The Importance of Emotional Intelligence


Our former dog, Perth, who was always expectantly happy.

Exactly a week ago I was invited as a guest on a podcast. The host was calling me from Finland, and he wanted to talk to me about human potential, which was a topic I had recorded a lecture about many years ago. During our conversation, the topic of emotional intelligence came up. 

The host predicted that schools were a terrible place for students to learn about emotional awareness. This surprised me, as I had always heard of what magical places Scandinavian schools are. I had to disagree with the host on his point. Sure, most schools emphasize facts and memorization over the softer skills of interpersonal and intrapersonal development, emotional awareness, and so on. But there has also been a considerable educational push to promote something called emotional intelligence. It's the minority of schools, of course, but it is still there.

I first learned of emotional intelligence a few years after graduating from college. But the concept had been around at least since I was in high school. Scientist Daniel Goleman, who was associated with the Mind and Life Institute (a consortium of neuroscientists and Buddhist practitioners who study Eastern religion and human consciousness), published Emotional Intelligence in 1995. He describes his research on the benefits of having EI and the detriments of not having it. Among some of his findings, emotional intelligence (or EQ) is a better predictor of happiness and future wealth than is intellectual intelligence (that is, IQ).

Since Goleman's research was made public, there have been hundreds of books written for educators who might be interested in promoting EQ in addition to (or to the exclusion of) IQ. An assessment administrator at my school even admitted that she was more interested in studying emotional intelligence than any other outcome, even though ASU has no stated learning objective associated with emotional intelligence.

What Is Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the global awareness of emotions in yourself and in others. An emotionally intelligent person is able to identify the emotional state they are currently experiencing. They are also sensitive to emotional changes. An emotionally unintelligent person is ignorant of their current emotional state, and does not recognize when it changes. If asked to identify how they are feeling, an emotionally unintelligent person will say, "I'm feeling fine," sometimes failing to recognize that they have answered this angrily.

An Example of Poor Emotional Intelligence

My wife helped some friends of ours move across town this weekend. During a break in moving boxes, our friend set up a mini whiffle ball game with her two children. The game was fun until the boy had a melt down and began angrily bashing the plastic bat into the corner of the house. What followed was calamity on all fronts. Shouting, punching, name-calling, and eventually weeping. There were a lot of emotions. There was comparably little emotional awareness. 

The tricky part is that human emotions change often. I can be having a lovely afternoon, but then I check my work e-mail and see that a student has an urgent request and suddenly I become anxious. I shift from satisfied contentment to panic in a few seconds. If this happens at dinner, which it has at least once, then to my wife I have become suddenly and inexplicably uptight. "What's the matter?" she asks, and I say, "Nothing! Nothing at all. Where is the fucking waitress?" Anybody who is watching me can recognize the change. But I am oblivious to it. I am ignorant of the emotional change that has occurred.

This is what happened with the whiffle ball party. This family was obviously tired from all of the moving and life changes, but they weren't aware of it. Instead, they tried to act like everything was normal, and this ended in an epic tantrum. Frustration was not allowed, so everybody went into time-out until the emotions subsided. This isn't a very efficient or satisfying way of resolving emotional distress. It usually results in kicking the problem further down the road to be solved later.

The Good News

We don't have to be controlled by our emotions. We don't have to wait until a feeling has passed. When I practice emotional awareness and grow my emotional intelligence, I am able to better recognize how I have become upset by an e-mail. I see that it is my hope to be an available and sympathetic professor to my students that has me feeling anxious about replying as quickly as possible. I cannot be "always available" and enjoy dinner with my wife. I have to choose one. But I don't want to. So I get frustrated instead. That is, unless I am aware of what is going on.

If I can identify my emotion--if I can name it, then I can realize it is a part of who I am. "This is me wishing that I was a superhuman person who can be all things to all people." I say this, and then my wife and I have a laugh. I can either admit this, or explain to my wife that my identity as a professor is more important to me than my relationship with her. But that would be a lie.

Did you notice how in the emotionally aware version I am not being controlled by my emotion? The emotion is still there, but I am no longer at its mercy. I also don't try to suppress it or make it go away. I let it stay, and I acknowledge what it means. 

Of course, emotional intelligence is not limited to recognition of your OWN emotion. You also recognize the emotions of others, too. You won't immediately react to another person who is having a rough day. You will see that the are human beings, too, which means that they have inner conflicts that are sometimes confusing or difficult to accept.

Perhaps you are beginning to see why there are such wonderful long-term consequences of emotional intelligence--increased happiness, better ability to advance in your career, stronger relationships, etc.

Schutte Emotional Intelligence Scale

Adapted and Shortened from Schutte, et al. (1998). Development and validation of a measure of emotional intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences, 25, 167-177.

Instructions: For each item, choose the number that represents your agreement/disagreement with the statement.
Alternate Instructions: Explore each item creatively. If you disagree with a statement, then consider how you might work on that skill. For example, if you do not recognize the emotions that other people are experiencing, then how could you practice noticing/observing?

    1            2            3            4            5    
Disagree              Neutral                Agree

1. When I am faced with obstacles, I remember times I faced similar obstacles and overcame them.
2. I find it easy to understand the nonverbal messages of other people.
3. When my mood changes, I see new possibilities.
4. Emotions are some of the things that make my life worth living.
5. I like to share my emotions with others.
6. I know why my emotions change.
7. I easily recognize my emotions as I experience them.
8. I compliment others when they have done something well.
9. When I feel a change in emotions, I tend to come up with new ideas.
10. It is easy for me to understand why people feel the way that they do.

Results: Add up your answers to 1-10. The highest possible score is 50. The lowest possible score is 10.
    High EQ: 40-50
    Medium EQ: 20-39
    Low EQ: 10-19
Take the entire inventory here.