You’re Smart—but Are You Emotionally Intelligent?

Key Takeaways:

  • Emotional intelligence reflects the ability to identify, understand and manage emotions in a variety of situations and environments.
  • High EI can help you achieve better career success, stronger relationships and greater well-being.
  • Self-awareness is the foundation of EI.

When seeking to understand the key habits and best practices of highly successful people, it’s tempting to focus on their skills, their brainpower and their cunning—and how you can possess those same qualities to get ahead.

To be sure, those are vital components in many people’s success. But there’s another driver of superior results that may be equally important, or even more crucial. It’s called emotional intelligence (EI)—and if you’re not working to improve your own level of EI, you may find it much, much harder to reach your biggest goals.


With that in mind, here’s a closer look at EI—what it is, why it’s such a big deal and how you can boost your EI in ways that help you move forward faster.

EI basics

Emotional intelligence reflects a person’s ability to identify, understand and manage his or her emotions—as well as to recognize and navigate other people’s emotional responses—in a variety of situations and environments.


Those of us with higher EI levels usually find it easier to know the emotions we’re feeling and express them in healthy ways, and stay composed in situations where emotions and stress run hot. If we have lower levels of EI, we might find that our emotional responses to events overwhelm us—in some cases, almost short-circuiting our ability to make thoughtful decisions in some challenging moments.


As you’ll see, EI also involves empathy—being able to really understand the feelings and perspectives of others. People with greater empathy often are superior at seeing issues from multiple perspectives, and communicate better with others around them.

The importance of EI—at work, at home and out in the world

Given those core principles, it’s easy to understand on a gut level how EI can be beneficial. In addition, research reveals that high levels of EI deliver significant advantages in multiple areas of our lives. For example:


  • Better career success. One study concluded that participants with higher EI generally have higher salaries and that “EI is a relevant variable in achieving career success” because “the ability to channel and manage emotions could help employees develop stronger interpersonal relationships, leading to higher positions and greater financial compensation.” Those findings confirmed an earlier study showing that “emotional intelligence has a significant, positive effect on subsequent salary levels” and that “emotional intelligence helps individuals to acquire the social capital needed to be successful in their careers.”


  • Greater well-being. EI contributes to a higher level of overall well-being, according to one study—both hedonistic well-being (experiences associated with pursuing pleasure in life) and eudaemonic well-being (experiences associated with living a life of virtue in pursuit of human excellence and personal growth).


  • Stronger spousal/partner relationships. Various studies show the value of EI when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Some examples: “Participants with higher scores for emotional intelligence displayed more cooperative responses toward partners. Participants with higher scores for emotional intelligence had higher scores for close and affectionate relationships. And participants’ scores for marital satisfaction were higher when they rated their marital partners higher for emotional intelligence.”


  • Better leadership skills. A pioneer in the field of EI research, Daniel Goleman, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, The most effective leaders are all alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. It’s not that IQ and technical skills are irrelevant. They do matter, but…they are the entry-level requirements for executive positions. My research, along with other recent studies, clearly shows that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership. Without it, a person can have the best training in the world, an incisive, analytical mind, and an endless supply of smart ideas, but he still won’t make a great leader.”


Conversely, lower EI can lead to problems working through feelings, making good decisions and effectively dealing with other people. Poor conflict resolution skills or bad communication tactics can potentially hold you back in most areas of life.


The upshot: Investing time and energy in developing your emotional intelligence can pay a strong return.

Boosting the key components of EI

Given all the good that EI can potentially bring to the table, how can you assess your own level of EI—and how might you strengthen it so you can enjoy more of the benefits EI offers?


Start by understanding the key elements of EI, so you can size up where you stand today and what to focus on going forward.

1. Be self-aware.

This is the foundation of EI—your ability to recognize your and other people’s emotions. Self-awareness is what allows us to examine our emotions, wants and needs, as well as how we express them to the world around us. Armed with that information about ourselves, we can (potentially) adjust and adapt how we respond to various people and situations.


Self-awareness is an easy concept to understand, but it’s often very difficult for people to actually look at themselves honestly and become self-aware about both their feelings and the ways they communicate those feelings. Two ways to boost the awareness of self are mindfulness exercises (such as meditation) and journaling.

2. Name feelings as they occur.

Building off of self-awareness is the ability to identify the feelings and emotions you’re experiencing in the moment you’re experiencing them. Someone with a high level of EI, for example, will be astute at recognizing when they’re starting to get really anxious—based on how their body feels, how they’re breathing and other physical “tells”—and then adjust their conversational style or make it a point to address the issue that’s causing the frustration. Those or other action steps are rooted in the ability to quickly recognize and “name” what you’re feeling so you can alter your current course as needed. Advice: When you notice you’re having an emotional response to something, identify it to yourself. Consider writing it down or even verbalizing it. And keep in mind that identifying your emotions takes practice.

3. Express your emotional needs.

People with higher EI levels are better able to tell others around them what they need to constructively navigate how they’re feeling. In the above example of a person getting anxious, he or she might then say, “I’m getting really anxious about this plan, and I’d like to talk through some of the issues I’m feeling worried about” or “I’m feeling really anxious, and I need to take five minutes to clear my head so I can be better engaged in the discussion.”


This action step can potentially help you mitigate feelings of resentment that may very well arise—and damage relationships—if you don’t express yourself clearly. One way to strengthen this EI muscle is to explicitly state how you’re feeling. Too often, we assume people must realize that we’re frustrated, sad, angry and so on—when, in fact, they often have no idea.


Important: How you respond to strong emotions is another sign of your level of EI. The ability to regulate your emotions and communicate about them in nonaggressive ways can show high EI, for example. Taking a breath before speaking can help here, enabling you to respond in the ways mentioned above rather than yelling or snapping at others. Try to use specific words that convey what you really mean and that help hone in on what the key issue in a situation really is.

4. Notice other people’s emotions.

High EI isn’t just about you. When you’re able to notice the emotions of other people through clues such as facial expressions, changes in voice tone or volume, and body language, you can engage with them in ways that are more helpful and that build greater trust and clarity between you.


One key here is active listening—paying close attention to both what someone is saying and how they’re saying it. Active listeners also show interest by asking speakers to elaborate on their statements as well as using supportive phrases that help open up the conversation more (such as “That must have been challenging” or “You must have felt ecstatic about that”). Such engaged listening can help build empathy—the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” and understand deeply where they’re coming from (regardless of whether you agree with them or share the same ideas). Empathy is a big component of EI because it builds trust.


There are multiple aspects to intelligence. While we spend plenty of time trying to enhance our “book smarts” and our “street smarts,” we might end up achieving better results if we include our emotions and feelings in our efforts to boost our intelligence.



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