Gone are the days when intelligence was a test score or a number on the IQ scale. Thanks to modern technology, from brain scans to social media, the idea that intelligence is more multifaceted than book smarts is becoming widespread. Emotional Intelligence might be the closest thing to a buzzword that 21st Century psychology has.
But what is emotional intelligence? While it’s easy to think Emotional Intelligence (or EQ as it’s commonly referred to) is all about mushy feelings, it’s actually an idea born from psychological research and now strengthened by neuroscience. But while IQ is a household term, EQ is still making its way into the popular vernacular.
Simply put, EQ is a person’s awareness of his/her own emotions and his ability to use that awareness in life situations. How well do you understand yourself? And do you use that knowledge to succeed in the world around you?
In the widely-recognized book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, EQ is defined as: “your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”
EQ Is One Third of Your Personal Intelligence
We get a lot more behind-the-scenes access nowadays: doctors can see inside your brain; you can see inside celebrities’ lives; at any given time you can follow world leaders on Twitter. For good or ill, we see the “why” behind people’s behavior more than ever. And the more we see the workings of human intelligence, the more clear it is that IQ isn’t everything.
Since scientist Edward Thorndike first wrote about something he called social intelligence in the 1920s—“the ability to understand and manage men and women, boys and girls”—the idea that intelligence is multifaceted has spread like wildfire. Only 70 years later, Peter Salovey and John Mayer (the Einsteins of EQ theory) coined the term Emotional Intelligence. By the 90s, EQ entered pop culture’s consciousness thanks to a book by New York Times science writer Daniel Goleman. The point is: it’s fairly new. Compared to Einstein or the IQ test, which was developed in the early 20th century, EQ is a baby.
Even so, it’s now widely acknowledged and accepted that personal intelligence is a combination of EQ, IQ, and personality. Emotional intelligence, intellectual capability, and your personality traits make up your own unique brand of “smart.”
The Four Pillars of Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence is a broad term. Before diving deeper, let’s revisit the definition: EQ is a person’s awareness of his/her own emotions and his ability to use that awareness in life situations. It’s right there in the definition—EQ has an intra-personal side and an inter-personal side. It is partially about understanding emotions and partially about acting on those emotions.
You can think of EQ as a stairway to success, and researchers have broken it up into four main steps:
Self awareness. EQ starts with understanding yourself. Being able to recognize your emotions is the first step, and this ability is not as easy as it might seem. Some researchers further separate “self-awareness” into categories like self-actualization, self-regard and emotional self-awareness. Anyone who’s witnessed a tired child’s temper-tantrum can probably understand that humans don’t necessarily come with emotional self-awareness built in. But the stronger your understanding of your own emotions, the stronger your overall EQ is.
The next step after recognizing your own emotions is regulating them. There are actually a few things EQ theorists say you need to do before you can successfully manage your emotions. 1) Perceive your emotions. 2) Understand those emotions on a technical level. 3) Interpret the true meaning of those emotions based on context. 4) Then, finally, you can manage your emotions.
Self-management means taking your self awareness deeper. It means coping with and expressing your emotions properly. People with strong self management skills are confident in their independence because they understand themselves. They are assertive but not overbearing because they understand how to appropriately express emotions.
Related reading: "Why Emotional Intelligence is Crucial in Business Today"
Social awareness. The third pillar of EQ is the ability to understand the emotions and actions of those around you. For well-developed EQ, it’s not enough to be smart in your own head, you need a keen awareness of the world around you. Whether this is global and social consciousness or it means being mindful of those in the Starbucks line behind you, social awareness requires you to connect with your environment. Researchers often measure social awareness by a person’s decision-making skills, sense of social responsibility, and ability to judge reality.
Interpersonal Management. Finally, EQ requires smart interactions. One vital thing that EQ has and IQ doesn’t is a practical, social component. For strong interpersonal management, you must combine your understanding of your own emotions, your observations of other people, and your ability to self-regulate.
A person with high EQ who excels at interpersonal management is often a good decision-maker and problem-solver, is not impulsive, manages stress well, adapts to his/her environment, knows how to set boundaries, and is highly empathetic. These qualities help them be effective in interpersonal communication.
EQ is a balancing act between these four pillars, not to mention the attributes within each one. Like with almost everything, strength in one area does not necessarily mean strength in every area. Dr. Steve Steff, a Fortune 500 leadership counselor and founder of Crisis Care International, uses the analogy of human muscles. Each pillar is like a muscle group, made up of individual features that are unique but work together. We want to build muscles for balanced strength and not let any muscles atrophy. So, if one part of your EQ is lower than the other, the natural next step is to develop your weaker features to strengthen the overall muscle group.
EQ Can Change and Grow
This brings us to the best part about EQ and the reason why everyone from employers to neuroscientists and psychologists are investing in EQ research: it can change.
“Intelligence is your ability to learn, and it’s [largely] the same at age 15 as it is at age 50. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is a flexible set of skills that can be acquired and improved with practice...You can develop high emotional intelligence even if you aren’t born with it,” write Drs. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, two present-day leaders of the EQ discussion.
The explanation for why EQ can develop over time is rooted in the brain. While the brain is massively complex, for the purposes of explaining how EQ changes, we’ll consider three parts: the spinal cord, the limbic system, and the frontal cortex. Basic sensory input comes in through the spinal cord and passes through the limbic system (the “emotional brain”) before getting to the frontal cortex (the “rational brain”), where analytical thought happens. This means that your brain usually processes sensory input emotionally before analytically. It also explains why EQ can grow: the emotional brain is essentially a superhighway carrying information from point A to point B, and pathways in the brain are made up of neurons, which can change and grow.
Related reading: "Simple Ways to Build Agility and Emotional Fitness"
Like with the muscle analogy, the more you “work out” your emotional brain, the more energy you send to that part of your brain. The more energy, the more neurons will build connections in order to carry that energy. One single brain cell can grow up to 15,000 connections. With life experience—and practice—the human mind can learn to be more emotionally intelligent.
So, What Is Emotional Intelligence?
EQ is a person’s awareness of his/her own emotions and his ability to use that awareness in life situations.
In future articles, we’ll delve deeper into why EQ matters, how to test your EQ, and ways to develop it. How well do you understand yourself? Do you use that knowledge to succeed in the world around you? How much does job success depend on healthy EQ? High EQ does not necessarily mean being sociable or emotional, but an imbalanced EQ can manifest as anger or trust issues, a lack of confidence or overconfidence, low stress tolerance, difficulty making decisions, a feeling of inner turmoil or struggling to empathize with others.
“I would tell any leaders, as well as my own son: develop your emotional leadership skills because on the the technical side there are hundreds of thousands of guys who might have as many technical skills as you.” says Dr. Steve Steff.
Emotional Intelligence is what makes your personal brand of “smart” completely unique, and therefore invaluable.
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