Building Emotional Intelligence: Healthcare and Your EQ

Clinical Corner

By Brian Gallagher

The alarm clock goes off and you realize you hit snooze for the third time. You’re due shortly at the hospital’s emergency department (ED) but now you’re running late. Your teenagers have used up all the hot water and you are forced to rinse the shampoo from your hair with water that feels like it ran off the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. You hope your morning coffee will get you back on track – but your spouse drank nearly all the coffee and the only thing to do is pour the ground-filled coffee from the bottom of the pot and run out the door. Traffic is horrendous, delaying you even further. When you get to the ED, you find five patients who have all been waiting more than 30 minutes. You think, Did the previous shift stop working an hour before I was supposed to arrive?

You are irritated and frustrated – and now you’re blunt with staff members. Empathy is gone as you see the 4th not-really-an-emergency. Don’t people understand emergency rooms are for emergencies? A hangnail is not life threatening. As the morning progresses, there is no transportation for your one truly sick patient. Then the CT scanner goes down. This constant barrage of annoyances tests your patience.

How do you respond? Why do you feel so frustrated and angry? You have completed an advanced degree in medicine, but what would have prepared you to handle this?

Learning to Think

Every clinician has days when the increasing demands on our time and attention are too much. We feel overwhelmed. When counseling patients, we remind them that they cannot control the world around them, but they can control how they respond to the world. This is why it’s critical to learn to control your brain – because your brain controls your body and its response.

As David Foster Wallace states in This is Water, “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from the experience.”

It seems so easy to say – but not necessarily easy to do. This is where you must rely on your emotional intelligence or your EQ.

The EQ concept was initially introduced by psychologists Peter Salovey, PhD and John D Mayer, PhD. They defined emotional intelligence as:

  • the ability to perceive emotions and accurately recognize emotions in yourself and others as they are occurring
  • the ability to use emotions to facilitate thinking and guide you to what issues need attention
  • the ability to understand emotions, their causes, meaning, and effect on thoughts and behaviors
  • the ability to manage emotions to attain specific goals

Strong emotional intelligence can help you successfully navigate the obstacles thrown your way. It can also help you excel by managing your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. In other words, your EQ helps you control your emotional and physical response to the world.

10 Ways to Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

Many interpersonal conflicts arise when EQ is low or fails. Is there something you can do to increase your EQ? With a stronger EQ, will the team function more efficiently? Can you display a high EQ to patients and does that yield higher patient satisfaction?

The answer to these questions is yes. Developing emotional intelligence means having the self-awareness to understand emotions, body language, and individual motivation factors, with the ability to manage, control, and redirect emotional impulses. EQ allows you to build rapport and manage relationships with your patients and team members by using empathy to understand the other perspective.

Just as we can build our IQ, we can build and strengthen our EQ. According to Lisa Goren, “some people have more of an innate ability to flex their EQ muscles, but everyone can practice behaviors that cultivate the emotional components of our intellect.” Here are 10 practical strategies she offers for building your EQ:

  1. Clarify your Intent: Decide what you need to be more intentional about and then align your actions toward that goal.
  2. Practice Self-Care: Proper hydration, nutrition, rest, and exercise are the building blocks for increasing your EQ capacity.
  3. Check Your Emotions: Staying aware of your feelings and your physical response to them can help you better manage your stressors and response.
  4. Think Before You Act: Take a deep breath and focus before you respond. You’ll gain control over your emotions.
  5. Be Curious: Instead of reacting or making assumptions, curious people pause to ask questions. They want to better understand the other person’s experience and perspective.
  6. Know Your Weakness: According to Brenè Brown, emotionally intelligent people are open about their weaknesses. They’re willing to show enthusiasm, motivate others with an inspiring vision, and change course as needed. They’re also quick to admit, “I don’t know.”
  7. Pay Attention to the World Around You: Read the room and tune into the emotions and habits of your team members. Be intentionally mindful and take your attention off your phone so that you can be an active, engaged listener and respond accordingly.
  8. Connect to Others: Be genuine. Learn about your team members and patients. You’ll build deeper trust with your patients and your team will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and work hard for you.
  9. Learn to Apologize: Extending genuine, timely apologies can help maintain strong, healthy relationships and teach us how to regulate our emotional response when things do not go as planned. Naturally, we want to hide our mistakes – but there is nothing more powerful and contagious than authentic humility and accountability. 
  10. Show Appreciation: Greet the team each day and thank them every night.

By making a conscious effort to develop and strengthen your EQ, you can reduce stress, build a stronger team, reduce interpersonal conflicts, and achieve desired outcomes. You can also lead by example. Your team will function at a higher level, become aware of their own emotions, and respond intelligently to them, as well as the emotions of their fellow team members. They will even be able to handle the crazy mornings – and be their best self when working with staff and patients.


Mayer JD, Salvoney P, Caruso DR. Emotional Intelligence: theory, findings, and implications. Psychological Inquiry. 2004; 15(3): 197-215

Goleman D. What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review. January 2004.

Goren, L. Ten Strategies for Building Emotional Intelligence and Preventing Burnout, American Academy of Family Physicians. 2018; Jan/Feb: 11-14.

Brown B. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Penguin Random House; 2012. References 1. 2. 3. 4.

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