Emotional Intelligence: The One Skill You Need to Stand Out, Plus Tactics to Boost It

What are you looking for in a contractor? What are your gold standard requirements? What makes a freelance contractor stand out? I’m consistently fielding these questions and I suggest that the answer is simple – high emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient [EQ]).

According to Talent Smart, 90% of high performers have high EQ, while a staggering 80% of low performers have low EQ. This is a distinguishing factor that sets individuals apart from others with identical hard skills – and I took notice. Contractors with high EQ navigate the contracting landscape with confidence; they use their skill and sensitivity to emotional influences to build and maintain successful relationships, taking personal and client satisfaction to the highest levels.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor your own and other people’s emotions, to distinguish between different emotions and use this information to guide thinking and behaviors.

In his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman outlines five elements that define emotional intelligence:

  • self-awareness
  • self-regulation
  • motivation
  • empathy
  • social skills

The great news is that by enhancing your skills for each of these elements and tapping into a growth mindset, you can strengthen your overall EQ.

Let’s explore the five elements of EQ and practical tips for each.

The Five Components of Emotional Intelligence


Self-awareness is your ability to accurately assess your emotions and actions and how they impact your performance and other people. Self-aware individuals are confident, communicate strengths and weaknesses realistically, and seek feedback.

How can you improve your self-awareness?

  1. What vs. why. Organizational psychologist, Tasha Eurich, tells us that asking the question what instead of why is the key to self-awareness. For instance, rather than asking, “WHY isn’t this working for me?” ask “WHAT can I do to make this work?”
  2. What’s the source? Get acquainted with the triggers of your varying emotions. Was it the situation, the people, the timing? Once you start recognizing the source of your emotions, you can get a handle on the way you respond.
  3. Seek feedback. Ask trusted colleagues for feedback. Their input can help you recognize your behaviors in various situations and provide insight into areas to develop. For instance:
    • Ask for observations and feedback about your behaviors during a specific situation when your emotions were heightened.
    • Ask for input on how you impact the project team (or client) performance or dynamics. Ask for both positive examples and opportunities for improvement.
    • Ask for examples of how you respond to others’ emotions.


Self-regulation is your ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses. Effective self-regulators demonstrate trustworthiness, effective time management, and integrity. They consistently think before acting.

How can you improve your ability to self-regulate?

  1. Practice the pause. Take a moment to pause before you speak or act to allow time to reset or organize your thoughts. You can acknowledge your emotions and then respond, rather than react.
  2. Prioritize. Create a routine and system to prioritize your tasks, goals, and projects and to help avoid overcommitting. Along with efficiency, making sure you are delivering on your commitments and goals on time is essential. You and your clients will be glad you did!
  3. Breathe deep. When you find yourself feeling tense or stressed, focus on taking slow, deep breaths to calm yourself. Be sure to inhale through your nose for 5 seconds and exhale through your mouth for 5 seconds.
  4. Own it. Admit when you’ve made an error without making excuses to yourself or others. You’ll quickly build trust and rapport and learn from the situation. Lead with a clear apology rather than starting with an explanation of the details. Once you have apologized and taken appropriate responsibility for your actions, you can empathize with the impacted parties if appropriate. Remember to address how you are repairing the situation.
    • Avoid: “I’m late turning in my weekly report because I needed to meet with Zeke this morning about a new client.”
    • Try: “I apologize. I’m late providing my weekly report. I recognize it was due at 11am and I missed turning it in. I didn’t prioritize appropriately and took a meeting with a colleague that interfered. In the future, I’ll make a point to reschedule meetings that impact my commitments. I know you must be frustrated. I’ll have this report to you at 1pm.”


Emotionally intelligent people are self-motivated. Their drive for work goes beyond money or a title. They are typically resilient, optimistic, and goal oriented.

How can you improve your motivation?

  1. Track your accomplishments. Set up a system to track your work and goal progress – be sure to update it daily. Research shows that one of the most motivating influencers is making progress in meaningful work. This process has been coined the Progress Principle. Give it a try!
  2. Collaborate. This can quickly re-energize you, lead to increased levels of engagement, and provide the benefit of shared intellectual property and innovation.
  3. Timing is everything. Most of us have a block of time in our day when we work best. Identify that time and use it to your advantage by tackling high priority or difficult tasks. I work best early in the morning and align my most challenging items of the day then.


Empathy is the ability to sense others’ needs and emotions and recognize how they see things. Emotionally intelligent individuals anticipate how actions and behaviors influence others.

How can you improve your ability to empathize?

  1. Go the extra mile. Providing exemplary customer service and going out of your way to understand and meet client needs will increase client satisfaction and loyalty.
  2. Be curious. Take an interest in learning about others and their situations.Curiosity is one of the best ways to identify how to connect, generate ideas, and find solutions to problems. “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire
  3. Put yourself in their shoes. Set your perspective aside and be present to see a challenging situation from someone else’s point of view. Most of us naturally connect with circumstances using our own perspective, so putting yourself in another’s shoes takes practice. Actively listen, watch for non-verbal cues, and consider their behavior patterns to help see things through their lenses. You’ll get there!

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Social Skills:

People who are emotionally intelligent are excellent at building and managing relationships. They establish rapport and trust quickly, effectively communicate, and are masters at initiating change.

How can you improve your social skills?

  • Be a communication ninja. Get to know your colleagues and clients and tailor your communication style to them for a successful working partnership. Communicating in their preferred style increases productivity and builds rapport.
  • Positivity please. Did you know that one person smiling or exhibiting optimistic behavior can change the climate of a meeting or a room? Create a positive environment, even if you need to start by forcing a smile on your face or in your voice, as the act itself can have impacts on you and others. The bonus is that when you smile, you’ll release endorphins that make you more relaxed.
  • Change champion. Be flexible; view changes as exciting opportunities rather than challenges. Be the skilled voice for colleagues and clients by guiding change with empathy, optimism, strategic thinking, and solution orientation. Embracing change can be hard, and a leader with high EQ makes the journey smoother.

Want to stand out among your peers? Start strengthening your EQ with these tips today! View other tips like these and much more for freelance contractors here!

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About the Author:

Dana is a trusted Human Resources leader who believes in creating inclusive and engaged teams. With over 20 years of education and Human Resources experience, she lends her expertise to human resource strategies and programs that support the overall business, focusing in the areas of total rewards, talent acquisition and management, performance management, inclusion, compliance, engagement, and culture. She works to inspire a growth mindset, encouraging ongoing learning and change while fostering engagement. She is instrumental in maintaining a foundation of sophisticated talent and a comprehensive range of professional resources, ensuring ttcInnovations continues to be a place where talent aspire to work. Dana believes that people strategies empower successful business outcomes, and ttcInnovations being a service-oriented company — people are its most important asset. Dana is an active member of the local and national SHRM chapters and serves on the Forbes Human Resources Council. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and their beagle, Abby. Her favorite pastime is spending time with her family, particularly her three grandboys.

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