What Is Emotional Intelligence, Really? Here Are Some Real-Life Examples

What is emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is a hard concept to grasp. Here’s what it looks like in real life.

Over the past several years, I’ve gotten (literally) thousands of emails from readers who are discovering emotional intelligence for the first time, and who have tons of questions.

Questions like:

  • What is emotional intelligence, exactly?
  • I’ve heard two abbreviations for emotional intelligence: E.I. and EQ. What’s the difference?
  • What are examples of emotional intelligence?
  • How can emotional intelligence help me?

I’ve spent countless hours answering those questions, and nowadays I answer them in-depth in my course “Build Real-World Intelligence.” But let’s take a few minutes to answer those questions here. (And if you have interest in the course, you can learn more about it here.)

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and manage emotions. I like to describe it as making emotions work for you, instead of against you.

That’s the short answer to the question. There’s also a long answer, which involves explaining the rationale behind these statements.

While many struggle with their emotions, it’s important to recognize that emotions themselves aren’t bad. Like a compass, they help us understand where we are at a particular moment in life. The key, then, is not taking emotions out of the equation—it’s finding balance between emotional and rational thinking.

And the way to do that is to learn how to understand and manage emotions. All of us have times where so-called “positive” emotions cause us to say or do something we regret (like making a promise when we’re in a good mood, only to discover that we’ve overextended ourselves), and “negative” emotions can cause us to do the same thing (like when frustration causes us to overreact or say something we don’t really mean).

We can also break emotional intelligence down into its four core elements, or abilities:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship management

Therefore, emotional intelligence is really the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions—both your own and that of others.

What’s the difference between E.I. and E.Q.?

There’s a short answer and a long answer to this one, too.

The short answer: In practical terms, there’s no real difference between “EI” (emotional intelligence) and “EQ” (emotional quotient). They are both widely accepted abbreviations for the concept of emotional intelligence.

The long answer:

In the academic world, most researchers prefer to abbreviate emotional intelligence as “EI.” For this reason, it’s much more common to see “EI” in research studies and psychological journals.

“EQ,” on the other hand, gained popularity in pop culture decades ago when Time magazine featured Daniel Goleman’s seminal book, Emotional Intelligence, on its cover with the headline: “What’s Your EQ?” Since that time, “EQ” has increased in personality and is now used in multiple languages, and for good reason.

To illustrate, think of how we use the term “IQ” in language. Technically speaking, it means “intelligence quotient” and is tied to performance on an IQ test. However, we also use IQ as shorthand for general intelligence, and we also use the term “high IQ” when speaking of those who understand and play a game particularly well (“they have a high basketball or football IQ”). This ability isn’t really something that’s measured, but it’s practical and easy to understand.

What are examples of emotional intelligence, and how can it help you?

Again, it comes down to our short version definition: Developing your emotional intelligence means learning how to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

For example, consider the following scenarios:

  • Your temper caused you to say or do something you later regretted.
  • You agreed to a request because you were in a good mood, but now you feel you’ve overbooked, and that’s causing you anxiety.
  • Your inability to understand someone’s feelings caused a huge misunderstanding and a breakdown in communication.
  • You found it difficult to manage a conflict.
  • You missed out on a great opportunity because of undue anxiety or fear.

Emotional intelligence helps you by first helping you build self- and social awareness: helping you understand the reasons why these situations occur, and the role personality and emotions play in each of them.

Then, by developing the ability to manage your emotions and those of others, you can change how you react and ideally prevent those above scenarios—or at least keep them to a minimum.

For example, let’s say you’re a person who likes to plan things far in advance.

Self-awareness helps you identify that tendency, and recognize that you get stressed when plans change last-minute.

Self-management helps you develop a plan to manage those feelings when plans do inevitably change.

Social awareness helps you realize that while some people are similar to you, others have no problem with changing plans last-minute, and don’t know why you would have a problem with it.

Relationship management helps you communicate your needs so that people try to give you advance notice when planning, and so they understand why you might not be yourself when plans suddenly change.

That’s just an example. There are countless others, and the scenarios you face will be influenced by your personality, background, and circumstances.

Remember, though, that emotional intelligence is a spectrum. Meaning, like everyone, you have emotional strengths and weaknesses. The key is to leverage the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses …

So that you can make emotions work for you, instead of against you—and become the best version of yourself.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.


If you enjoyed this article, you might also like:

Can Emotional Intelligence Be Bad? The Dark Side of EQ

Emotional Intelligence Is a Super Power. Here’s How to Develop Yours

19 Characteristics of High Emotional Intelligence

Want to Build Emotional Intelligence? Start By Answering One Simple Question

Build Your Emotional Vocabulary: Emotion Words List


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