What Is EI?
What it is and Where it Comes From
Emotional intelligence (EI) has become a buzzphrase, a sought-after commodity with a toehold in many worlds — from a solution for ending school bullying and building better personal relationships to a strategy for climbing the corporate ladder quickly or engaging new customers. From kindergartens to corporations, all across the country, people have begun to take seriously the idea that improving the affective (emotional) can make us more effective.
But what is emotional intelligence? There may never be a single clear-cut definition of emotional intelligence among researchers, but we know it when we see it. We all know people who just seem to have a knack for living well. People who seem to have an uncanny understanding of other people and an incredible ability to inspire and motivate them. People we like and trust virtually on sight. People who are self-aware and sensitive to others and seem to always manage their lives with wisdom and grace, even in adverse situations. They may not even be the smartest or most attractive people in the room; yet, they always outshine those who are.
This mysterious blend of psychological abilities is what we used to refer to in vague terms as “people skills,” “social skills,” “soft skills,” “personality” or even “character.” But our modern view of these special human skills provides a more precise understanding of what it means to be emotionally intelligent.
The phrase emotional intelligence was first coined by Yale psychologist Peter Salovey and University of New Hampshire’s John Mayer (Mayer, Salovey, 1997) to describe a subset of socio-emotional intelligence skills involving the ability to perceive, monitor, identify and regulate our own feelings and the feelings of others, and to use that information to motivate, plan, and achieve.
Emotionally intelligent people know what they’re feeling as they feel it, and are adept at understanding what others are feeling, too.
But emotional intelligence is not simply new age, touchy-feely idea with no foothold in the world of practical reality or rational thought. Emotion conveys crucial information about relationships and helps determine how we manage them. Mayer and Salovey defined emotional intelligence as the capacity to: 1) reason about emotions, and; 2) of emotions to enhance thinking. In other words, emotional intelligence allows us to accurately analyze emotional information and to integrate thinking and feeling effectively.
Emotional intelligence is not the conquest of heart over mind; rather, it is the intelligent intersection of heart and mind — of emotion and thought.
Emotional intelligence, in the end, is a practical matter.
Three Perspectives of Emotional Intelligence
Mayer and Salovey’s four branches
Mayer and Salovey proposed that emotional intelligence involves four abilities or competencies, each of which helps facilitate the next.
The most fundamental building block of EI, the crucial foundation for understanding emotions. The capacity to accurately perceive emotions in oneself and others, including nonverbal cues (e.g., facial expressions, voice, gestures, body language touch, space, eye contact).
Many researchers have proposed that as much as 90 percent of emotional communication is nonverbal (Rosenthal, 1979), thus the ability to decode nonverbal language in others can be the critical first step to understanding them.
Facial expressions of emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are universally recognizable in human beings across cultures. Nonverbal cues may send messages by repeating, contradicting or substituting for a verbal message (e.g., eye-rolling). Other cues might complement or increase the impact of a verbal message (e.g., a pat on the back) or accent or underline the verbal message (e.g., pounding the table) (Wertheim, 2005).
Using emotions to facilitate thought.
Constructively integrating heart and mind — emotion and cognition (e.g., reason or logic) — to guide thinking. For example, emotions can drive creative thinking (e.g., writing a song or poem).
Emotions can help prioritize our thoughts and direct our attention and focus to matters that are most important and away from those that aren’t.
Even intense emotions like anger or sadness can be used constructively. For example, anger can motivate us to fight against injustice; sadness can provide useful information about an important loss. Using emotions constructively diminishes our fear of them.
Each emotion conveys its own patterns of possible messages and their associated actions. To fully understand an expression of emotion, we must have the ability to comprehend and analyze the possible meanings associated with that emotion; for example, a message of fear may indicate an associated desire to avoid or escape. A message of anger may indicate that sender feels mistreated and high emotional intelligence allows you to ascertain whether the person seeks to retaliate or make peace.
To the extent that emotions are under our conscious control, we tend to remain open to emotional signals as long as they aren’t too painful and block those that overwhelm us.
In between lies our emotional comfort zone, and within that zone, emotionally intelligent people can regulate their own emotions in order to achieve their personal and social goals.
They can also help regulate the emotions of others (e.g., calming and empathizing with someone to create harmony and help them achieve their goals).
Managing emotions is not the same as denial or overcontrol of emotions; it’s not about deliberately choosing to feel only “positive emotions” or “avoid all things unpleasant.” A rich and diverse range of emotional experiences is part of what it means to be human. If we ignore or repress painful emotions, we’re ignoring the information embedded in those emotions that allows us to see the whole picture and make informed decisions. Effective emotional management is about balance, expressing emotions in ways that are useful to ourselves and others, that are authentic to our internal experience, and appropriate and proportionate to the situation; for example, the capacity to self-soothe anxiety or to shake off hopelessness and gloom. Aristotle described emotional intelligence in the Nicomachean Ethics like this: “Anyone can become angry — that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way — this is not easy.”
Core competencies of emotional regulation include the ability to effectively manage stress and to channel emotions into purposeful actions.
Goleman’s 5 Dimensions
In 1995, psychologist Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence, catapulted the concept of emotional intelligence to the bestseller list and to an international topic of conversation. Goleman believes that emotional intelligence is comprised of five primary dimensions or “emotional competencies” that can make or break our ability to succeed in life.
The cornerstone of emotional intelligence, self-awareness is the ability to consciously monitor your emotional state, to recognize and understand your own emotions and the effect they have on your thoughts and behavior and on others.
You’re aware of your own feelings as you’re feeling them and able to accurately distinguish subtle differences between emotions (e.g., the difference between despair and disappointment). Hallmarks include: self-confidence, realistic self-assessment, intuitiveness, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Self-regulation or self-management.
Knowing what to do with your feelings once you’ve identified them; the ability to manage your emotions in healthy ways. You’re able to control or redirect disruptive feelings, moods or impulses and think before acting. You’re able to suspend judgment when necessary, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances. Hallmarks include: self-control, emotional stability, trustworthiness, integrity, a tolerance for ambiguity or gray areas, flexible thinking, and openness to change.
Internal motivation or self-motivation.
Ability to channel your feelings and impulses purposefully and pursue goals with energy and persistence. You have the capacity to focus your emotions on a desired goal and delay gratification if it serves the greater long-term goal. Generally involves curiosity in learning, a passion to work for reasons that may extend beyond external rewards such as money or status, an inner vision of what’s important in life, and a sense of flow — the mental state first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as the feeling of enjoyment and energized focus that accompanies the act of being fully immersed in an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991). Hallmarks include: organizational commitment, strong drive to achieve and optimism and hopefulness, even in the face of failure.
The ability to understand, share and accept the feelings of others and treat them in a way that’s appropriate to their emotional reactions. While empathy does not necessarily always include compassion, the hallmark of empathy is an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, experience an event that’s happening to someone else as if it were happening to you and respond appropriately. Other hallmarks might include: cross-cultural sensitivity, leveraging diversity (i.e., cultivating opportunities through diverse people), and an ability to soften the negative emotions or experiences in others. (For more information see: How Sahaja Meditation Increases Empathy and Compassion.)
Proficiency in managing relationships, building rapport and building networks through good interpersonal skills that enable others to feel good about you. You have strong social awareness — you understand the emotions, needs and concerns of others, are adept at reading nonverbal emotional cues, negotiating and communicating effectively and developing and managing close relationships. Hallmarks include: persuasiveness, inspiring or influencing others, ability to resolve conflict and find harmony, consensus or common ground, team-building and leading change.
Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences
Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner was one of the first psychologists to view interpersonal and interpersonal emotional qualities as a form of intelligence. He proposed that we possess Multiple Intelligences — at least nine measurable intelligences, each of which can include at least twenty-five additional subintelligences (Gardner, 1975). (For example, musical intelligence might include some or all of subintelligences such as: playing music, singing, writing musical scores, conducting, critiquing, or appreciating music, as well as the ability to perceive and execute tonality, harmony, rhythm.)
Gardner described emotional intelligence as the capacity to “discern and respond appropriately to the moods, temperaments, motivations and desires of other people.” He described what he called “personal intelligence” as, in part, “access to one’s own feeling life — one’s range of affects or emotions: the capacity to instantly effect discriminations among these feelings and eventually, to label them, to enmesh them in symbolic codes, and to draw upon them as a means of understanding and guiding one’s behavior.”
He proposed two Intelligences that, combined, help paint a portrait of emotional intelligence.
Interpersonal-social intelligence draws on a range of perception modalities, including visual, auditory, tactile and even olfaction (smell) and gustation (taste) to understand others, interpret their behavior and interact with them effectively. People with high interpersonal intelligence learn through interaction and are adept at collaborating, communicating, giving and receiving feedback, intuiting others’ feelings and motives and forging emotional connections. They’re empathetic, skilled in conflict resolution and relationship management, and tend to have many friends. Typical examples include: politicians, actors, mediators, teachers, social workers.
The ability to construct an accurate self-perception and use that knowledge to plan and direct your life. People with strong interpersonal skills are self-aware, self-reflective and intuitive, thus they are attuned to their inner feelings, values, beliefs and aspirations. This self-reflectiveness allows them to step outside of themselves and objectively contemplate the true meaning and purpose of their lives. People with high intrapersonal intelligence enjoy working at projects for which they feel passionately. They’re intrinsically motivated and don’t require external rewards. They’re generally self-confident, produce well thought-out opinions and often offer creative wisdom and insight to others. They have strong concentration skills and are likely to engage in such activities as meditation, silent reflection, metacognition techniques, higher-order reasoning, complex guided imagery, deep emotional processing and deep thinking. Typical examples include: theologians, psychologists, philosophers.
In contrast to the narrow range of abilities that standard IQ tests measure, Gardner’s view of EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient) offers a richer portrait of what it means to be human. It also provides inspiration about how we might go about developing and expanding these abilities in ourselves.
Where Does Emotional Intelligence Come From?
Why do some people have greater emotional intelligence than others?
Emotions are shaped by experience. Even very young children can develop a repertoire of sensitive responses when they observe others acting compassionately. Conversely, if the feelings that children express are not acknowledged and reinforced by the key adults in their lives, they gradually become less able to recognize them in themselves or in others. Their low EQ will eventually cause problems in their relationships and they’ll struggle to manage their everyday moods.
EQ is not genetically fixed from birth, nor is it entirely an early childhood development. While IQ changes little after our teenage years, emotional intelligence appears to be largely learned, continually evolving as we go through life and learn from our experiences (sometimes the hard way!). Over time, we can get better at controlling our impulses, managing our emotions, motivating ourselves, and fine-tuning our social skills. The old-fashioned word for this form of growth is maturity.
Can emotional intelligence be taught?
Most psychologists agree that EI can be learned by people who already show an aptitude for it. Just as we can have above-average musical or athletic skills and yet can train these abilities to be even greater, we can learn to enhance emotional intelligence. People with anger management problems, for example, can learn to modulate their expressions of anger. Girls who have eating disorders, which have often been associated with an inability to distinguish between distressing feelings or handle frustration, can learn how to recognize and differentiate between emotions. The special abilities innate to emotional intelligence (e.g., self-awareness and self-regulation) work hand in hand with healthy self-esteem. In order to understand the emotional lives of others, we must first be able to understand our own. (For an in-depth look at self-esteem, see: 7 Popular Myths About Self-Esteem and How Sahaja Meditation Builds Healthy Self-Esteem.)
Emotional intelligence is a set of portable skills that we take with us from school to school, job to job, relationship to relationship. For information on how meditation can help, see How Sahaja Meditation Improves Emotional Intelligence.
Csikszentmihaly, M. (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perrenial, New York.
Gardner, Howard. (1975) Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York, Basic Books, 1993.
Goleman, D. (1998) Working with Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books, New York.
Mayer, J.D., Salovey, P. (1997). What is Emotional Intelligence? Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence. New York: Basic Books.
Rosenthal, Robert (1979) Skill in Nonverbal Communication: Individual Differences.
Wertheim, Edward G. (2005) The Importance of Effective Communication.