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Dr. Robin Stern

The importance of unlocking emotional intelligence

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Repeat after us: Emotions matter. There's a reason we put this quote up top. All too often they are overlooked when it comes to honing leadership, learning or decision-making skills, relegated to the back-burner in favor of, say, brainpower or moxie. But what if we told you emotions are key to being more effective in your life? You read that right. Get ready to flip the script. 

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This April, we're honored to support Dr. Robin Stern, licensed psychoanalyst and educator, and her charity, the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which conducts research and teaches people about the power of emotions. "It’s important for us to have skills to understand our emotions, discuss them with others, and channel them in ways that support our goals," says Stern, who notes that there's very real science and data at work here. 

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In this wide-ranging and insightful interview, learn why emotions matter for all of us every day and how the Center's work will help kids and adults live more compassionate, purposeful and productive lives.

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First things first: What is emotional intelligence? 
Put simply, emotional intelligence is being smart about your emotions—using your feelings to inform your thinking and your thinking to inform your feelings.
At the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, we break emotional intelligence down into five key skills and use the acronym RULER so we can remember them easily: 

R for recognizing emotions in ourselves and others, 
U for understanding what causes and what tends to result from our emotions,
L for labeling how we feel so that we can communicate clearly, 
E for expressing emotions in ways that are helpful based on norms and context, and 
a second R for regulating our emotions with strategies that support us in achieving our goals. 

Research shows that these skills help us all—from young children to adults—use our emotions wisely and help us to be effective in school, at work, and in life in general.

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nd why is it important?
Emotions are a part of us and everything we do. They affect whether we pay attention or are distracted, whether we make good decisions or bad ones. They affect our ability to learn, create and maintain relationships, and ultimately how healthy we feel mentally and physically. For this reason, it’s important for us to have skills to understand our emotions, discuss them with others, and channel them in ways that support our goals. 

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What are the biggest challenges you face in your line of work?
Our work in emotional intelligence starts in schools. We work with school leaders, teachers, students, and their families. One of our biggest challenges is that people undervalue the role of emotions in everything we do. We’ve had leaders say to us “We focus on academics at our school, not feelings” or “At our school, teachers and students know to leave their emotions outside of the school doors.” And, we sometimes have teachers who deny the power of their own emotions. In one study we conducted, we had teachers journal about a good day or a bad day and then grade an essay. Teachers who wrote about a good day ended up grading the same essay on average 1 to 2 whole letter grades higher than did those teachers who wrote about a bad day. The most interesting part is that when asked if they think their mood impacts their grading, they said “not a chance!” 

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The idea that I’m getting at here is that emotions matter. They affect everything we do, and they are part of us. We carry them with us, and we can’t box them up and push them aside. When people start to recognize this, we say they have adopted an “emotions matter mindset.” There are lots of ways we help people to get there. Reflecting on times in their own lives when their emotions influenced their decisions or actions is one way. Another way is by showing them all the research evidencing the tremendous impact of emotions in all we do. 

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When we move from schools to families and out into communities, we often encounter the challenges of people’s personal histories and mindsets. Over and over again, we see the power of presenting the scientific evidence on emotions and providing experiential learning to shift people’s thinking to understanding that emotions matter all day, every day. 

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Could you tell us about some of the communities who have adopted the RULER Approach and how RULER has benefited them?
RULER has been adopted by thousands of school communities nationwide and worldwide. We’ve worked with hundreds of thousands of leaders, teachers, students, and families in private, public, and charter schools from rural, urban, and suburban neighborhoods. I think the best way to explain the benefits of RULER is to hear from the schools themselves. The video here: https://www.rulerapproach.org/ says it all!

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For the mothers in our audience, we have to ask—how can we develop and reinforce emotional intelligence in our children?

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There are three basic ways that parents can support their children’s emotional development and emotional intelligence, through (1) modeling the skills, (2) creating a supportive climate at home for children to feel comfortable exploring and expressing their emotions, and (3) providing opportunities for children to learn and practice the skills. I’ll say a little about each one. 

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Let’s start with modeling—one thing I like to tell all parents is, “your children are watching you!” They are like sponges, absorbing all they hear and see. And, what they’ve absorbed becomes a part of their own thoughts and behavior, often without them even knowing where or when they picked it up. Because of this, it’s important that we, adults, are being our best selves and showing our kids the behavior that we’d like to see in them. Simply reminding ourselves often that our children are a captive audience to all we say and do is a great place to start. 

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I said earlier that emotions matter. It’s our Center’s tagline in fact, our hashtag (#emotionsmatter). And, because they matter and affect all we do, it’s important to pay attention to them and channel them in helpful ways. But, we also need to accept our feelings. All of them—because all emotions matter. Though we often wish we could feel happy or calm all the time, we must recognize that sadness and anger and other unpleasant emotions also have a place in our lives. Sadness from a loss sends a signal to others that we need their help. Anger about an injustice can motivate us to stand up to a bully or defend a cause. As parents, it’s our job to create a space where our children feel comfortable feeling and expressing the range of their emotions. 

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We can help children practice the skills of emotional intelligence. We can point out conflict at home or at school or between characters in a book or a movie. Then, we can ask our children what they think the characters or people are feeling (recognizing), why they may be feeling that way (understanding), what are the best words to describe those feelings (labeling), and what are the best ways for showing (expressing) and managing (regulating) those feelings. 

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Essentially, we can make emotional intelligence a practice in all our interactions with our children—everything from keeping calm when getting them ready for school in the morning to reminding them that kindness is cool! 

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And, this doesn’t stop when they go off to college and beyond. My daughter, Melissa, put a Mood Meter on the door of her college dorm—so that she and her friends could know what their mood was before they entered the room. Now, at 29, she regularly reminds me about the Mood Meter and another of our tools when she says, “Mom, please take a Meta-Moment to be your best self.” Recently, my son, Scott at 31, reflected on a conversation we had and said “Mom, I think you were trying to tell me how to feel the whole time!” I didn’t mind at all—not being “perfect” at the practice of emotional intelligence. I know it is the work of a lifetime. And, I am grateful and happy that my kids know that emotions matter!

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"Teachers who wrote about a good day ended up grading the same essay on average one to two whole letter grades higher than did those teachers who wrote about a bad day."

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And what about when it comes to social media and cyberbullying?
We're committed to making social media a more comfortable and safer place for kids, where positive emotions are contagious. Marc Brackett, our Center’s Director and I have consulted with Facebook, and other social media platforms for many years—with the goal of bringing the knowledge and skills of emotional intelligence into the design of the technologies. We’ve built social resolution tools and also created, along with many partners, the Facebook bullying prevention hub that has been translated into several different languages across the world.  

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In our continued work with Facebook, our goal is to help make social media a community where connection is authentic and kindness is celebrated and encouraged. 

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What are some other topics at the forefront right now? Whether for adults or kids?
We are hearing about loneliness, depression, and anxiety on the rise for our teens. Research we have conducted in schools and in the workplace reveals that across our nation, people of all ages are stressed. And, you have only to listen to the news, or look at the latest alerts on your cellphone to know that there is urgency in spreading the word about emotional intelligence. 

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We have many partners and supports who are responsive to the stress and struggles of our young people, including violence, inequity, and suffering worldwide. In fact, our Center recently joined forces with the United Nations Women for Peace Association and Facebook Education to convene leaders to work toward the ultimate goal of bringing emotional intelligence training to every student in every community in the world. 

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Any advice on broaching the topic with adult friends or family? Especially those who grew up in a stiff-upper-lip household and may be resistant to the idea that "emotions matter"?
People seek advice when they are uncomfortable with something in their life, or just want to “be better” at something—whether it’s work, relationships, or something else. I find that sharing your own learning experiences—situations or stories that have changed you as a person or changed the way you think about something—can be helpful. Along those lines, if you can share a story about a time when being smart about your emotions or applying emotional intelligence really made a difference in your life—that can be a very powerful “convincer.”