I’m 28. I’ve been interested in EI for years. I can define it. I’ve consumed and created content about it. I’ve acted in emotionally-intelligent ways. But I’m just now beginning to consciously and actively practice it.

And I’m not alone.

Although the term was coined in 1990 by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, the concept of EI wasn’t popularized until 1995 when Daniel Goleman published his book, Emotional Intelligence. Since then, the positive impact of EI curriculum in schools referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL), has been proven by studies and mandated by many K-12 institutions.

While scientists recognize the positive impact EI education has on youth development, researchers have also studied how EI impacts the personal, social, academic, and workplace success of adults. Studies show how EI can positively affect things like project success, interpersonal facilitation and stress tolerance, and job satisfaction. And Harvard Business School says that EI accounts for nearly 90 percent of what sets high performers apart.

So, what exactly is EI?

And if SEL programs weren’t a thing when you were in school, how can you strengthen your EI as an adult?

Demystifying EI

Although it takes time to actually develop high EI, it’s relatively simple to understand. Emotional intelligence is a two-part skill: (1) The ability to understand and manage your own emotions, and (2) The ability to recognize and influence the emotions of those around you. Fortunately, we can strengthen our EI throughout adulthood.

3 Ways to Develop High EI

I don’t think you need to be convinced that EI is important, so let’s cut to the chase: Here are three ways you can practice and strengthen your EI.

1. Build emotional literacy by labeling your emotions. When someone asks how you’re doing, how often do you say, “Fine” or “Good”? We tend to simplify our emotions, and as a result, don’t usually describe our feelings accurately. Sure, labeling emotions may seem elementary, but it's critical to building EI. In fact, self-awareness, or the ability to know what you’re feeling and why, is the first domain of EI. Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Amelia Aldao Ph.D., uses an example to illustrate why emotional labeling is so important: “If my coworker messed something up and I'm only aware of the anger his mistake makes me feel, I might think that I'm justified in lashing out at him. But if I happen to be aware that my emotional response also includes anxiety about having to fix this issue, I might be more motivated to down-regulate my anger so that I can recruit his help.” If you want to strengthen your EI, take time to recognize and describe the complexity of your feelings.

2. Practice reflective listening. The ultimate goal of EI is to build stronger connections with others. One way to connect with others more intentionally is to recognize and understand their emotions. Our success in this arena depends on one thing: Our ability to listen. We need to not only understand what someone is saying, but also what they’re feeling. To develop these skills, we can employ something called ‘reflective listening,’ where we seek to understand someone’s ideas and emotions, and then offer their emotions back to them. Reflective listening can sound like this: “It seems like you’re [disappointed, anxious] about [this project]. What’s up?” This simple statement and question acknowledges someone else’s emotion and opens up an empathetic conversation. To strengthen your EI, teach yourself to listen and respond in emotionally-intelligent ways.

3. Strengthen your ability to focus. In other words, practice mindfulness. As a guest on Oprah’s podcast, Daniel Goleman said, “...the road to compassion starts with pure attention. . .Every time you bring your attention back from being distracted. . .[you strengthen] your circuitry for focusing.” When we can control our focus—paying attention to our own emotions and the emotions of others—we can build our EI. Tanaya Walters, an EI Specialist, sums this up well, writing, “Because mindfulness promotes emotional regulation, it helps to lessen feelings of impulsiveness by widening the gap between what happens to us and what we do with it.”

At the end of the day, EI is about paying attention in an effort to build connections—paying attention to our own emotions, the emotions of others, and then acknowledging how these emotions interact with each other. If you want to strengthen your EI, thoughtfully practice three things: (1) Label your emotions with descriptors beyond fine and good; (2) Practice reflective listening by seeking to understand a speaker’s ideas and emotions; and (3) Engage in mindful activities like yoga, meditation, and phone-free days. Whether you’re 28 or 82, you can increase your EI by consciously and actively practicing it.