Emotional intelligence (EI), also known as emotional quotient (EQ), refers to the ability to recognize, understand, manage, and effectively act on your emotions and the emotions of others. It involves a set of skills and traits that are crucial for personal and social success.
But these skills come more naturally to some than others. The good news is, that with some effort, you can improve your emotional intelligence.
The first step is understanding your own emotions and what you need to handle different situations. Doing so requires radical emotional awareness and confronting parts of yourself you might not like. This process of self-discovery can be scary. But it’s worth it.
You’ll learn to take better care of yourself, including your mental and emotional health. And after, you’ll be better equipped to extend that emotional support to others.
So, what is emotional intelligence? And how can you develop yours?
Let’s get into it.
What is emotional intelligence?
Psychologist and author of the New York Times bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., states that emotional intelligence is the culmination of a select group of skills: self-awareness, relationship management, and social awareness.
In addition, there are several schools of thought on how emotional intelligence works. Simply put, the concept of emotional intelligence describes your ability to:
- Perceive, evaluate, express, and regulate your emotions. If you’re angry about something your boss said in a meeting, emotional intelligence promotes the necessary self-regulation to discuss the situation calmly and privately.
- Understand, interpret, and respond well to the emotions of others. If your co-worker had a death in the family, emotional intelligence could involve offering comfort and support and covering their workload while they grieve.
For some, these abilities don’t come naturally. More often than not, they require copious self-work and self-discovery.
As you begin to understand yourself better, this knowledge becomes a framework for your interpersonal relationships. You can better support a grieving colleague because you understand how a similar event would impact you and your emotions.
And if you know the person well, you might recognize that what you need isn’t what they need. Your emotional intelligence will help you intuit how to react to the situation.
What is a lack of emotional intelligence?
A lack of emotional intelligence can manifest in various ways. Here are some common signs and behaviors associated with lower emotional intelligence:
Difficulty recognizing and expressing emotions
People with low emotional intelligence may struggle to identify and articulate their emotions. They might not be able to describe how they feel or why they feel a certain way.
Poor impulse control
Individuals with low emotional intelligence may have difficulty managing their impulses and may react impulsively in emotional situations. This can lead to outbursts, overreacting, or making hasty decisions without considering the consequences.
Insensitivity to others
People with low EQ may be less attuned to the feelings and needs of others. They may inadvertently disregard or dismiss the emotions of those around them, leading to strained relationships.
Difficulty with empathy
Lack of empathy means they struggle to understand and connect with others emotionally. They may not be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes or appreciate the perspectives and feelings of others.
Poor emotional intelligence can result in difficulties in conveying thoughts and emotions effectively. This may lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and breakdowns in communication.
Difficulty with conflict resolution
Those with low emotional intelligence may struggle to resolve conflicts constructively. They may escalate disagreements, avoid addressing issues, or refuse to acknowledge their own role in conflicts.
Limited social skills
Low EQ can hinder the development of social competencies necessary for building and maintaining healthy relationships. This may include difficulty in establishing rapport, cooperating, and collaborating with others.
Difficulty adapting to change
People with low emotional intelligence may have a hard time coping with change and may resist it, which can impede personal and professional growth.
Stress and burnout
A lack of emotional intelligence can make individuals more susceptible to stress, as they may have difficulty managing their own emotions and the demands of challenging situations.
Poor leadership and teamwork
In leadership roles or team settings, individuals with low emotional intelligence may struggle to inspire and motivate others, resulting in ineffective leadership and decreased team cohesion.
Examples of emotional intelligence
High emotional intelligence will look slightly different from one individual to the next. Typically, they are empathic, understanding, and agile. Here are some ways these competencies and other related qualities can exemplify high EI:
- Active listening: Someone with high emotional intelligence listens attentively and empathetically to others, making them feel heard and understood.
- Empathy: They can put themselves in others’ shoes, understanding and sharing their feelings, which helps in building strong, supportive relationships.
- Self-regulation: Individuals with high emotional intelligence can manage their emotions effectively, staying composed and rational in stressful situations.
- Conflict resolution: They are skilled at resolving conflicts by addressing underlying emotions and finding mutually beneficial solutions.
- Motivation: Those with high emotional intelligence are self-motivated and can inspire and encourage others to achieve their goals.
For a clearer view of how emotional intelligence can be perceived in day-to-day life, here are three real-world examples of high emotional intelligence in action:
Example of emotional intelligence during conflict resolution
In a team meeting, two colleagues disagree about a project. A team leader with high emotional intelligence steps in to facilitate the discussion. They actively listen to both sides, validate their emotions, and help the individuals identify common goals. By acknowledging the emotional aspects of the conflict and guiding the conversation toward a solution, the team leader helps resolve the issue amicably and maintains a positive working environment.
Example of emotional intelligence in customer service
A customer contacts a customer service representative with a complaint. The representative with high emotional intelligence actively listens to the customer’s concerns, acknowledges their frustration, and empathizes with their situation. They remain calm and composed, even in the face of a challenging interaction. By demonstrating empathy and a willingness to address the issue, the representative not only resolves the problem but also leaves the customer feeling valued and satisfied.
Example of emotional intelligence in leadership
A manager with high emotional intelligence leads a diverse team of employees. They understand the individual strengths and weaknesses of team members and know how to motivate and support each person effectively. By recognizing and appreciating their team’s emotions and needs, the manager fosters a collaborative and harmonious work environment, which leads to increased productivity and job satisfaction among team members.
In these examples, individuals with high emotional intelligence demonstrate their ability to navigate emotionally charged situations, build positive relationships, and effectively lead and influence others. Their skills in recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions contribute to successful outcomes and stronger interpersonal connections.
Positive impacts of emotional intelligence
Developing your emotional intelligence takes work, but it will positively impact your work and personal life:
Potential negative impacts of emotional intelligence
Being highly emotionally intelligent has its benefits, but there are also potential downsides to consider. Here are some of the drawbacks:
The 9 components of emotional intelligence
To fully develop your emotional intelligence, you’ll go through nine phases. Each builds on the last, taking the shape of a pyramid. When you reach the peak, you’ll have developed healthy emotional skills that allow you to connect more deeply with yourself and the people around you.
Here’s a breakdown of each phase:
1. Emotional stimuli
The pyramid’s base is composed of your reactions to the world around you. When an event occurs, you process it through your physical senses — such as sight, smell, or touch. Your brain then interprets the event through its emotional mechanisms, inciting behavioral responses.
For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, your brain might react with anger, and your behavioral response is to honk your horn.
2. Emotion recognition
This is the second layer of the pyramid. It refers to your ability to recognize others’ feelings through non-verbal communication. Humans have an innate ability to read others’ emotions through cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language — whether we’re conscious of it or not.
If you’ve ever asked someone how they’re doing and heard “I’m fine” as a response, their non-verbal cues might have communicated something different to you. If their voice sounded tight, you might think they were angry. Or, if they’re sniffling and their eyes are watery, you might deduce that they’ve been crying and aren’t fine at all.
The third layer involves knowing yourself. This means clearly perceiving your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, values, motives, and feelings. If you don’t know these things about yourself, it’s difficult to understand and interact with others, making it nearly impossible to properly respond to others’ feelings.
Once you’ve mastered self-awareness, you can intervene and change any of your bad behaviors. Identifying what you’re feeling, what caused it, and how you usually respond helps you recognize negative behaviors and work to react differently.
Next time an employee makes a mistake, you might change your approach. Instead of immediately scolding them like usual, you might take a moment to decompress before offering constructive feedback.
5. Social awareness
Now that you can manage your emotions, turn your attention to the world around you. You’re now better equipped to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, needs, and concerns. You can put yourself in their shoes and understand their point of view.
Perhaps you’re a working mom who is also a manager. You previously had a boss who didn’t understand the challenges of balancing work and family life. Ideally, this would help you understand what working parents on your team need.
6. Social skills
At this level in the pyramid, you should be able to identify other people’s emotions, understand their points of view, and act on that information.
Your social skills and adapting to other people’s needs allow you to be a great collaborator, accommodating different communication styles, diffusing tension, and resolving conflict.
If you’re a team leader, your empathy will inspire your workers to do their best. You know what motivates each of them and can support them accordingly.
7. Universality of emotions and self-actualization
At this point in the pyramid, you understand that everyone, including yourself, is an emotional being that requires care and compassion. You also see that everyone is capable of reaching their full potential and deserves support.
You might experience this with an intern. Fresh out of school, they definitely don’t have the experience to hit the ground running — but you recognize that, if given a chance, they can make a difference on your team.
When you reach transcendence, you can help others self-actualize, find fulfillment, and realize their potential. You recognize your struggles in getting to this point, so you want to help others progress up their own pyramids.
At this point, you’re ready to be a leader. You understand your team’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and main motivators. Because of this, you’re equipped to support, inspire, and elevate them to new heights.
9. Emotional unity
At the pyramid’s peak, you have a new appreciation for your interconnectedness with people. You understand your own emotional dependence on others and their dependence on you.
This makes you a more caring and compassionate person. Recognizing other people’s emotions comes more easily to you because you feel connected to them. They’re struggling through life, just like you are.
BetterUp can help you master each phase of the pyramid. Our coaches will help you recognize patterns and behaviors you weren’t previously aware of. Then you can take your first steps toward higher levels of emotional intelligence.
How to measure emotional intelligence skills
Emotional intelligence is measured through an emotional quotient (EQ). Your EQ is a reflection of your proficiency in:
- Managing emotions and emotional responses
- Being aware of your emotional state
- Interpersonal skills
- Social Intelligence
- Relationship management
Rating your behaviors on a scale through a self-report test is the most common way to measure your EQ. Afterward, tally up your results to determine your EQ.
Mental health professionals can also administer EQ tests. Doctors John Mayer, Peter Salovey, and David R. Caruso created one of the most popular tests in the field, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). The MSCEIT measures your ability to perceive, identify, understand, and manage emotions.
Goleman developed the Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI) with his colleague and professor Richard Boyatis of Case Western Reserve University, and researchers at the McClelland Institute.
How to tell if someone is emotionally intelligent
You might be able to tell if someone is emotionally intelligent by looking for certain signs and characteristics. Here are some common indicators:
- Self-awareness: Emotionally intelligent individuals have a strong sense of self-awareness and understand their own emotions, strengths, and weaknesses.
- Empathy: They show empathy towards others, meaning they can understand and share the feelings of others.
- Ability to manage emotions: Emotionally intelligent people can effectively manage their own emotions and handle challenging situations without becoming overwhelmed.
- Good communication skills: They can communicate assertively and effectively, expressing their thoughts and feelings while also being receptive to others.
- Openness to feedback: Emotionally intelligent individuals welcome and benefit from constructive criticism, using it as an opportunity for growth.
- Authenticity: They demonstrate authenticity and genuineness in their interactions, being true to themselves and others.
- Resilience: Emotionally intelligent people are resilient and can bounce back from setbacks, using challenges as learning experiences.
Tips to improve emotional intelligence
These components of emotional intelligence offer insight into how to improve your emotional intelligence to understand yourself and others.
Here are some example techniques on how to improve your emotional intelligence:
Meditation is known to increase mindfulness, boost your mood, decrease perceived stress, and increase interpersonal awareness in the workplace. It’s a powerful tool for introspection and helps you solidify the foundation of your emotional intelligence pyramid.
2. Read literary fiction
In some cases, reading fiction can help enhance empathy. This type of literature often offers detailed depictions of characters’ minds, psychology, and relationships, which can translate to real-life emotional insight.
3. Develop your communication skills
Emotional intelligence can lead to effective communication. Do this in conversations by:
- Listening closely and reflecting on what was said before responding
- Acknowledging and affirming other people’s opinions before presenting your own — even if you disagree
- Gathering information to aid in decision-making
4. Identify your boundaries
Emotional intelligence doesn’t mean putting other people’s emotional well-being before yours if it’s a detriment to your own. Instead, it’s about being aware of your and other people’s limits. Setting and respecting boundaries is a fundamental part of emotional intelligence.
5. Ask for help
A professional therapist or BetterUp coach can help you identify your toxic behaviors and emotions and how to address them. This will improve your self-awareness, ability to cope with stress, and overall mental health.
6. Step out of your comfort zone
Challenging yourself and trying new things will teach you a lot about handling and overcoming stress, your limits, and the type of support you need. The more you step outside of your comfort zone, the larger your frame of reference for connecting with other people.
Try taking a class, going on a trip, or taking on new projects. These experiences will help you improve your emotional intelligence.
Developing emotional intelligence
Sometimes, things get messy. Emotions become overwhelming, and people lose their cool. In these moments, you may want to abandon feelings altogether. Life would certainly be less complicated if we were all robots. But, it would also be a lot duller.
Emotions make us human. And what is emotional intelligence if not a way to authentically connect with others?
At BetterUp, we want to help you build meaningful connections. We can help you develop emotional intelligence, improve your social skills, and present your best self to the people in your life.