What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Intelligent?

What does it mean to be emotionally intelligent

Posted July 2020 by John Sherk, B.S.W., B.S. Bible; MDiv.; 6 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on emotional intelligence? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

First developed by Daniel Goleman, the concept of “emotional intelligence” has only been around for about 25 years. Before this, when assessing candidates for a job, leadership qualities, or even romantic partners, the go-to factor was general intelligence. This is where intelligence quotient (IQ) came in, and the development of IQ tests, beginning in 1904 with Alfred Binet. Now, whether or not IQ tests accurately assess one’s “book smarts” is one matter, but people also began to recognize there are plenty of people who may score lower on an IQ test, but who nevertheless appear incredibly smart (often more so than those who scored higher on an IQ test). So, from this, the concept of emotional intelligence and emotional quotient was born. 

Emotional Intelligence Defined

What is emotional intelligence? Popular magazine and website, Psychology Today, defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others.” Additionally, they list three skills concomitant with emotional intelligence:

  • Emotional awareness – the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions
  • Emotional asset – the ability to harness one’s emotions and apply them to thinking and problem solving
  • Emotional management – the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions, and helping others to do the same.

Coming out of The Enlightenment, people placed a great emphasis on being “objective,” seeing emotions as obstacles to rational thinking, problem-solving, scientific investigation, conflict resolution, etc. While intense emotions can sometimes hinder those things, the reality is that we’re emotional beings. Researchers into the characteristics of emotional intelligence identify emotions as potential assets rather than liabilities. So, those with high emotional intelligence can turn their emotions into aids for problem-solving, conflict resolution, and the like.

Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence

With a basic understanding of emotional intelligence, what are some characteristics of emotional intelligence? According to Daniel Goleman, someone with a high emotional quotient (EQ), often exhibits the following characteristics:

  • Self-awareness – A lot of people can identify their emotions as they arise, but people with a high EQ can not only identify them but also identify a) why they feel that way, b) how that feeling impacts their decision-making, and c) how to either use that emotion positively or soothe it.
  • Empathy – as Brené Brown discusses, the difference between sympathy and empathy is that sympathy offers consolation, but from outside the emotional experience of the other person. Empathy enters into that emotional experience. For people with low EQ, showing empathy in this way feels scary and costly. Many people can offer sympathy, but people with high EQ can show empathy because they don’t fear the emotional experience and can manage the costs.
  • Self-regulation – Many people can identify their emotions, but then regulate them in more or less helpful ways (i.e., drugs, alcohol, mindless media consumption, etc.). But people with high EQ can regulate their emotions in ways that help their overall wellbeing.
  • Impulse Control – From toddlers to adults, all sorts of people struggle with delay of gratification. But people with high EQ have the resources to resist immediate results for the sake of greater long-term benefits.
  • Motivation – Related to impulse control above, being able to regulate one’s impulses and urges often leads to greater motivation. People with high EQ have motivations for success besides money or personal status.
  • Social Skill – At times, people may not be able to take a joke or keep a secret. People with low EQ often take things personally, feel the need to try to impress others, and/or can become either “clingy” or distant. Consequently, they usually lack good social skills. However, people with high EQ “feel comfortable in their own skin.”

Understanding the characteristics of emotional intelligence can help people develop their EQ. Therefore, with the characteristics of emotional intelligence in mind, we’ll discuss how this impacts leadership and relationships.

Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Businesses, churches, political groups, and the like used to search for qualified leaders based upon their general intelligence. But as you can see, a leader with the characteristics of emotional intelligence listed above easily outshines those who may score high on IQ tests, but have no genuine people skills.

This is exactly what Daniel Goleman discusses in his 1998 article “What Makes a Leader?” from the Harvard Business Review. In the article, Goleman examines the characteristics of emotional intelligence we mentioned above in a leadership context. Here’s how he breaks it down.

  • Self-awareness – leaders with high EQ recognize how their feelings can affect other people, including the job of performance of others. A leader with high self-awareness won’t be passive-aggressive (or aggressive, for that matter), but feels comfortable expressing their feelings and allowing clients or staff the space to do the same.
  • Empathy – empathy in a leadership position doesn’t mean trying to be everyone’s personal therapist. Rather, it involves thoughtfully considering the feelings of those under you. For example, it looks like making decisions that might hurt the bottom line in the short run, but will benefit morale and lead to success in the long run.
  • Self-regulation – leaders with excellent self-regulation skills won’t take personal or private frustrations out on their staff. Rather than blame-shifting, they’re not afraid to take responsibility for mistakes.
  • Motivation – leaders are often known for their drive and ambition. But this can lead to cutthroat practices or a strong career, but a weak home/family life. Anyone can use greed or personal insecurity as motivators. But the work will suffer if the money isn’t good enough or if the job doesn’t fulfill that personal need. By contrast, you can spot leaders with high IQ if they enjoy the work itself, seek creative challenges, and have earnest energy of eagerness.
  • Social Skill – in a leadership role, this isn’t simply about having an amiable personality. Instead, emotional intelligence in leadership here means that one can bring people together for a common purpose, use friendliness to resolve conflict, and make people feel like partners rather than just workers.

Emotional Intelligence in Relationships

High emotional intelligence in a leadership position isn’t the only relevant application. Having high emotional intelligence in one’s romantic life is vital as well. Here’s what a partner with high EQ looks like:

  • If one partner struggles with anxiety, fear, self-doubt, shame, etc., rather than scolding them for it, a high IQ partner can empathize and provide meaningful help.
  • Rather than taking the frustrations of a bad day out on their partner, one with great EQ will look to them for help and/or acknowledge and apologize when they let frustrations get to them.
  • When conflict arises, partners with high EQ can express directly how they feel, accurately summarize how the other partner feels, and move toward reconciliation. Furthermore, they can recognize deeper issues that underlie conflict. For example, if you see a couple arguing heatedly about something small like a dirty dish in the sink, often the conflict is much bigger and deeper than the dirty dish. Partners with low EQ will argue endlessly about the dish but never get underneath it to what’s deeper.
  • Partners with high EQ can confess mistakes or times when they’ve hurt the other partner. They can distinguish between the mistake itself (“I forgot to call you”), and what that mistake may or may not mean (“Therefore, I’m a terrible partner and a worthless person”).
  • A partner with good EQ will neither be clingy and needy nor cold and aloof. They will neither think, “I need you to live or I’m not okay” nor “I don’t need you in any way at all.” Rather, they can help foster a healthy interdependence in long-term relationships.

Emotional Intelligence and Therapy

Finally, if you’re reading this, you’re interested in psychology, and may want to become a therapist. You could be thinking, “Developing the characteristics of emotional intelligence sounds a lot like what therapy is for!” And you’d be right. Unfortunately, those with unhealed trauma, mental health disorders, and/or mood disorders are more likely to suffer from a low EQ. Therefore, if you want to become a therapist, it’s important to understand EQ so that you can better serve your clients. Find out more here.

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