What is Emotional Intelligence?
Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a concept that has been around for a few decades, but came into popular awareness following the publication of Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best-seller by the same title. While many people intuitively understand that EI represents an important dimension of personality, it is tricky to define and, as yet, there is no good way to measure it. But like pornography, we know it when we see it – and more conspicuously, when it’s lacking.
“My husband has a tin ear for emotions,” one of my patients complained. Another a middle-aged man of high intelligence accurately observed that he never gets along in the workplace, but doesn’t know why. He has therefore chosen to work by himself. “I guess my IQ is much higher than my EQ,” he said. I knew exactly what he meant – and agreed with him. At the same time, as a psychiatrist and researcher, I am aware that while a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ) can be accurately and reliably measured, and has been shown to be a good predictor of certain types of performance, nobody has yet been able to measure Emotional Intelligence in a reliable or valid way.
Despite these caveats here are some basic elements that are generally accepted as part of Emotional Intelligence – and what you can do to improve them.
Throughout the day we continuously experience emotions. These may arise mysteriously or in reaction to things that happen, including triggers from the past. These triggers can be as recent as what happened in the traffic on the way to work or as distant as an event from childhood. Something we see or hear may trigger these emotional responses, which often occur outside of our awareness. So, the key question is how do we become more aware of what we are feeling? This is important because our emotions can influence how we are perceived and how we treat others, not to mention the quality of our lives.
A. Simply ask yourself, “How am I feeling today?” That question will help you focus on your emotional brain – a special set of circuits devoted to experiencing, regulating and expressing emotions?” In addition, the question encourages you to view your own emotions as important and valid.
B. Scan your body, which often provides important clues. Are you clenching the steering wheel of the car? If so, maybe you are angry. Do you have a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach before a work meeting? Perhaps you are anxious. So, every different emotion has its own way of registering in your body – a way that may differ from person to person.
C. Ask somebody else how you are feeling. This may sound rather strange, and I’m certainly not suggesting you should make a daily habit of it – or you may appear rather strange. But at key points in time there may be value to asking this question of someone you trust, as studies show that others are often better judges of how we are feeling than we ourselves are.
2. Reading Emotions in Others and Empathy
One of the principle values of emotion is that it serves as a communication to others. Think of a monkey in a colony who perceives a predator and expresses fear. The monkeys all around will read the signal and run for cover even before they perceive the predator themselves. Their ability to perceive fear in their fellow monkey might just have saved their lives. Now shift to your office when your boss comes in with visible signs of anger. A cartoonist would show him with high color in his face and smoke coming out of his ears. Is this a good time to ask him or her for a raise? I don’t think so. The woman I mentioned above who complained that her husband had a tin ear for emotions was referring to his poor ability to read her. When she was upset he might launch into a description of how well he was doing at work. Such poor reading of her emotions led to endless difficulties. So what can you do about it?
A. Make a more conscious effort to look at the facial or bodily expressions of those around you. You’d be surprised at how much you can detect if you just put your mind to it – a frown, a shrug, a roll of the eyes, a click of the tongue – all of these may seem like minor gestures but may reveal a wealth of information.
B. Check in with the other person – selectively! For example, I wouldn’t recommend that you say to your boss, “You look very angry. What’s the matter?” He’s unlikely to appreciate that. In contrast, the wife of the man with the tin ear would probably very much appreciate it if he said to her, “What’s the matter dear, have you had a hard day?” Especially if that were followed by, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
C. Practice. Like anything else, empathy improves with practice and it’s certainly a strength worth cultivating. For a shining example of its rewards look at Bill Clinton whose trademark comment, “I feel your pain,” showed a key to his success – until the evening stand-ups go ahold of it.
3. Emotional Regulation
All of us have our ups and downs, our good times and bad, but we vary as to how well we regulate these fluctuations. In some people – like those with bipolar disorder – moods can swing wildly. In people with anxiety disorders – such as in panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxiety disorder – anxiety levels can go through the roof. But even apart from these extremes, many people experience fluxes in how they feel that are too extreme for comfort. What can you do about this?
A. Learn to name your feelings, as mentioned above.
B. Watch them come and go – as feelings tend to do. Imagine you are a visitor to an aquarium, watching your feelings swim by through the protective glass panel. Your depression, anxiety, happiness, and relief swim by like stingrays, sharks, minnows, and angel fish. Just realizing that feelings come and go is a great source of comfort in itself.
C. Meditate. There are many studies that show that meditation can reduce anxiety and extreme reactions to stress. Since starting to practice Transcendental Meditation about five years ago, I have been astonished at how much less anxious I feel.
D. Exercise regularly. Studies show that this can reduce levels of anxiety and depression, and many of you may have had that very experience.
E. Talk to a friend. Studies show that a person’s blood pressure is lower when measured in the company of a friend than when that person is alone. Friends can help you to regulate emotions even by such commonplace responses as, “Don’t despair. Things are sure to improve,” or, “Chill out, you’re getting too worked up over nothing.”
4. Expressing Emotions
This skill follows logically from all the other skills mentioned above. If you can perceive emotions in yourself and others, and if you can regulate your own emotions, you are three-quarters the way there. If you express your emotions well, you will be more successful. It’s as simple as that. If the husband with the tin ear becomes a better listener, his relationship with his wife will improve – and so will his relationships with his boss, his colleagues and friends. Regardless of where you are, Emotional Intelligence can be key to your success and well-being.
So good luck in raising your EQ, even if nobody can measure it properly.
Wishing you Light and Transcendence,