You might have heard people talking about emotional intelligence (EQ) recently. Increasingly often, it’s coming up in conversations about dating, friendships, and even job appraisals. In this guide, you’ll learn what emotional intelligence is, why it matters, and how you can improve your EQ.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) is the ability to understand and deal with your emotions and the emotions of others. EQ can be broken down into skills that enable you to handle emotional and social challenges. For example, your EQ helps you support a grieving friend or resolve a conflict.
Your EQ is an emotional version of your IQ. Your intelligence allows you to think about things logically and draw conclusions from information. Your emotional intelligence allows you to think about the emotions people are feeling and use this information to better understand their behavior.
Understanding and improving your EQ can help you build better relationships, achieve more at work, and fulfill more of your personal goals.
Emotional intelligence consists of lots of smaller skills. Researchers divide them up in different ways, but one of the most helpful comes from psychologist Daniel Goleman. He suggested that there are 5 key parts to your emotional intelligence.
Your self-awareness is a measure of how well you understand yourself and your emotions. It’s your ability to correctly interpret emotional information about yourself.
Self-awareness has both short- and long-term aspects. For example, someone who is self-aware understands their long-term preferences, values, and needs. They might know that they are easily bored and so look for a job with lots of variety. They understand the stable, consistent, long-term aspects of their emotional lives.
Being self-aware also means recognizing your emotional state on a moment-by-moment basis. Lots of us try to hide our emotions, even from ourselves. We might also try to override inconvenient emotions. For example, you might feel guilty about being angry with your parents, so you try to push that feeling away, only to find yourself being irritable with your partner and your work colleagues.
A highly emotionally intelligent person is able to see their initial anger and understand that they’re feeling particularly irritable and frustrated as a result. Self-awareness is the foundation on which the rest of our emotional intelligence relies.
Self-regulation follows from self-awareness. Self-awareness enables us to understand our emotions, but self-regulation means not allowing our emotions to overwhelm us or dictate what we do. The stereotypical angry boss who yells at everyone because they’re unhappy at home is an example of someone with poor self-regulation.
Self-regulation doesn’t mean that you can’t show your feelings. It means that you express your emotions in a way that is meaningful and appropriate. This includes waiting until the right time, adjusting how you communicate, and ensuring that you don’t take your emotions out on other people.
Effective self-regulation is a balancing act. Some of us try to control our emotions too much, bottling up difficult feelings and hiding them from people who care about us. Alternatively, we might not regulate enough, having strong emotional outbursts and feeling out of control. People with high emotional intelligence are able to walk a healthy middle line between these two.
Motivation is a skill that enables you to motivate yourself and build self-discipline through your personal values, needs, and goals, rather than relying on external rewards such as money or praise. This kind of personal drive to achieve is known as intrinsic motivation. Relying on external rewards is known as extrinsic motivation.
Just like self-regulation, intrinsic motivation relies on your self-awareness. Being self-aware allows you to understand your values and predict what will make you happy. You’re then able to focus on how your current behavior is fulfilling your needs.
Imagine you are cycling. Extrinsic motivation feels like cycling up a hill. You have to put lots of effort into making yourself move, everything happens slowly, and you’re exhausted when you reach the top. Intrinsic motivation is like cycling down a hill. It feels easy, and you just keep going faster and faster. It’s also more fun!
Intrinsic motivation isn’t a trait you either have or don’t. It is still a skill you can improve on. People with high emotional intelligence usually try to improve their intrinsic motivation. For example, they might look for challenges at work because they find them interesting. If they want to get fitter, they might look for activities they find fun so that they’re motivated by their intrinsic enjoyment rather than the extrinsic reward of people telling them they’ve lost weight.
Empathy means being able to understand others’ emotions and respond to what’s going on for them. Where self-awareness is about understanding yourself, empathy is about trying to understand other people in a similar way.
Empathy also has different elements, much like self-awareness. People with great empathy are able to identify what emotions someone is feeling at a particular moment, but they are also thinking about the other person’s motivations, history, personality, and environment to try to understand them on a deeper level.
Having this in-depth understanding of someone else allows empathetic people to respond well to the people around them. They predict what the other person needs from them. For example, most of us can tell when someone is sad. Having great empathy can help you know whether to sit with them in their sadness or try to cheer them up.
You don’t need to be a mind reader to show empathy. Highly emotionally intelligent people understand that they are making a best guess and don’t assume that they have all the answers. They respect others’ complex internal worlds and are always trying to understand them a little better.
If you find it difficult to understand people’s behavior, you might like this article on how to improve your social awareness.
5. Social skills
Social skills are probably the most obvious aspect of EQ. Emotionally intelligent people are able to use their self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, and empathy to help them build meaningful relationships with others. They are able to change how they communicate to help them get their message across to the people they’re talking to.
Emotionally intelligent people are also able to read a social situation and understand the social rules they need to follow. Their self-awareness has built up their self-confidence to allow them to handle awkward situations gracefully.
There are loads of different social skills. You can have great emotional intelligence without being amazing at all of them, but lots of high EQ people try to improve their social skills all the time.
Why is emotional intelligence important?
We might like to think that we’re rational, sensible people who aren’t affected by our emotions, but that’s simply not true. Our emotions are an integral part of our lives, for better and for worse.
Our performance is almost always influenced by our emotions, even if a situation seems to call for logical thought rather than emotional intelligence.
For example, let’s say you’re taking a calculus exam. The exam is designed to see how well you understand calculus, but it also (indirectly) tests how well you can regulate your stress levels. It might also show how intrinsically motivated you are to learn math, as you’re likely to do better on the exam if you find the subject interesting and fun.
It’s not just challenging moments that need good emotional intelligence. Joy, love, and contentment are also emotions. If we were purely intellectual beings, we wouldn’t have any of the positive experiences that help bring meaning to our lives.
Here are some important ways that our emotions influence many aspects of our lives and how having high emotional intelligence can help.
1. EQ can improve your mental health
As you might expect, having a high EQ is associated with better mental health, including lower rates of anxiety and depression. Studies suggest that having great EQ can help protect you from the mental health impacts of stress.
Importantly, this study found that being able to read others’ emotions actually made people more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. Only people who were also able to manage emotions had better mental health.
People with higher EQ may have more supportive social networks, which make it easier for them to deal with painful life events, such as trauma or bereavement. Being aware of emotional pain and stress can also make it easier for you to share your feelings to access the support you need.
2. EQ is linked with good physical health
Our mental health can have a significant impact on our physical health. If high emotional intelligence helps to protect our mental health, we might assume that it will also lead to better physical well-being. Evidence suggests that this assumption is correct.
Some of the benefits for your physical health are directly related to your mental health. If your EQ means that you don’t suffer from as much stress, you might have low blood pressure and, therefore, a lower risk of a stroke or heart disease.
High EQ is linked with lower levels of heart disease, better management of diabetes, and even muscular strength and sports performance. People with high EQ can also be better at managing pain and experience less fatigue.
3. EQ boosts academic and professional success
Emotional intelligence can have a significant impact on our ability to learn and our professional development.
Teachers are generally more positive about children with high EQ, making them feel more comfortable at school and increasing the expectation that they are going to do well.
Children with excellent social skills are also more likely to be able to get others to help them and will deal better with frustration and stress. They may also have more intrinsic motivation, meaning that they find it easier to work hard at their studies.
There are similar factors at play when you reach the workplace. Someone who has high EQ might be able to choose the right time to ask their boss for a raise or be motivated to seek out training opportunities in their free time. They’re also more likely to be offered promotions and leadership positions.
4. EQ can improve your relationships
Strong relationships with our friends and family are important for our long-term well-being. Someone who has a high EQ is able to connect better with the people they care about, helping them form deeper relationships.
For example, we know that sharing personal information about yourself is one of the quickest ways to become friends with someone.
If you have high EQ, you have enough self-awareness and communication skills to be able to explain your emotions to your new friend. You also have the empathy needed to help them feel really understood. You understand them well enough to know how much it’s OK to share and the self-regulation and social skills to be vulnerable without making them feel uncomfortable.
People with high EQ may also be better at reading other people, giving them better judgment about whether someone can be trusted to be a good friend.
Great EQ also usually means that you are able to communicate effectively. You ask questions, listen to the answers, and can accurately read body language. This allows you to set better boundaries and resolve conflicts with your loved ones in ways that meet both your needs.
5. EQ can improve decision-making
Emotions are an important source of information. A healthy degree of emotional intelligence helps you use your knowledge of your emotions and the emotions of the people around you to make the best decisions you can.
Here are three examples that show how emotional intelligence is linked to better decision-making:
- Your ability to self-regulate can help you avoid impulsive, rash decisions. You’re more likely to take some time to think about how your decision will impact others rather than only thinking about the effect it will have on you.
- Someone with high EQ is also less likely to feel paralyzed when they need to make a decision. Because they acknowledge and cope with their feelings, they don’t get bogged down by uncomfortable and difficult emotions.
- Emotional intelligence can help us recognize the true source of our anxiety, which can improve our decision-making. Emotional intelligence can stop you from making choices based on unrelated emotions.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious because you’ve just taken your pet to the vet, you might be more likely to turn down a promotion at work. You might misinterpret your anxiety as a sign that you’re not ready for more responsibility. However, if you have good emotional intelligence, you would realize that your worries about your pet could be influencing your judgment.
Signs of high emotional intelligence
We’re not very good at estimating our own emotional intelligence. Some academics suggest that 95% of us think we have great self-awareness and emotional intelligence, but only 15% actually do.
A low EQ doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that you don’t care about others. In fact, it’s great to realize that you have a long way to go in improving your emotional intelligence. It means you have lots of opportunities to improve your relationships.
Here are some key signs and characteristics that suggest you have a high level of emotional intelligence:
- You can accurately guess what other people are feeling.
- You can notice and describe your own emotions.
- You understand your own strengths and weaknesses.
- You are confident in dealing with change.
- You are more likely to look for root causes of problems than to assign blame.
- You work well in a team.
- You cope well with pressure.
- You can experience emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
- You can often predict how other people will respond to a situation.
How to improve your emotional intelligence
Your emotional intelligence isn’t fixed. It’s a skill and, just like all our other social skills, we can improve it with a little targeted effort.
Here are some ways to improve your emotional intelligence:
1. Name your emotions
It might sound obvious, but people often struggle to name lots of different emotions. Almost all of us can tell when we’re happy or sad, but can you tell the difference between feeling infuriated and exasperated? How about knowing when you’re blissful rather than delighted?
Having a wider vocabulary around your emotions can help you notice subtle distinctions. You can find lists of emotion words online. Many therapists use these with clients to help them really dig deep into the details of what they’re feeling. Try getting into the habit of checking in with yourself throughout the day. Pause and ask yourself, “What am I actually feeling right now?”
2. Get curious about your emotions
Being curious about your emotions, and trying to understand what they are telling you, is the first step to improving your EQ. Our emotions are there to give us important information about ourselves and others. Even strong emotions aren’t something to fear; they are useful clues that can help you understand your wants and needs.
The next time you feel caught up in an emotion, ask yourself, “What exactly am I feeling?” and “What is this feeling telling me?”
For example, if you feel agitated and uneasy when you’re hanging out with a particular person, perhaps you need to address a problem in your relationship. Maybe you’re avoiding a difficult but necessary conversation or get the sense that they are holding something back from you.
3. Take time before responding
Emotions can be intense, but they can also change quickly. Having good emotional intelligence means making sure that you take the time you need to process your emotions rather than responding to them reflexively. When you’re caught up in an emotional situation—for example, if someone tries to start an argument with you—try taking a deep breath and counting to 10 before you respond.
4. Learn about yourself
It’s easy to believe that we already know everything there is to know about ourselves. After all, we’ve spent all of our lives living inside our own minds.
Unfortunately, understanding ourselves isn’t always automatic or easy. Driving a car doesn’t teach you how an engine works. In the same way, we don’t always understand some of the things that drive us.
Try making time each day to reflect on yourself, your feelings, and your reactions. Lots of people find that writing this down and journaling helps them to identify patterns in their own thoughts and feelings that they might otherwise have missed.
5. Evaluate your coping strategies
Self-regulation is about being aware of your emotions and dealing with them effectively. It doesn’t mean suppressing your feelings and pretending that nothing’s wrong.
Stress is a key emotion that you’ll have to manage from time to time. Improve your EQ by evaluating how well you deal with stress and then trying out different strategies to see which helps you cope better.
For example, you might try spending time with friends, going for walks alone, talking your problems through with a loved one, or having a hard workout in the gym. Look for patterns in the things that you deal well with your emotions.
6. Practice active listening
Lots of people are surprisingly bad at really listening to others. Emotionally intelligent people have learned to pay attention to others and try to understand where they’re coming from. What’s more, they know how to let the other person know that they’re being listened to.
Active listening is a complex skill, but it’s an important one if you want to form meaningful connections with others. Check out our comprehensive guide to being a better listener for some useful tips.
7. Build empathy by being curious about other people
Empathy is one of the key components of emotional intelligence. It allows you to understand someone else’s experiences, even when they are vastly different from your own. This makes it easier for you to anticipate their reactions to situations and to build trust.
Learning new things about people helps you see them in a more 3D way and helps you understand more about their inner world. It also makes it easier to put your assumptions aside and understand people as they see themselves.
Try to be genuinely curious about other people. Get into the habit of asking questions and trying to find interesting tidbits about them. If you aren’t naturally curious, read our guide on how to be interested in others.
8. Read more fiction
Reading, especially fiction, helps us to understand the inner lives of other people. Books offer an almost unique opportunity to really get inside someone’s head. In a film, you see what a character does, and you hear what they say, but you usually don’t hear what they’re thinking. Reading fiction usually lets you see this part of a character’s internal world.
Try to think about what you’re reading as you enjoy the story. Ask yourself whether you would react in the same way as the characters you’re reading about. If not, think about why you’d react in a different way. This can help you to understand how different values or life experiences can lead people to deal with situations differently.
Reading books with unlikable protagonists can help stretch your EQ muscles even further as you try to understand people you fundamentally don’t like or respect.
9. Set clear goals
We’ve already talked about understanding yourself as a way to improve your self-awareness, but thinking about your goals also increases your motivation.
When you have clear goals, it’s easy to see whether what you’re doing is moving you towards or away from those goals.
You need to understand yourself and your needs well enough to set goals that feel really meaningful. You also need to continually assess whether the goals you have are still important to you. Try setting aside an hour every month or two to examine your goals and check they’re still a good match for your needs.