What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated December 13, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever felt puzzled or caught off guard by the emotions of others—or even your own? Ever wished social interactions came a bit more naturally, or that you could better manage difficult feelings? All of these and more are tied to the concept of emotional intelligence.

You Can Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Defining Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

The concept of emotional intelligence—sometimes referred to as “EQ”—is based on a theory first developed by psychologist Michael Beldoch in 1964, and later popularized by Daniel Goleman. In a 2017 scholarly article, Olivier Serrat defines emotional intelligence as the “ability, capacity, skill, or self-perceived ability to identify, assess, and manage the emotions of one’s self, of others, and groups.” EQ is a measure of your abilities, like IQ. The two simply measure different sets of abilities: emotional/relational versus mental/intellectual.

It can be helpful to think of emotional intelligence in the four-branch model developed by researchers in the 1990s. These branches are:

  1. Perceiving emotions. This branch is all about awareness of emotions, both in yourself and others. Without the ability to identify the emotions that you’re feeling or that others may be feeling, it can be quite difficult to manage or understand them.
  2. Understanding emotions. The next branch relates to how well you’re able to interpret emotions and understand their nature. It consists of your ability to label them, recognize how different emotions may be intertwined, and understand which levels are appropriate for which situations.
  3. Using emotions. This branch refers to how emotions can positively impact your ability to perform certain cognitive processes—many of which are related to personal and interpersonal functioning—such as problem-solving, decision-making, and creative pursuits.
  4. Managing emotions. The fourth and final branch is about how well you’re able to maintain control over your emotions. This kind of emotional regulation is often important for interpersonal relationships as well as personal happiness, and some research suggests it’s also linked to positive mental health.

The other primary way to conceptualize emotional intelligence is through the Goleman model, which includes five components:

  1. Self-awareness. This is the core of EQ according to this model. It’s about observing yourself and your emotions, understanding how they’re related to your thoughts, and developing a vocabulary to accurately express them.
  2. Self-regulation. Two main elements of this component are self-control, or the ability to manage emotional impulses, and flexibility, or the ability to adapt and handle change.
  3. Motivation. This component is about how your emotions are linked to your sense of motivation for achieving goals. It includes sub-components of achievement drive, commitment, initiative, and optimism.
  4. Empathy. It’s all about your ability to be aware of and appropriately respond to the emotions of others. Key elements of empathy include inclusion and communication.
  5. Social skills. You might think of this component as a manifestation of empathy. It’s about putting your EQ skills to work in dealing with others in social situations, whether at the office, with friends, or with a partner.

Both models are accurate; they just provide two different ways of looking at the same concept. Feel free to refer to the one that’s the most intuitive to you.

Benefits Of A High EQ

There are many potential benefits to be had from high emotional intelligence. One study found that it’s linked to:

  • lower secretions of cortisol (a hormone commonly associated with stress)
  • enhanced subjective well-being
  • better physical health
  • improved quality of social relationships
  • improved quality of intimate relationships
A healthy EQ may have many positive effects on a person’s life. Since our mental and physical health and our relationships are such enormous parts of our daily lives and so deeply linked to our overall happiness and well-being, a focus on emotional intelligence is likely worthwhile.

Is Your EQ Set In Stone?

Just like for IQ, there are some tests you can do to measure your EQ. Self-report tests will ask you to rate your own perceived abilities in different areas of emotional intelligence. In addition, there are tests a mental health professional can administer to learn more about your EQ level. So once you have a baseline for where you’re currently at, can you increase it?

The question of whether EQ is changeable depends on whether it’s a trait or an ability. Over the years, scientists have come down on either side of this debate. Today, however, most have come to agree that emotional intelligence is something that you can learn, develop, and enhance. One study found that while EQ tends to slightly increase with age, it is most meaningfully improved through specific training.

Tips For Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence

Most people can benefit from taking measures to increase their emotional intelligence since it has the potential to positively impact so many key areas of life. Here are a few strategies you can try if you’re looking to improve your EQ.

1. Get In Touch With Your Emotions Through Reflection

This is typically a crucial first step on the journey to improving EQ since it’s the precursor to being able to understand and use your emotions as well as to understand and respond to the emotions of others. There are different ways to get into the habit of reflecting on your emotions. First, you might try journaling. Taking the time to slow down and focus on what you’re feeling through the act of writing can help you get in touch with your emotions. This can be an especially useful practice when you’re feeling strong emotions of any kind. You can try writing about how you feel, and what made you feel this way. Over time, a practice like this can help you train yourself to recognize emotions and their triggers more readily.

Another way to cultivate awareness of your emotions is through mindfulness, which many people practice through meditation. One study had subjects engage in what the researchers referred to as a “brief mindfulness meditation,” a 15-minute method they devised. In the end, they found that these sessions may improve “aspects of emotional processing” including emotional intensity. Practicing mindfulness through meditation may help you learn to more calmly assess what you’re feeling through increased awareness, which is often key to applying other elements of EQ to your life.

2. Get In Touch With The Emotions Of Others Through Active Listening

This tip goes hand in hand with the previous one: Increasing EQ is centered on better identifying, interpreting, and responding to emotions, and this goes for your own as well as those of others. Being a more “active listener” is one way to do this. Active listening is about putting your whole attention on what someone else is telling you—on their complete message, not just the words they say. Challenge yourself to try and apply full focus to what the other person is sharing next time you find yourself in a conversation. Instead of listening only with the intent to respond, try listening to understand where they’re coming from. Pay attention to their body language, which can give you additional information. Practice your empathy by trying to put yourself in their shoes. Ask questions if you don’t understand, and make a point to acknowledge their feelings even if you feel or imagine you would feel differently in their situation.

3. Build EQ And Related Skills With Professional Guidance

Research suggests that working with a therapist can help improve a person’s level of emotional intelligence. A trained mental health professional can act as a sounding board for you to talk about what you’re feeling, and then help you develop the skills and awareness to identify, interpret, and act on those emotions appropriately. They can work with you to develop stronger skills for direct communication, active listening, conflict resolution, and many other areas where you may want to improve.

For those who prefer to receive the help of a therapist from the comfort of their own home, online therapy is an available option. With an online therapy service like BetterHelp, you can be matched with a trained therapist who you can speak with via phone, video, or chat. Recent research has found that virtual therapy likely offers similar benefits to in-person sessions. However, remember that it’s important to choose the method that’s right for you, whether virtual or not. Whichever way you feel most comfortable receiving this type of guidance is likely to be the best way.

You Can Improve Your Emotional Intelligence

Takeaway

Improving your emotional intelligence is possible. While it will likely require a commitment to focused, dedicated work over time, the potential benefits of improving your EQ are far-reaching and often well worth the effort.

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