

Larizadeh, A. (2013, July 8). Forget Business School: Why An Emotional Education Is Indispensable. Retrieved from

See The Light image from Shutterstock


Seeing the Light: Emotional Intelligence

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Seeing the Light: Emotional Intelligence. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 6 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.