The Complete Guide to Emotional Intelligence

What it is, why it’s important, and how to improve yours.

Adrian Drew
Jul 23, 2020 · 10 min read
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

The subject of emotional intelligence has permeated a wide range of key areas of study in recent years, from romantic relationships to workplace efficiency and business leadership.

For the first time in centuries, psychologists have begun to recognise that there’s more to intelligence than empirical knowledge and fluid reasoning. Intelligence isn’t just about our capacity to make sense of science or logic. It’s also about our ability to understand and perceive emotion.

The truth is, we share a world with more than seven billion other humans. Understanding both our own emotions and those of the people around us is crucial to forming healthy relationships and advancing in the world — perhaps even as crucial as the over-glorified IQ.

Yet, despite its great importance, many of us have been deprived of an education into the ins and outs of emotional intelligence, or EQ. It’s my hope that this article will cover everything you need to know about what emotional intelligence is, why it matters, and how you can work to improve yours.

Understanding EQ: The Difference Between EQ and IQ

Before we delve into the specifics of emotional intelligence, let’s first discuss the key differences between EQ (Emotional Quotient) and IQ (Intelligence Quotient).

We’ve all heard of IQ before. IQ, simply put, is a numerical measurement derived from a standardized intelligence test — a globally-approved assessment of intelligence — that estimates a person’s overall intelligence.

An individual’s IQ might represent abilities such as:

  • Knowledge of the world
  • Ability to reason
  • Memory capacity
  • Visual and spatial processing

EQ, on the other hand, is a number that refers to a person’s ability to perceive and evaluate other people’s emotions. The key factors that comprise a person’s EQ include their ability to:

  • Identify emotions
  • Assess how other people are feeling
  • Control their own emotions
  • Use their emotions in social communication

Clearly, these two faculties are very different. Most of us would be pretty disappointed if society defined us on our ability to memorize and reason alone when we’re also a highly-skilled listener, empathetic friend, and socially-aware individual.

For that reason, EQ emerged to add more color and depth to a person’s level of intelligence. It acknowledges that intelligence isn’t just empirical knowledge or academic capacity, but also a multi-faceted quality that should be tested holistically.

Which one matters more?

Previously, IQ was considered to be the sole determinant of intelligence and success. A person with a high IQ would have been predicted to accomplish great things in their work, health, and life.

While this might still be the case somewhat, psychologists now recognize that there’s more to success than knowledge. We all have friends that did exceptionally well in school and studied hard in every spare moment they had, but who are also socially awkward and introverted, finding it difficult to cope in group situations.

In the workplace in particular, IQ only gives us half of the picture. Employees are usually expected to work in teams, or at least to socialize with their colleagues. A person with razor-sharp IQ but rock-bottom EQ is unlikely to get very far in that kind of environment.

Clearly, both are necessary, but which is the most important? I suppose that depends upon your goals. In the workplace, EQ can help us a lot when we’re required to lead teams or manage employees. As Kendra Cherry puts it:

“Research has found that individuals with strong leadership potential also tend to be more emotionally intelligent, suggesting that a high EQ is an important quality for business leaders and managers to have.”

In terms of work, both adequate IQ and EQ are necessary for performance and effective communication. Outside of the workplace, though, it could be argued that EQ takes precedence over IQ in our relationships and social life.

Claiming that either IQ or EQ is definitively more important than its counterpart would be unwise. Both are necessary, but their importance may vary depending on the particular situations we find ourselves in.

What Components Is Emotional Intelligence Comprised Of?

Emotional intelligence theories can be divided into three distinct models: the Ability Model, Mixed Model, and Trait Model. These models are varying ideas and frameworks about what emotional intelligence is and the elements that comprise it.

Running through all of these models in-depth would take a very long time. In order to keep things simple, I’m going to run you through the Mixed Model, which was introduced by science journalist Daniel Goleman, author of the book Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ.

The Mixed Model of EQ

The Mixed Model of EQ focuses on emotional intelligence as an array of skills and abilities thought to facilitate leadership performance. These are:

  1. Self-awareness: The ability to understand one’s own emotions, strengths, weaknesses, value drivers, and goals whilst recognizing their potential impact on others. Self-awareness also involves using gut feelings in order to guide personal decisions.
  2. Self-regulation: Self-regulation involves controlling or even redirecting disruptive emotions and impulses, and adapting to new circumstances.
  3. Social skill: The ability to manage relationships with others and move people in a specific direction.
  4. Empathy: Empathic people are able to consider other peoples’ feelings and emotions when making decisions.
  5. Motivation: The quality of being driven to achieving goals.

The Benefits of Emotional Intelligence

It’s clear that emotional intelligence is linked closely with a range of essential functions when it comes to socializing and forming relationships. There are a number of more specific benefits that can come from making an effort to improve your EQ, too.

Better teamwork

As the Center for Creative Leadership puts it:

“75 percent of careers are derailed for reasons related to emotional competencies, including inability to handle interpersonal problems; unsatisfactory team leadership during times of difficulty or conflict; or inability to adapt to change or elicit trust.”

Success in our careers is heavily dependent upon our ability to communicate and liaise with others. It’s crucial to healthy interpersonal relationships, effective teamwork, and networking skills.

Other workplace benefits of above-average EQ include:

  • Leading/managing a team
  • Selling or marketing
  • Offering customer support
  • Directing a business
  • Training subordinate colleagues
  • Negotiating a deal
  • Networking with professionals

A company comprised of employees who not only meet the job’s requirements but who also have top-notch EQ levels will excel far above teams that prioritize IQ alone.

Improved relationships

Often, one of the most common reasons that relationships break down is because of poor emotional intelligence. When two people fail to understand each other’s wants, needs, and feelings, their partnership is doomed for collapse.

As Dale Carnegie writes:

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.”

If it’s true that we’re dealing with creatures of emotion rather than logic, that leaves IQ almost entirely useless when it comes to forming connections with others. Our social health may, therefore, be solely dependent upon our EQ.

Moreover, people with low EQ tend to find it more difficult to express themselves and understand others. Conversely, when two compatible individuals with adequate EQ enter a relationship, it’s far more likely to succeed.

Can You Improve Emotional Intelligence?

The importance of EQ is undeniable. It’s essential to our success both in our personal and working lives. But if our current levels of emotional intelligence are holding us back, is it possible to boost them at all?

The answer, according to a meta-analysis of a range of different studies into the results of emotional learning programs, is an unequivocal yes.

Almost all of the children enrolled in SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) schemes in one study saw improvement in their scores on EQ tests. Their improved emotional intelligence was further linked with lower suspension rates, increased school attendance, and a reduction in poor behavior overall.

It follows, therefore, that we can all improve our emotional intelligence with enough effort — but how exactly should we go about doing that?

How to Improve Emotional Intelligence

We’ve covered the ins and outs of emotional intelligence — what it is, how it can benefit us, and the key components of the Mixed Model of EQ. With all of that in mind, it’s now time to look at the ways in which we can all direct our efforts towards improving our emotional intelligence.

In their seminal research and publication, The Emotionally Intelligent Manager, David R. Caruso, and Peter Salovey discussed four of the key skills pertaining to the development of social intelligence. They are:

1. Being able to identify your feelings and the feelings of others.

2. Using those feelings to direct your own thinking and reasoning along with others.

3. Understanding how our own and other people’s feelings may change in response to particular events.

4. Remaining open to feelings and being able to integrate these into decisions and actions.

Justin Bariso, the author of EQ Applied, takes these ideas further, using them to set out seven key steps we must all take if we wish to enhance our emotional intelligence.

1. Spend time reflecting on your own emotions

When seeking to better understand other people’s feelings, what better place to start than by looking inwards and observing our own?

Every once in a while, sit down and spend some time reflecting on your feelings and reactions. Consider how you might respond to situations such as the following:

  • Your boss pulls you aside to tell you you’ve been slacking.
  • Your spouse blames you for something that you didn’t do.
  • A driver cuts you off at a roundabout.

By identifying your own emotional responses to such incidents, you become more mindful of your feelings and your ability to control them. Over time, you’ll grow to be more proficient in recognizing when you’re acting impulsively and, in turn, you’ll be able to stop yourself from making rash decisions.

2. Explore other people’s perspectives

It’s easy to forget that the people we meet view us much differently to how we perceive ourselves. That being said, asking those close to us to share their opinions on our interactions with them can help us to better understand ourselves.

Whether it’s a spouse, parent, or sibling, start by asking a few questions about your behavior during significant moments — like stressful situations or arguments. Here are some to get you started:

  • Did I act unusually during that time?
  • Do you think I was acting logically or emotionally?
  • Was I sensitive to your emotions?
  • Should I have behaved differently?
  • Could you explain how?

By understanding how other people perceive our emotions, we can gain an objective, less-biased perspective on our behavior.

3. Start being more observant

Developing our emotional intelligence is only possible if you become more observant of your feelings. It’s important that you watch your behaviors closely on a day-to-day basis. As Bariso says,

“If you make any new discoveries, make sure to repeat step one. You can even write down your experience; doing so will help clarify your thinking and keep you in ‘learning mode.’”

4. Make use of “the pause”

“The pause,” as Bariso puts it, is incredibly simple but very effective when it comes to enhancing your EQ. It is, as the name suggests, the act of taking a brief pause, stopping to think before we act or speak.

Doing this prevents us from making reckless or impulsive decisions without foresight. It enables us to take control of emotions like anger and jealousy that can cause a lot of problems if left to run riot.

Pausing during stressful moments is easier said than done, but with practice, it becomes easier. By making use of mindful pauses, we stand to enhance our emotional intelligence over time by harnessing our emotions rather than allowing them to guide us blindly.

5. Start asking why

When other people take actions that we disagree with, we’re quick to make judgments about their thoughts and behaviours. We might label the person honking their horn behind us as an inconsiderate and thoughtless individual.

Rarely do we stop to consider why other people behave the way they do. Instead, we jump to conclusions and make assumptions without really considering their feelings.

Increasing our emotional intelligence can be done by simply asking the question more often — asking why the person that annoyed us might have acted the way they did. By asking why, we connect with their emotions, empathize with their actions, and suddenly feel less judgemental and more accepting.

6. Learn from criticisms rather than taking offense

Whether it’s coming from our romantic partner, new client, or best friend, criticism is never an easy pill to swallow. Nobody likes to be told that what they’re doing is wrong.

As much as we’d like to discount the opinions of our critics and uphold our own beliefs, there’s usually some truth in criticism — and we can learn from it.

When somebody gives us negative feedback about something, it’s easy to take offense. It’s far healthier, though, for us to put aside our feelings and see what we can learn from their words.

Bariso asks us to consider the following questions when presented with criticism:

“Putting my personal feelings aside, what can I learn from this alternate perspective?

Instead of focusing on the delivery, how can I use this feedback to help me or my team improve?”

Sometimes, criticism should indeed be discredited — especially when it’s based upon falsehood or malice. If that isn’t the case, though, we can stand to learn a lot from our critics, and we should use their words to catalyze our own improvement.

7. Practice

All of the above skills take practice. It’s difficult to take a pause when all we want to do is punch a wall or shout at the top of our voice. It’s difficult to consider why a person that has sparked severe indignation in our hearts might have acted in whatever way they did.

However, in life, difficult things are usually the most rewarding. Persisting in our efforts over time will allow us to maximize our emotional intelligence and boost our chances of succeeding both in our working and personal life.

If you fail a few times at any of the above practices, don’t give up. Keep trying, and eventually, you’ll find yourself getting better and better at controlling and identifying emotions.

The Takeaway

There’s no doubt that emotional intelligence is crucial to our success, both in and out of the workplace. Whether you believe that EQ supersedes IQ in importance or not, a combination of both is sure to maximize your performance in every area of your life.

By becoming better acquainted with our own emotions and then using the practices set out by Justin Bariso, we can all work on improving our emotional intelligence.

With practice, effort, and consistency, we’ll find ourselves more in tune with both our own emotions and those of the people we meet as we progress. And, as a result, our relationships, confidence, and capacity to communicate will all begin to improve.

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