Post: What is Emotional Intelligence?

February 9, 2017

Emotional Intelligence

Dr. Robert Tett, author of the Multidimensional Emotional Intelligence Assessment (MEIA), is featured in a series of videos to explain emotional intelligence (EI). He also describes how it is different from IQ.

Emotional intelligence or EI is often seen as a simple idea: it measures emotional control and getting along with others. It does includes those things but there is more to it than that. To understand EI, it is best to understand all its parts.

EI is defined as the ability and willingness to attend to and modify emotions in the self and others, often through empathy and controlled emotional expression.

Both an ability and personality trait

People associate intelligence or IQ with ability. EI or EQ is seen by most people as an ability or skill in the sense that more is better. People often believe that someone high in EI will more often behave correctly. And that someone with a lower EI will behave less correctly. But this is only part of the story. People differ in their tendency to seek out and engage in emotionally relevant situations. For example, when presented with an emotional situation, some people will willingly engage whereas others will actively disengage. In an important sense then, EI is very much like a personality trait.

Breaking down the definition: exploring the MEIA

1. Ability & willingness

Ability and personality traits are separate things but tend to go hand-in-hand. Ability captures the ‘can do’ of behavior. Personality and motivation capture the ‘will do’. Because EI has both can do and will do, it should be considered a combination or hybrid.

Imagine a leader who is walking by the office of a direct report cursing at his computer. Whether or not the boss stops requires two things. The first thing is she needs is to be able to help. She must be able to recognize that the worker is frustrated and could benefit from helping. She also needs to know what it will take to calm the worker down to solve the problem. Different approaches work on different employees. A leader with higher EI has the ability to distinguish these things. The second thing the boss needs is the willingness to help. This means choosing to stop rather than attending to all the other things that are going on. People vary in both respects.

A leader who has the ability to help but chooses to ignore the opportunity would not be considered a high EI boss, and nor would we say she’s high on EI if she stops and makes it worse.

2. Attend to & modify emotions

Includes recognizing and regulating emotions

Both are important in EI. First, we need to notice or recognize emotion in our surroundings. It may be something obvious like colleagues arguing loudly, or it may something subtle like a normally cheerful person is suddenly sensitive to criticism. Individuals with higher EI are more aware of the subtle differences.

Once the behavior has been recognized, efforts can be directed to improving the emotional state of the individual.

These are distinct processes as someone might notice an emotional issue but choose to ignore it, or lack the skill to deal with it effectively. Alternatively, they may not even notice a problem due to an inability nor a lack of interest and so fail to engage EI even if they have the ability to help.

3. Distinction between the self and others

Involves both self and others

People high on EI are able and willing to recognize and improve their own emotions, and also those of other people. Managing ones own emotional state can be critical in situations provoking fear, anger, uncertainty, apathy and it can be important when managing those around us. Some of us are good at attending to and managing our own feelings but less inclined and able to deal with emotional states of others. Some of us have the reverse orientation, and yet some have both or neither. Given all the different options, it’s important to distinguish between EI applied to the self and EI applied to others.

4. Empathy and Emotional Expression

Empathy is related to recognizing emotions in others but it adds by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and understanding, almost feeling, what they are going through. This makes it easier to help them.

Emotional expression is related to emotional self-regulation but it emphasizes how outward behavior is perceived by others. Communication is about more than just words. People pick up on emotional behaviors and it helps to be able to use ones’ outward expressions to communication emotional information.

Together, empathy and emotional expression contribute to emotional sharing which is an important feature of interpersonal communication.

5. Related parts of the definition

Proximal Outcomes: creative thinking & optimism, intuitive vs. reason

Creative thinking is a matter of using emotions as a visual input for solving problems.

Intuitive vs. reason which is finding the right balance between emotions and logic in decision making.

Optimism about the past which is about putting a positive spin on tough situations basically growing from ones mistakes. Optimism about the future – keeping a positive outlook going forward.

It’s important in measuring and working with EI that we are not seduced into thinking that it’s simpler than it really is.

Click here to learn about our emotional intelligence assessment.

Other Videos in the Series

How is EI Important in the Workplace?

Why is EI Important in Leadership Roles?

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