Have you ever asked yourself that question? It’s a good one. As someone who has studied the topic for several years, I ask it to myself over and over. Here’s the thing: There’s two answers to that question. One’s simple, the other’s complex. Let’s start with the complex one.
(I know, I know, you probably want the simple one first. But it’ll be helpful to communicate some nuance.)
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions. Researchers and practitioners may divide it into different facets, but they usually contain elements of the following four abilities:
Self-awareness: the ability to identify and understand emotions in yourself.
Self management: the ability to manage those emotions and keep them from causing you to act (or refrain from acting) in a way that you later regret.
Social awareness: the ability to identify and understand emotions in others.
Relationship management: the ability to provide and receive benefits from your relationships with others.
Although these four abilities, or facets, of emotional intelligence are connected and complement one another, they aren’t always dependent on each other. In other words, you will likely excel in one or more aspects and be weaker in another.
Additionally, a deeper understanding of emotional intelligence will involve understanding different parts of our brain like the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, and how those parts of the brain work together to process thoughts and emotions.
Finally, it’s important to know that much like what we think of as traditional intelligence, emotional intelligence is not inherently virtuous. That means people use it to accomplish all sorts of goals, some that many would define as “evil,” as well as “good.” Ok. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the simple answer.
The simple answer
Emotional intelligence is making emotions work for you, instead of against you. Some students of emotional intelligence will say this is over-simplifying things–but I disagree.
Look, here are the facts. As humans, we’re emotional creatures. Emotions play a major role in every decision we make. Therefore, the more you learn about how your and others’ emotions work, how they affect your decision making and everyday life, and how to manage them, the better off you will be…most of the time.
Why most of the time? Well, remember: With great power, comes great responsibility.The more emotional intelligence you have, the more power you have. And power corrupts. That’s why emotional intelligence is only one part of the equation. You also need morals and ethics to help you manage that power…and of course, there are other forms of intelligence, such as what is traditionally known as general intelligence (the g factor).
Or, if you subscribe to the theories of Howard Gardner, there are other forms of intelligence (such as musical intelligence, or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence).So, what does emotional intelligence look like in real life? It comes in different packages, shapes, and sizes:
It’s the leader who knows how to inspire and rally the troops. It’s the follower who knows which leader to follow–along with when and how to speak up. It’s the extrovert who knows when to pull back. It’s the introvert who knows when to push forward. It’s the teacher who makes the dullest subject come to life.
It’s the student who makes their teacher feel they’ve chosen the best job in the world. It’s the doctor who listens to their patients. It’s the patients who listen to their doctor. (But also know when to get a second opinion.) It’s the artist who channels their feelings to create something beautiful.
It’s the audience who can appreciate the beauty. Emotional intelligence is a spectrum. Like everyone, you have emotional strengths and weaknesses. As you become aware of your own, strive to learn from those who are different from you. As you do, you’ll see how to leverage the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses.
That’s making emotions work for you, instead of against you.
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