Emotional intelligence: Why it matters and how you can develop it

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated February 16, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Emotional intelligence (EI)—the ability to recognize, control, and understand emotions—can be useful in many aspects of life. The term emotional intelligence, often referred to as your emotional quotient (EQ), relates to emotional intelligence psychology, which can help you better connect with others, understand your thoughts and behaviors, manage emotions, and improve your mental health. It can be useful in the workplace, with your family, in social settings, and in moments of self-reflection.

Self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills, and motivation are thought to be the five components of emotional intelligence. You may be able to improve your emotional intelligence by listening, recognizing the source of your emotions, practicing mindfulness, journaling, talking through your feelings, and working with a therapist, either in person or online.

EI involves being able to recognize, comprehend, and manage emotions in oneself and others. Research suggests that individuals with high emotional intelligence can positively influence various aspects of their lives, such as interpersonal relationships, work performance, and mental well-being. 

A person's abilities to understand and manage emotions impact how they communicate and connect with others, ultimately contributing to their success and happiness. By cultivating emotional intelligence skills, one can better understand their emotions and navigate the complexities of human interactions more effectively.

The five components of emotional intelligence

What is emotional intelligence? Daniel Goleman, who helped develop the concept of emotional intelligence, proposed that there are five specific traits that contribute to one’s emotional quotient: self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation. To understand what makes someone emotionally intelligent and start learning more about your own EQ, take a look at the following components of emotional intelligence.

Self-awareness

Self-awareness generally refers to your ability to identify and understand your own emotions. For example, while most of us can recognize when we’re feeling angry, we may not realize that there is often a different emotion that leads to anger. We may have felt hurt, embarrassed, or stressed before we became angry. Knowing how and why you feel the way you do can help you manage the emotions you experience, improve your mental health, and avoid making potentially negative decisions or behaving in unhealthy ways. Self-awareness may also help you improve your interpersonal skills and remain aware of how your emotions affect those around you.

It can be hard to remain self-aware, though, even for those with high emotional intelligence. Many people avoid negative emotions that arise, suppressing or ignoring them rather than fully experiencing their feelings. You can practice self-awareness by staying attuned to how you’re feeling so that you’re able to recognize your emotions, identify their sources, and understand how they’re affecting your thoughts and behaviors. Self-awareness is often the first step in self-regulation, which is the next skill we’ll discuss.

Self-regulation

While self-awareness can refer to the ability to understand our emotions, self-regulation is often looked at as the ability to manage emotions. Managing emotions and the way they impact our thoughts and behaviors can be a crucial skill and one that you likely practice on a near-daily basis.

For example, if you notice that you’ve been experiencing anxiety at work, you might start running in the evenings to let off steam. Or maybe you realize you’ve been feeling sad recently, so you talk through your concerns with a friend, family, or therapist. While these emotions might have kept you from making solid decisions or otherwise negatively affected your life, you utilized your emotional intelligence to manage them and express them in a healthy way.

The ability to manage and control your emotions can improve not only your mental wellness but also your relationships with others. If, for example, you’re able to interact constructively with a friend, family, or coworker who is angry, self-regulation can help you avoid creating conflict. It can be important to note that having emotion regulation skills does not mean repressing or ignoring your feelings. Instead, it refers to the capacity to express emotions healthily. The ability to manage emotions is often seen in effective leaders and people who are considered emotionally intelligent.

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Social skills

Emotional and social intelligence often go hand-in-hand, and the ability to connect with others and nurture relationships can be a key aspect of your emotional quotient. Social or interpersonal skills include knowing how to communicate effectively, making others feel comfortable, and following commonly accepted social rules. Fostering a high level of social intelligence can help you develop a strong support system, succeed in the workplace, improve self-confidence, and maintain a fulfilling social life. With social skills, you can also develop a high level of emotional perception, which is the ability to recognize different emotions in others and anticipate how your own emotions might affect them. This might also help improve your understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of those around you.

To hone these crucial skills, it can help to learn more about communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Reading and acting on common social cues can be very beneficial when interacting with others. For example, the tone of someone’s voice or their body language can express an emotion that may not be obvious based on their words alone. Developing social skills can also help you with the next component of emotional intelligence, empathy, and vice versa.

Empathy

What is empathy, and how does it work? Similar to self-awareness, which is the ability to recognize and understand our own emotions, empathy typically refers to understanding and perceiving emotions of other people. Empathy can be a vital component of high emotional intelligence, helping you communicate effectively and connect with others on a deeper level.

We typically exhibit two different types of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy occurs when you experience certain feelings based on the emotions others are displaying. You may experience affective empathy when your partner is feeling down and you, in turn, feel sad, or when a friend is angry with you, causing you to become upset.

Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, occurs when you perceive and comprehend the emotions of others by assessing the situation and coming to a conclusion. For example, you may notice that your coworker is feeling anxious based on your knowledge of anxiety and prior experience with that person. Although you don't feel anxious yourself, cognitive empathy could help you recognize their emotions, discuss the situation with them, and even help alleviate it. Both forms of empathy can be helpful for promoting a high level of emotional understanding.

Some mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, may make it difficult for individuals to interpret other people’s emotions. This can interfere with a person’s natural ability to empathize with others. Methods like talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can help an individual strengthen these skills, improving their empathy and emotional intelligence.

Motivation

Your ability to effect positive change in your life (and the lives of others), and how you do so, can be a key component of emotional intelligence—and an important form of motivation is intrinsic motivation. Those who are intrinsically motivated can typically set goals for themselves and work consistently to achieve them. They usually aren’t driven by external rewards like money or status. Finding motivation outside of material incentives or acclaim may be difficult at times, but it can help you build a fulfilling life.

Intrinsic motivation can come in many forms. You might find motivation through purpose; for example, you might become an artist to bring attention to a specific cause, or you might decide to start running to improve your mental health. 

You may also nurture a sense of motivation by figuring out what’s important to you in life. Once you’ve identified your priorities, you can set goals for yourself, create a plan to achieve them, and act on that plan.

Motivation can be an important part of emotional intelligence because it allows us to grow. Not only can motivation help you achieve your goals, but it can also improve the other four EQ skills on this list.

How to build emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence training can be seen as a practice that may be honed over time. Techniques such as listening, recognizing the source of emotions, practicing mindfulness, journaling, talking through feelings, self-assessment, and working with a therapist can help you develop the different components of your emotional quotient. 

Listen

One of the best ways to learn more about other people’s feelings, and even your own, is to pay close attention when they communicate with you, both verbally and nonverbally. Consider, for example, a scenario in which an individual’s partner comes home after work, tells them about how difficult their day was, and displays nonverbal cues that they’re tired or upset. Here, an emotionally intelligent person will listen attentively, assess the situation, and conclude that their partner is experiencing stress or anger. When you listen, you can better empathize with others and moderate your behavior to alleviate their concerns.

While listening, try to avoid thinking about what you’re going to say until the other person is finished speaking. Instead, practice listening to understand. Try not to judge what they’re saying or provide advice that isn’t solicited. Once they’re through talking, you can summarize what they’ve said to let them know you understand. Listening can help you develop empathy, social skills, and even self-awareness.

Recognize the source of your emotions

Finding links between your different emotional states can help you understand the situations or experiences that bring about a certain emotion. Perhaps you realize that you frequently feel angry, frustrated, or anxious when there is a common variable involved, or you may realize that something from your past evokes an emotional response in certain situations. Remaining cognizant of what brings about specific emotions can be a great first step to mastering self-awareness and self-regulation.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness can bring our attention to the present moment—our feelings, thoughts, and surroundings. There can be numerous benefits to mindfulness, from reducing anxiety to increasing focus. It may be difficult to stay attuned to your emotions when you’re distracted from the present moment. Mindfulness can help with quieting the mind and understanding emotions without judgment.

One way to practice mindfulness could be to check in with yourself periodically throughout the day. Starting early in the morning, you might take the time to close your eyes, breathe deeply, and examine how you are feeling in that moment. Recognize any emotions you’re experiencing without labeling them as good or bad. Repeat this exercise throughout the day, and over time, you may come to notice certain thought patterns or learn what you can do to manage your emotions better. These same benefits may also be derived from other forms of meditation.

Journaling

When we put our feelings into words, we often learn how to recognize and describe our emotions more accurately. You can keep a journal specifically to track your emotions or simply write about your day. Journal imagination is a technique that can help you build your emotional intelligence by encouraging you to reflect on your emotions and explore your feelings in a creative and imaginative way.

As you journal, try to remain cognizant of how certain situations impact your mood and think about different ways you can utilize emotional intelligence in your daily life. Additionally, you can use a journal as a healthy outlet for your emotions; for example, if you’re feeling anxiety about a relationship, journaling allows you to vent, express that emotion, and consider solutions before acting.

Talk through your feelings

Talking with others can not only help you work through your emotions but also discover ways you might be able to improve your emotional competencies. Hearing a different perspective might reveal feelings you didn’t realize you were experiencing or help you better understand what led to a certain emotion. Having a conversation with others can enhance your social skills and emotional abilities.

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Navigating your emotions with therapy

Studies show that online therapy can help address a wide variety of mental health-related concerns, including those that often lead to complicated emotions. In a comprehensive review of studies on online therapy, researchers concluded that it could be an effective treatment for managing several mental health conditions. The review included 92 different studies and specifically noted that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was an efficacious form of care. CBT can help individuals recognize unhelpful thought patterns, such as those that may hinder the development of emotional intelligence.

If you’re looking to better understand and work through your emotions, you might consider reaching out to a licensed therapist online. If you want to learn more about your EQ level, mental health professionals can also administer an emotional intelligence test. One option may be BetterHelp, an online therapy platform that allows you to get insightful advice and helpful tools from the comfort of your home.

With online therapy, you may have the opportunity to connect with your therapist outside of sessions. For instance, if you’d like to make a note of how you’re feeling in a specific moment, you can do so right away. This can allow you to keep a journal of your emotions and give your therapist a chance to send a response when they’re able. You may also have the opportunity to do exercises for communicating effectively and building emotional strength.

Takeaway

Emotional intelligence can be an important life skill for your mental health, career, relationships, and countless other aspects of your life. It’s thought to be made up of the five components of self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation. If you’d like help navigating your feelings, learning more about your emotional quotient, or addressing other mental health-related concerns, consider reaching out to a licensed therapist. The right mental health professional can provide you with valuable support and connect you with useful resources as you work to identify, manage, and understand your emotions.  
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