Emotional Intelligence

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Practical Psychology

How well do you know yourself? Take 60 seconds to just sit in your body and observe your emotions. How are you feeling? Where are you feeling or carrying your emotions? How do your emotions change as the day goes on, with your diet, or when you are put in certain circumstances?

I know I just threw a lot of questions at you, and not all of them are easy to answer. Understanding your emotions actually requires a set of skills known as Emotional Intelligence. 

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence, in its most simple terms, is the ability to identify emotions within yourself and how those emotions play a role in your decision-making. The emotions that you feel, whether you can identify them or not, impact what you say, what you do, and how people perceive you.

Emotional intelligence is also an ability to see and understand emotions in others. 

Emotional intelligence is built from a set of skills, including the ability to be empathetic, effectively communicate with others, and manage the way that you respond to certain situations. 

We all have experienced times in our life where we let our emotions “get the best of us.” Maybe we said something out of anger, or we made poor decisions because of a passing sadness. Emotional intelligence allows us to identify these emotions before poor decisions are made.

Practical Intelligence vs. Emotional Intelligence

Like general (or practical) intelligence, we all possess varying levels of emotional intelligence. Unlike general intelligence, emotional intelligence is a set of skills that is not widely discussed in grade schools or even big corporations. Many people are just starting to hear about emotional intelligence now. It is possible to sharpen the set of skills that you need to be emotionally intelligent! 

Who Discovered Emotional Intelligence? 

Emotional intelligence is a relatively new term in psychology. Many believe that it was first written about in 1950 as “emotional strength.” Abraham Maslow is credited as one of the first psychologists to discuss this concept and its importance. Maslow is one of the fathers of positive psychology, a school of study focused on how to achieve happiness and become our best selves.

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer 

Emotional intelligence was not really mentioned again until 1990. Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer are credited as the first psychologists to write about emotional intelligence. (No, not that John Mayer.) Their work included a study that suggested that people who could accurately identify emotions in others were able to have strong social networks and respond to changes in their emotions better. Clearly, emotional intelligence is something that you want to have! 

Daniel Goleman 

Salovey and Mayer’s work inspired another psychologist, Daniel Goleman. Goleman was a psychologist working at Harvard. During his time at Harvard, he looked into the ideas that tests measuring general intelligence were coming up short. IQ could measure book smarts, but they weren’t great at measuring “street smarts.” When Daniel Goleman picked up on the idea of emotional intelligence, he saw an opportunity to measure “street smarts” better and provide a different look at what made a person intelligent. 

Daniel Goleman published a book on the topic, aptly called Emotional Intelligence, in 1995. He argued that emotional intelligence was just as important as tests measuring general intelligence, or IQ. Goleman’s book spent a year and a half on the New York Times Best-seller list, and it remains an important work in modern psychology. 

What Are The Five Elements of Emotional Intelligence?

So what skills make up emotional intelligence, anyway? These ideas have evolved since 1990, but today’s definition of emotional intelligence is widely understood to include five different components: 

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills 


The first component of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. People with high levels of self-awareness can detect how they are feeling in the moment and predict what changes could alter their emotions. A great example of this is a person who gets “hangry.” We all know someone who gets a little snippy when they’re hungry. As soon as they have some lunch or dinner, they chill out and realize they were hungry all along. 

At the very least, someone who has a high level of emotional intelligence might identify that they are upset in moments when they get hangry. They might not know that they are upset because of a lack of food in their stomach, but they can identify that they are upset for some reason. With a higher level of emotional intelligence and the ability to self-regulate, the person may tell themselves, “I’m upset, but I’m just hungry. I should not act on my emotions right now.” 


Self-regulation, also known as self-management, is the skill of managing your emotions, resources, and your actions. Someone with basic self-regulation skills may notice that they are hangry and hold back from making a sassy comment. They know that their perspective will change once they get a hold of food. A person with more self-regulation skills may be able to prevent getting hangry in the first place. They might keep some snacks on hand in their purse or plan their days around getting food. 


This component of motivation goes back to some of the earliest ideas in positive psychology. People who have high emotional intelligence tend to have a different motivation than people with low emotional intelligence. While people with low EQ may be motivated by money or fame, people with high EQ have different goals. They focus on internal rewards and goals. A lot of their goals require a growth mindset, or the mindset that all skills can grow and be obtained over time. 

This goes back to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the top of this hierarchy of needs, one that is usually pursued when basic and psychological needs are fulfilled, is self-fulfillment. This is where personal development and true creativity take place. People with high EQ are more likely to pursue these needs over a fancy car or other forms of external validation. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand how they are thinking and feeling. This is a different skill than sympathy, which is simply feeling bad for another person. 

Sympathy is seeing a person sitting on the sidewalk and feeling bad that they may not have a home. Empathy is looking at that person and trying to feel what they feel. Are they hungry? Ashamed? Tired? What could make them feel more comfortable, and how could you make them feel more comfortable? Empathy is understanding another person without placing your own judgement on their emotions or actions. 

This is an extremely important component of emotional intelligence. Empathizing with another person can change the way that you act toward them and interpret their actions. Someone who does not empathize with the person sitting on the sidewalk, for example, may get offended if the person gives them a dirty look. They might even make a judgement on their character, thinking they are a mean and grumpy person. An empathetic person, however, may see the dirty look differently. They may think that they too would be grumpy if they were hungry. They might question whether they did something to offend the person. Do you see the difference than empathy can make? 

Social skills 

Last, but not least, is social skills. Social skills put all of these skills together. When you are having a conversation with another person, you may assess their emotions and actions with empathy. You may understand their behavior because you have done the work to be self-aware and self-regulate. A person with high emotional intelligence, for example, may be able to identify another person who is “hangry” and be able to separate their behavior from their character. They may even order a round of food for the table so that the hangry person can have something to eat and chill out. 

We can see why a person with high emotional intelligence, with the ability to understand their emotions and the emotions of others, is a person who can build a strong network and reach great heights in their career and happiness. 

How to Develop Emotional Intelligence 

Remember, emotional intelligence is a set of skills. Skills, according to theories surrounding the growth mindset, can be developed over time. If you want to develop your emotional intelligence, you don’t have to go get a degree or spend thousands of dollars on a course. (Although some schools are starting to add emotional intelligence and related skills to their ​curriculums.)  Emotional intelligence is something that you develop with yourself and others. Here are some ways that you can get started. 

Journal (Or Track Your Mood) 

Studies show that you process emotions differently when you put your thoughts down on paper. A different part of your brain is used when you journal, and you gain emotional intelligence along the way. Tracking your mood, writing down what you feel, or journaling for just a minute a day can help you build these skills. 

Even if this feels like a repetitive exercise, you may start to see some trends in your mood. Do you feel better after you’ve had some exercise? Do you get exhausted if you spend a lot of time away from home? Understanding these trends can help with both self-awareness, self-regulation, and even your social skills!

Practice Open Communication 

Emotionally intelligent people do not speak or act passive-aggressively. They are open with their friends, partners, and colleagues about their feelings. They can have tough conversations calmly because they can empathize with people, even when they disagree. When was the last time that you had an open conversation with a person who you disagree with?

Practice open communication about your feelings. Even if you start off by talking to your roommate about who does the dishes, you may learn something new about empathy and how to navigate tough conversations. 

Set SMART Goals 

What motivates you? Do you recognize your desire for self-fulfillment and personal development? Take some time, maybe as you are journaling, to think about your goals. These goals should both be long-term and short-term. What can you do to be more emotionally intelligent today? Tomorrow? One year from now? 

One way to set intelligent goals is to set SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. How can you make both your long-term and short-term goals smart? How can achieving these goals help you become more emotionally intelligent and get you what you want, internally?

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, April). Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/emotional-intelligence/.

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