Do you have friends or loved ones who consistently show a sense of empathy and understanding? Do you have co-workers who seem to cause conflict on a regular basis? The difference in these personalities might boil down to emotional intelligence (or lack thereof).
Unlike cognitive intelligence—a measure of one’s mental learning abilities—emotional intelligence refers to the way one responds emotionally to situations, meaning it’s not guaranteed by straight A’s in school or a perfect score on your SATs. The good news is anyone can improve their emotional intelligence—it just takes a bit of self-awareness to start. Here’s everything you need to know about emotional intelligence, what it is and how you can put yours into practice.
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What Is Emotional Intelligence?
“Emotional intelligence is the ability to use, understand and manage one’s own emotions in a positive way, and to manage stress, communicate effectively, de-escalate issues, problem solve and empathize with other people,” says Joanne Frederick, a licensed professional mental health counselor based in Washington, D.C. The term “emotional intelligence” rose to prominence in 1990 thanks to psychologists John D. Mayer, Ph.D. and Peter Salovey, Ph.D. It has since become a common phrase to describe emotional aptitude not just in interpersonal and romantic relationships, but in relationships between parents and children and in academic and professional settings.
Emotional intelligence has become a prized trait in leadership, as well. In a leadership or workplace setting, emotional intelligence applies to one-on-one interpersonal relationships, particularly since a leader’s emotional behavior and perceptiveness can affect a larger group of people. “A leader needs to have all of those skills, including de-escalating and empathizing with people, especially in these times,” says Frederick. “Emotional intelligence is one of the key things of working with people and helping people grow.”
How Does Emotional Intelligence Differ From Cognitive Intelligence?
The word “intelligence” often brings up thoughts related to cognitive intelligence or someone’s IQ. “Cognitive intelligence focuses on our abilities, such as intellect, logical reasoning, analytic skills, memory and ability to learn and retain information,” says Beth Pausic, PsyD, director of behavioral health at Hims & Hers.
Rather than focusing on how well you perform on an exam or recall information, emotional intelligence measures how well we express and cope with emotions—and how we respond to the emotions of those around us, Pausic adds.
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Signs of High Emotional Intelligence
The following characteristics are often indicators of emotional intelligence, according to both Frederick and Pausic.
- Self-awareness to know your own strengths and weaknesses—and to identify and express your emotions.
- Ability to regulate a full range of emotions.
- Motivation to pursue goals without allowing negative self-talk to hinder your progress.
- Ability to let go of mistakes and grudges.
- A curiosity about others and their feelings.
- Empathy and understanding of others’ emotions and feelings.
- Effective communication skills, including the ability to use “I statements,” such as “I’m hearing you say X,” instead of accusatory “You statements,” such as “You said you’re underappreciated as an employee.”
- Ability to manage relationships and respond appropriately to conflict.
How Is Emotional Intelligence Measured?
It may seem like emotional intelligence is less quantifiable than cognitive intelligence, but there are tests that can measure your degree of emotional intelligence. The Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), was engineered by Mayer, Salovey and David R. Caruso to publish work on emotional intelligence. It’s an online test you can take by answering prompts for about 30 to 40 minutes. It focuses on how we perceive emotional information, how we understand emotions, how we facilitate thoughts and how we manage emotions, Frederick says. While there are some free practice tests online, there is a charge for the MSCEIT test. You can also take the Self-Report Emotional Intelligence Test (SREIT) online for free.
Studies about emotional intelligence tests have found that women tend to score higher than men, in part because women tend to rate their own ability to perceive emotions (even on people’s faces) as high. Other studies claim test results don’t necessarily vary based on gender identity, but that males are often socialized to be less familiar with or engage with their own and others’ emotions on a lesser scale.
How Is Emotional Intelligence Used?
In general, emotional intelligence can be used in a variety of everyday scenarios.
In parent-child relationships, emotional intelligence involves learning about your child, their communication style and how to bring up certain conversations, says Frederick. Emotional intelligence can also help decipher your child’s love language or languages by asking how they prefer to receive affection and praise. Parents can learn to “speak their language,” even if that’s not how you personally prefer to receive love, Frederick adds.
Friendships and Relationships
Communicating effectively is a large piece of emotional intelligence, and plays a significant role in relationships. Friendships and romantic relationships require finding the best way to communicate and reach a person emotionally, says Frederick. For example, some people might feel most comfortable having an important conversation face-to-face, rather than via phone or text. If you ask someone about their preferred communication style, you’re taking their needs into consideration and ultimately improving empathy, Pausic adds. Another aspect of emotional intelligence in all types of close relationships is self-awareness of your own feelings—and control of those emotions.
“In both friendships and romantic relationships, higher emotional intelligence can help you to actively listen to others, remain calm under pressure, better understand your own feelings in a given situation and be less reactive,” Pausic says. You might have to have a difficult discussion with a friend or housemate about certain habits of theirs that have been bothering you—and that discussion should also involve you actively listening to their concerns about you without getting defensive. Then you’re both able to set goals of how you can improve upon your habits. However, remember to lead with self-awareness and empathy, says Pausic.
In the workplace, emotional intelligence takes place when empathizing with others, expressing emotions openly and actively listening to others, says Pausic. In fact, studies have shown that practicing emotional intelligence in professional spaces, which might involve managers taking employees’ personal and mental health needs into account, can improve employees’ performance. Research among groups of school principals has also suggested that people who hone their emotional intelligence at work might enjoy higher job satisfaction.
Workplace leaders with high emotional intelligence tend to manage their own emotions well, as well as display a better ability to problem solve, make decisions and resolve conflicts, says Pausic.
Managers can apply emotional intelligence to remain attuned with what their employees might be experiencing. They should also foster an environment conducive to active listening, where employees can openly share what they’re feeling and be heard, Pausic adds.
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Establishing Healthy Boundaries
Setting boundaries is applicable in both interpersonal and professional relationships. “One thing people have problems with is saying ‘no,’” Frederick adds. Emotional intelligence helps you know when a boundary is necessary and to communicate that boundary effectively. “This can help you maintain healthy relationships and confidence in speaking up for yourself and setting boundaries and standards that work best for you,” says Frederick.
Here’s an example: Perhaps your partner called you a rude name. First, you should let your emotions cool down. Then, set an emotional boundary by asking to speak about the incident—owning up to your part of the argument going the wrong way and telling them that you will not accept name calling, says Frederick. Moving forward, your partner should engage in conversation with you without going to that level, she adds.
Healthy boundaries can and should also be set in the workplace, according to Frederick. These perhaps won’t involve as many emotions as a romantic relationship, but they’re just as important for your own well-being. Setting a professional boundary could look like asking to not be called at home once the workday is over, or telling colleagues that you’re only on your email during certain hours, suggests Frederick. Emotionally intelligent boundaries at work could also mean saying “no” to projects you don’t have time for or refusing to take on another team member’s work,, says Frederick.
Can Emotional Intelligence be Learned?
Just like with cognitive intelligence, you can learn to be more emotionally intelligent—and it’s never too late to start. To begin, focus particularly on skills like developing your own self-awareness and paying attention to your own feelings in situations when your emotions bubble up, says Dr. Pausic. Additionally, it’s essential to become more aware of other people’s emotions. Try to actively listen when other people are speaking and respond to the emotions they’re expressing, she says.
Emotional intelligence also involves managing your reactions to situations. “If you tend to act impulsively, start responding to a situation rather than reacting,” Dr. Pausic adds. That might mean taking a beat to process what happened by stepping away and thinking about the best way to respond both verbally and non-verbally.
If you’re confused about how to respond in certain scenarios, it may help to involve other people in your process of building up self-awareness. Talk through your own feelings with friends or family, and ask for feedback as to whether something you said or did seemed appropriate (and be open to applying that feedback), says Frederick. “It can also be helpful to talk to a mental health provider or psychologist to help you enhance your emotional behaviors,” she adds.
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The only way to really become more emotionally intelligent is to practice, whether by checking in with other people for help, problem solving when the opportunity arises or by supporting other people’s efforts to improve through constructive feedback.
What Are The Risks of Low Emotional Intelligence?
“Having low emotional intelligence can potentially have an impact on your relationships as well as your own quality of life,” Dr. Pausic says. Signs of low emotional intelligence include poor social skills, not listening to others, blaming others for your problems, reacting impulsively, being argumentative and lack of self-awareness or empathy, she adds.
People who require work on their emotional intelligence may have trouble problem solving in difficult situations or managing their own stress in healthy ways. There are real risks for those who don’t learn to process emotions well, though it can sometimes take a major conflict, loss of a significant relationship or loss of a job for someone to come to terms with their own lack of emotional intelligence, says Frederick. “If it’s rock bottom for them, that could force them to take a closer look at themselves and listen to feedback,” she says.