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What It Means To Have Emotional Intelligence

The higher your EQ, the more in touch you are with your feelings, as well as other people’s

hand holding a heart next to a hand holding a brain

Have you ever heard someone say that there are different ways of being smart? Some people are “book smart” and some are “street smart.” Some are great at math, while others have a way with words. Some folks have a sixth sense for business and entrepreneurship, while others are creative geniuses with music and art.

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Whatever kind of smart you are, there’s another aspect to consider: Emotional intelligence, also known as emotional quotient or EQ. It’s not an either/or kinda thing — you can be great at math and have high emotional intelligence, or you can be a successful business owner who has terrible emotional intelligence.

But what exactly is emotional intelligence? And is it a skill you’re born with or something you can develop and refine over time? Psychologist Grace Tworek, PsyD, digs into the concept of EQ and why it matters.

What is emotional intelligence (EQ)?

Being emotionally intelligent means being in tune with your emotions and the emotions of others — being able to identify, manage and even anticipate how you or someone else may feel.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, PhD, coined the term in his 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.

“To put it plainly and simply, emotional intelligence is the ability to perceive, understand, comprehend and manage emotions,” Dr. Tworek explains. “EQ refers to how you recognize and respond to the emotions of others, as well as how you manage your own emotions and understand how they may be perceived by others.”

Why is emotional intelligence important?

Emotional intelligence can help you stay calm and collected under pressure, manage awkward moments with grace and relate to just about anyone you meet.

Why? Because the higher your emotional intelligence, the better you are at understanding your feelings and the feelings of people around you. This can help you relate to people better, be more empathetic and remain grounded even amid difficult times.

“The better we are at understanding and labeling our own emotions and why we may feel a certain way, the better we can gain insight into how other people might feel,” Dr. Tworek says. “It also gives us the insight to ask questions, rather than just assuming that each person might feel the exact same way that we feel.”

In the 2006 movie The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character shouts, in a moment of epiphany, “You're supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake!” But here’s the thing: Everyone else is the main character of their own life, too.

Each of us approaches the world through our own unique lens, bringing a different combination of background, experiences, personality and emotions. That lens informs everything from the opinions we hold to the way we react in certain scenarios, and it can often be difficult — if not seemingly impossible — to understand how anyone else could see things differently than we do.

Emotional intelligence helps you see beyond your own lens to understand how other people might be feeling, based on wherever they’re coming from.

Components of emotional intelligence

When it comes to emotional intelligence, there are a lot of pieces and parts involved. Dr. Goleman, who first defined emotional intelligence, identified five key components:

  • Self-awareness: Understanding your own feelings and emotions, including what triggers them.
  • Self-regulation: Knowing how to manage your emotions and impulses.
  • Motivation: Feeling inspired to set and achieve goals and to better yourself so you can grow as a person.
  • Empathy: Being able to understand where other people are coming from, even when their views, experiences and emotions are very different from your own.
  • Social skills: Engaging and interacting well with others, like in conversations and team settings.

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Dr. Tworek breaks emotional intelligence down into four similar overarching categories — two that are more personal (about your internal self) and two that are more relational (about your relationships with other people):

  • Self-awareness.
  • Self-management.
  • Social awareness.
  • Relationship management.

“The personal and the relational work hand in hand with each other, and they also build off of one another,” Dr. Tworek says, “If you’re able to understand your own emotions, it also informs your ability to understand when other people might feel similarly.”

She delves deeper into each of these categories and the concepts within them.

Self-awareness

“Self-awareness refers to your ability to recognize and understand your own emotions, including what you’re experiencing and how you’re feeling,” Dr. Tworek explains.

This may seem like a no-brainer — “I’m crying because I feel sad, duh!” — but it’s deeper than that. Why are you sad? And what kind of sad? Are you feeling nostalgic, lonely, heartbroken, dejected? Did you realize you were feeling sad before you started crying? Is it possible that you were rude to this morning’s barista because you were feeling sad and didn’t even recognize it at the time?

Some examples of self-awareness (which double as tips for improving your self-awareness) include:

  • Being able to identify and name your emotions.
  • Knowing what scenarios and environments are likely to trigger various emotions.
  • Noticing physical cues related to your emotions. Maybe, for example, you get butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous or you hike your shoulders up to your ears when you’re stressed out.
  • Recognizing outside influences on your mood, like when you’re “hangry” or tired.
  • Asking yourself reflective questions in the moment, like “How do I feel right now?” and “What’s causing me to react this way?”
  • Reflecting on your emotions to get a better understanding of them, like by journaling, talking about them in therapy or asking other people for their feedback on how you came across in emotional situations.

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Self-management

This aspect of emotional intelligence refers to your ability to regulate the emotions you’re experiencing. Do you lash at others when you’re angry? Does a hurtful comment ruin your entire day? Or do you have (and use) coping skills, like deep breathing, positive self-talk and taking breaks when you need them?

Managing your emotions can mean, for example:

  • Avoiding outbursts or making impulsive decisions when you’re feeling strong emotions, like anger.
  • Staying poised under pressure.
  • Being adaptable and resilient when circumstances change.
  • Maintaining a positive outlook in the face of life difficulties.
  • Being aware of your emotions but not overwhelmed by them.

Social awareness

“Social awareness is about recognizing and understanding other people’s emotions, as well as your ability to convey emotions to others,” Dr. Tworek clarifies.

Let’s go back to that connection between the personal and the relational: If you know what makes you feel a certain way, you can better understand what makes someone else feel that way, too. On the other hand, the more in touch you are with your own emotions, the more you can recognize that what makes you feel one way might evoke a completely different emotion in someone else.

“EQ involves a lot of reflection and management of our own emotions because we really only have our own experience of emotions to play off of,” Dr. Tworek says. “The more we’re able to gain understanding and ask questions to be able to relate to others, the better we’re able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”

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Relationship management

When you’re attuned to other people’s emotions, you can be a better friend, colleague and leader — someone who communicates thoughtfully and interacts with more empathy.

“Emotional intelligence helps you to effectively communicate with others and even manage conflict with them,” Dr. Tworek says.

Think about it: Your intellectual intelligence doesn’t have much to do with your ability to manage your relationships with other people.

“How great you are at math doesn’t always relate to how well you can resolve conflicts or how well you’re able to think of flexible, creative solutions,” Dr. Tworek illustrates.

That’s where emotional intelligence comes in.

“When you think of the qualities that make up a good leader, things that come to mind may include communication skills and problem-solving skills,” she says. “You probably don't think, ‘I hope they’re really good at fractions.’”

Even if you work in a very math-heavy job, your boss probably isn’t just good with numbers. They’re likely also good with people, which enables them to lead a team effectively and empathetically. (And we’re not picking on math! The same is true across the board: Having high emotional intelligence complements whatever other types of intelligence and skills you have.)

How to improve your emotional intelligence

Think your EQ could use some work? It’s something everyone can get better at, Dr. Tworek says — and it’s something that each of us has the power to practice and improve upon, no matter our starting point.

“Emotional intelligence may come more naturally to some people than others, but it’s a skill set that can be developed over time,” she adds. “Improving your EQ will help you manage daily stressors and communicate with others.”

Dr. Tworek shares tips for honing your emotional intelligence.

Keep a journal

To better understand your feelings, start documenting them. And you don’t have to be a great (or even good) writer to keep a journal.

“Keeping track of your thoughts, emotions and the way you experience things can help you gain insight into how you feel and develop self-awareness,” Dr. Tworek says. “This can help you with empathy toward others, including understanding how others may perceive things, and improve our relationships.”

Embrace meditation and mindfulness

To understand yourself, you have to spend time really listening to and paying attention to yourself. And in a go-go-go world, that’s not always as easy as sounds.

“Practices like mindfulness and meditation are ways in which we can become more in tune with ourselves,” Dr. Tworek notes. They can help you better understand and self-regulate your emotions and learn to think before you react.

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Various forms of meditation can help you calm your mind and reduce stress and anxiety. And mindfulness is the practice of being aware and present, no matter what you’re doing — whether it’s eating lunch, running a meeting or waiting in rush hour traffic.

Learn from your own experiences

To help you figure out how best to communicate with others, Dr. Tworek suggests reflecting on a time when someone else asked for your opinion in a way that made you feel valued, affirmed, supported or otherwise listened to.

“Think about how they phrased it and how that can inform the way you phrase a similar question to someone else,” she says. “You can identify tips and tricks from great leaders and other people who you feel communicate well, then use those in your own interactions.”

Practice!

Improving your emotional intelligence is sort of like improving your physical fitness: It’s something you have to work on, intentionally and for the long haul. And while getting in touch with your own emotions is half the battle, you can’t neglect the other half: Your relationships with other people.

"Make sure you’re honing your emotional intelligence skills when it comes to your relationships with others, not just your awareness of yourself,” Dr. Tworek advises. “This means practicing your communication skills and not being afraid to ask questions.”

Work on your active listening skills

When you’re in a conversation with someone else, do you just hear them, or are you really, truly listening to them? Practice active listening by giving conversations your full focus and attention and making a genuine effort to understand what the other person is saying and where they’re coming from.

Active listening also involves paying attention to body language and more subtle verbal cues, like tone, that can help you understand how people are feeling beyond just the words they say.

Ask for feedback

If you want to understand how you come across to others, sometimes, the best thing to do is simply ask them.

“Sometimes, we assume that when we say something, it elicits a certain emotion in someone else,” Dr. Tworek says. “It never hurts to ask, ‘Hey, when I communicate with you in this way, how does that make you feel? Is there a better way for me to get this message across?’ Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to ask and to clarify.”

Plus, asking for feedback opens the door to further communications. It conveys your openness to having such conversations and to trying to strengthen your relationships.

Have patience

Don’t expect to boost your emotional intelligence overnight. This is a long-term project! Just keep working at it, piece by piece, day by day.

“Any step forward is progress,” Dr. Tworek encourages. “And it’s something that you can continue to work on throughout your life.”

Learn more about our editorial process.

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Stress Management and Emotional Health

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