Ten Strategies for Building Emotional Intelligence and Preventing Burnout


You couldn't have made it through medical school and residency without a high intellect, but have you developed your emotional intelligence?

Fam Pract Manag. 2018 Jan-Feb;25(1):11-14.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.

You're running late to clinic because of road construction that you could have sworn wasn't supposed to begin for an other two weeks. Finding a parking spot is also a challenge this morning, and when you finally walk into the office you're greeted by a pile of phone messages, a schedule filled with some of your most complex patients, and a meeting request to discuss new quality measures and reporting requirements. You're already feeling stressed and worn out, and you haven't even taken your jacket off yet.

Given the rough start to your day, you're curt with your medical assistant and, instead of feeling empathy toward your most difficult patients, you feel frustrated by them. By the time your theoretical lunchtime rolls around, your colleagues and staff are avoiding eye contact and interaction with you. You need to get their buy-in for a new initiative you've been asked to lead, but the tension is too thick today and you're just too busy.

It's tough to show up as your best self when your day is filled with frustrations and increasing demands for your time and attention. Even if you're normally calm, cool, and collected, you may find yourself reaching your boiling point faster and more furiously than ever. Unending regulations, organizational priorities, and technological demands can turn your medical school fantasy on its head, and the impact of incivility in our culture only exacerbates a system already in peril.1 As a result, you may be feeling at risk of burnout, like so many of your colleagues, and wondering what you can do.2

While you cannot necessarily control the dysfunctional environment in which you practice, you can control how you respond. In the absence of sweeping institutional and industry change, physicians must look inward to ensure their personal goals and values are pursued each day, despite the obstacles that arise at every turn. An important skill that can help you become more resilient and more effective in the face of the unprecedented stress and change is emotional intelligence.


  • Emotional intelligence (EQ) can help you become more resilient and more effective in the face of unprecedented stress and change.

  • EQ involves the ability to accurately recognize emotions in yourself and others as they are occurring and then manage those emotions to improve relationships and achieve the desired outcome.

  • Tips for building EQ include practicing self-care, pausing before responding to emotional situations, and being curious and asking questions instead of making assumptions.


The concept of emotional intelligence, or EQ, was introduced in 1990 by psychologists Peter Salovey, PhD, and John D. Mayer, PhD, who defined it as follows:

  • The ability to perceive emotions — that is, to accurately recognize emotions in


Lisa Goren is a health care executive coach and physician engagement consultant in Portland, Ore.

Author disclosure: no relevant financial affiliations disclosed.


show all references

1. Feeley D. Civility is everyone's responsibility. IHI Improvement Blog. May 9, 2016. http://bit.ly/2BO2l9u....

2. Shanafelt TD, Hasan O, Dyrbye LN, et al. . Changes in burnout and satisfaction with work-life balance in physicians and the general U.S. working population between 2011 and 2014. [published correction appears in Mayo Clinic Proc. 2016;91(2):276]. Mayo Clinic Proc. 2015;90(12):1600–1613.

3. Mayer JD, Salovey P, Caruso DR. Emotional intelligence: theory, findings, and implications. Psychological Inquiry. 2004;15(3):197–215.

4. Goleman D. How to be emotionally intelligent. The New York Times. April 7, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/education/edlife/how-to-be-emotionally-intelligent.html.

5. Goleman D. What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review. January 2004. https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader.

6. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard Health Publishing. January 2015. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response.

7. 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.

8. Weng HC, Hung CM, Liu YT, et al. . Associations between emotional intelligence and doctor burnout, job satisfaction and patient satisfaction. Med Educ. 2011;45(8):835–842.


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