Whether you know it or not, you’re dealing with people’s emotions all the time. Maybe it starts with an overly perky barista who hands you your morning coffee, or the bubbly receptionist welcoming you to the office. Both of their smiling faces signal their joy to be handing you a latte or forwarding your calls. But how do you recognize their emotions so automatically?

Like the brainpower that fuels logic puzzles and math problems, your general intelligence has an emotional counterpart, which scientists have named (perhaps rather on-the-nose) “emotional intelligence.” Your EQ isn’t necessarily measured with a standardized score, but various models help place you on a general spectrum for such skills as recognizing fear over surprise, or pride over contempt. EQ helps doctors improve patient care, business leaders understand their staff, and the general public lubricate their social skills to reduce stress and just get happier.

“A little increase in emotional intelligence is correlated with big increases in quality of life, in effectiveness, and in decision-making,” said Joshua Freedman, CEO of 6 Seconds, a non-profit that specializes in helping people boost their EQ. Freedman has worked with professional football players, nurses, and the average Joe. The principles are the same as general intelligence, he says. We may inherit some portion of our EQ from emotionally intelligent parents, but it’s also like a muscle. “The way we define it, is that it’s a learnable skill set.”

So how exactly can we stop being a warm body and raise our EQ? Freedman offers two suggestions, and the first is to consider what goes into emotional intelligence and work backward from there.

People with high EQs are self-aware, self-managing, and self-directing. They don’t just engage in introspection, trying to understand how they behave (self-awareness) to change those behaviors in their own lives (self-management). They also adapt to the people they’re interacting with (self-direction). In everyday speak, we’d say these people are on the same emotional wavelength. As if by magic, they instantly tailor their emotional engagement to their conversation partner — avoiding a sensitive joke here, probing a little deeper there.

From the outside, it may seem like these people are performing divinations. But Freedman suspects the brain chemistry of a highly emotionally intelligent person is pretty accessible. The science seems to back it up. When we feel a particular emotion — say, anger — chemical messengers called ligands zip through our bodies and hook into various receptors, where they send molecular messages that change our physiological state. We don’t just know in our heads that we’re angry. We sweat, we tense up, and our hearts race: We feel angry.

Dealing with these emotions is hard. Over time they get even harder, particularly if we don’t deal with them. Neuroscientists refer to the ensuing hormone dump (of the stress hormone cortisol, among others) as a “cascade effect,” in large part because the loop tends to build on itself, in the same way that ignoring a fire lets it build. Luckily, that’s where Freedman’s second strategy comes in handy. If we stop viewing emotions as unchained beasts, which exert total control over our livelihoods, and instead see them as points of data, the problem simplifies. Our EQ jumps immediately.

“If you’re performing a lab test and you get some result that’s unexpected or extreme, what that leads you to do is further inquiry,” he said. “I’d like to encourage people to take a similar approach to their and other’s emotions.”

What people generally find with that extra dose of curiosity, Freedman added, is improved responsiveness — or, to keep with the vernacular, a better EQ. This is especially helpful since our feelings tend to occur in batches. Who we fight with most are also those who we love deeply, and without the self-awareness that the anger comes from a place of love, the fight could last a lot longer.

Or maybe the circumstance is as innocuous as getting a cup of coffee or saying hello to someone behind a desk. The upshot is that these little moments compound over time. Research suggests worldwide stress is increasing. Emotional intelligence is what lets us avoid the misunderstandings that lead to this anxiety, and we might need it more than ever.