Emotional intelligence, or EI, is often seen as a simple idea: it measures emotional control and getting along with others. It does include those things, but there is more to it. To understand EI, it is best to understand all its parts.
EI is the ability and willingness to attend to and modify emotions in the self and others, often through empathy and controlled emotional expression.
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.
Both an ability and personality trait
People associate intelligence or IQ with ability. Most people see EI or EQ 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. Likewise, they believe 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, some people will willingly engage with an emotional situation, whereas others will actively disengage. In an important sense, 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, and personality and motivation capture the ‘will do’. Because EI has both ‘can do’ and ‘will do,’ we should consider it 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 is the ability to help. She must be able to recognize that the worker is frustrated and could benefit from assistance. Additionally, she needs to know what it will take to calm the worker down and 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 other things that are happening. 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, nor would we say she rates 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 emotions in our surroundings. It may be something obvious, like colleagues arguing loudly, or something subtle, like a normally cheerful person being suddenly sensitive to criticism. Individuals with higher EI are more aware of the subtle differences.
Once you recognize the behavior, you can direct efforts to improve 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 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
People high in EI are able and willing to recognize and improve their own emotions, and also those of other people. Managing one’s own emotional state can be critical in situations provoking fear, anger, uncertainty, and apathy. It can also be important when managing those around us. Some of us are good at attending to and managing our own feelings, but less inclined or able to deal with the 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 requires you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You understand, and almost feel, what they are going through. This makes it easier to help them.
Emotional expression relates 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 one’s outward expressions to communicate emotional information.
Finally, empathy and emotional expression contribute to emotional sharing, which is an important feature of interpersonal communication.
5. Related parts of the definition
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 involves putting a positive spin on tough situations. Optimism about the future, which means keeping a positive outlook going forward.
It’s important in measuring and working with EI that we don’t think it’s simpler than it really is.
To learn more, download our What is Emotional Intelligence infographic.
Watch More From Our MEIA Series
How is EI Important in the Workplace?
Why is EI Important in Leadership Roles?