Though you may think of software engineering as a field that primarily values logic, knowledge, and problem solving, there is another type of intelligence that is just as important: emotional intelligence.
More and more employers are looking for coders who have “soft skills”, such as the ability to work well with a team, to empathize with coworkers and customers, and to de-escalate emotional situations. All of these skills require a high degree of emotional intelligence. What is emotional intelligence, and why is it important? And how can software engineers, coders and programmers develop emotional intelligence before or during their career? You’ll learn the answers to those questions in this article.
What Is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional intelligence, or EI, is defined as the ability for one to “recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments.”
Though the concept has been around for decades, the term “emotional intelligence” gained popularity with the publication of the book Emotional Intelligence in 1995. Since then, it has come to be recognized as an important trait in leaders and senior professionals, as well as employees in general.
Recognizing Your Own Emotions and Those of Others
One key aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to correctly recognize both one’s own emotions and those of others. For example, a coworker may be visibly upset. An emotionally intelligent person can determine whether the person is angry, disappointed or sad -- and whether that emotion was caused by something at work or something else entirely.
The same is true for your own emotions. By figuring out what you’re feeling and why, you’ll be able to better control your reactions to things, leading to better interactions with others.
Responding to Emotions Correctly
Once you’ve determined what you or someone else is feeling and why, emotional intelligence will help you to react appropriately to the situation. For example, if the coworker is upset because of something you did (or didn’t do) at work, you can decide whether it would be best to apologize immediately, or perhaps to wait a day for things to calm down.
Likewise, if you understand why you are feeling a certain way, you can take steps to change how you’re feeling or deal with it in a healthy way. You might conclude that someone who upset you didn’t mean to, and so there’s no reason to continue to be mad about it. Emotional intelligence will help you to make those kinds of decisions that will help you to get along with those you work with.
Why Emotional Intelligence is Important for Software Engineers
As mentioned, traditional measures of intelligence like logical thinking, problem solving, and memory are usually what come to mind when we think of software engineers. But there are many good reasons for software engineers to develop emotional intelligence throughout their careers.
Software Engineers Work With Teams
Today, very few software engineers work completely by themselves. This means that at some point, you will be interacting with another person, which means you will need emotional intelligence. In fact, most software engineers work as part of a larger team, perhaps using a methodology like Scrum or Agile, which involves lots of collaboration with others.
Additionally, you may need to work with non-technical people such as managers, executives, creative professionals, and salespeople. Emotional intelligence will help you to explain complicated concepts in a way that is understandable to non-technical people. This is a valuable skill especially for senior engineers.
Whether in a technical or non-technical role, everyone appreciates feeling heard and understood. Having emotional intelligence will go a long way toward helping you to succeed in your career and quickly adjust to a new role or a new environment.
Software Engineers Design For People
Another area where emotional intelligence is important for software engineers is when designing new software or systems. Though many teams now include a dedicated user experience (UX) designer, software engineers can contribute much to the usability of the products they design.
For example, you may think about how easy it would be for someone who comes from a different culture or background to use your product. Or someone who is using your program for the first time, or who has a disability. Is your product easy-to-use for everyone who might need to use it, not just a small group? Emotional intelligence will help you to see things from another viewpoint and, in turn, design better software.
Employers Value Emotional Intelligence
Whether you plan to work for a big tech company or strike out on your own as a freelancer, emotional intelligence will serve you well in your career. Many companies are actively looking for signs of emotional intelligence throughout the hiring and interview process, and so having it can help you to stand out in your job search.
Even at smaller companies or as a freelancer, emotional intelligence is important. People like working with people who they like, and so showing emotional intelligence when you interact with clients or coworkers can help you to build a better and more satisfying career.
How to Develop Emotional Intelligence as a Software Engineer
Though some research indicates that all of us are born with a certain amount of emotional intelligence, other studies have shown that EI can be developed with practice. Whether you’re just starting out in your career or you’ve been in it for decades, you can learn to improve your emotional intelligence.
Emotionally intelligent people tend to be empathetic -- that is, they understand how others are feeling, or may feel, and take that into consideration. Before assuming how someone feels, take a moment to consider how they may really be feeling, and what may have led them to feel that way. Then, let that realization guide how you react.
For example, your coworker may be late completing their part of a project. Rather than assuming that they’re lazy or trying to get out of work, consider what else you may know about them. Maybe they’ve been sick, or their child has been having a tough time at school. Empathy will help you to put yourself in their position and see things from their point of view. In turn, this will allow you to react in a better way to potentially challenging situations.
Empathy will also help you to make better design and usability choices for the products and software that you work on. By considering how someone from another part of the world or from another background will view your product, you will show empathy and be able to design better solutions that help more people.
Think Before You React
Another important part of emotional intelligence is recognizing one’s own emotions and being able to keep them under control. This can be hard to do in the heat of the moment. That’s why emotionally intelligent people tend to pause before responding when emotions are running high.
For example, imagine you receive an email from a coworker that’s written in a way that upsets you. Maybe they’re showing frustration about something and directing it toward you. Rather than immediately dashing off an equally snippy reply, wait a while before responding. After you’ve calmed down, you’ll be able to write a reply that is less emotional and can defuse the situation instead of escalating it.
Practice Every Day And Don’t Give Up
One thing to know about working on emotional intelligence is that it can be difficult. All of us say things that we don’t mean and upset other people. And we get frustrated, upset, sad, and even angry from time to time.
When this happens, don’t take it as a sign that you can’t build emotional intelligence. Instead, view it as an opportunity to keep practicing. Just like when you started learning to code, you had to practice it every day in order to see results. In the same way, make it a goal to work on emotional intelligence every day. Find one small way to show empathy or thoughtfulness, and before you know it, it will come naturally to you.