What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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

group of people walking together. what is emotional intelligence

You can improve your emotional intelligence

Defining emotional intelligence (EQ)

The concept of emotional intelligence (EI)—sometimes referred to as emotional quotient or 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 psychology in the four-branch model developed by researchers in the 1990s. These branches are:

  1. Perceiving emotions. Emotional perception is all about emotional awareness, 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. Emotional understanding 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 relationship management 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. Being self-aware 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 emotions or 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.

emotional intelligence

Benefits of a high EQ

For an emotionally intelligent person, there are many potential benefits to be had from high emotional intelligence. One study found that emotionally intelligent people may have:

  • lower secretions of cortisol (a hormone commonly associated with stress)
  • enhanced subjective well-being
  • better physical health
  • better job performance
  • improved quality of social relationships and social intelligence
  • improved quality of intimate relationships
A healthy EQ may have many positive effects on a person’s life including improved interpersonal skills overall. 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 to improve self-confidence.

Is your EQ set in stone?

Just like for IQ, there are some emotional ability 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, a mental health professional can administer an emotional intelligence test to learn more about your EQ level. Such tests will give you a baseline for where you’re currently at, however, can you increase it?

The question of whether EQ is changeable depends on whether it’s an inborn characteristic or trait. Over the years, scientists have come down on either side of this debate. Today, however, most have come to agree, and research suggests, 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 emotional intelligence 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 emotional competencies and EQ.

1. Get in touch with your emotions through reflection

This is typically a crucial first step on the journey of emotional learning and improving your 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 strengthen your ability to recognize emotions, understand where your emotional strength lies, and identify triggers more readily.

Another way to cultivate awareness of your emotions and improve your emotional abilities is through mindfulness, which many people practice through meditation. During meditation you may identify which emotional states you may be feeling at the moment or have been feeling lately. 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 discussing 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 and nonverbal communication, which can give you additional information. Practice your empathy by trying to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy definition psychology is the ability to emotionally understand the feeling of the other person and imagine oneself to be in the same position. This is important in EQ since it enables you to be aware of the other person’s emotions. 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 a person to improve emotional abilities and 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.

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You can improve your emotional intelligence


It’s possible to improve your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence carries several far-reaching potential benefits and is well worth the commitment of time and focus.
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