Photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash

What is emotional intelligence, really?

As an author, the topic of emotional intelligence has become my primary area of research and writing. To date, I’ve written over 60 articles about emotional intelligence (EI) and the emotional quotient (EQ). It’s also the topic of my forthcoming book.

Trent Selbrede, a friend and fellow writer, recently wrote a thoughtful criticism of emotional intelligence, and it’s a pretty good read. (In fact, I suggest you read Trent’s take before proceeding with this piece.)

Here’s the challenge when it comes to EI:

Emotional intelligence as a field of scientific study is relatively new, and even experts disagree on its application. But even though the terms emotional intelligence, EI, and EQ are only decades old, the concepts have literally been around for centuries.

And although I respect the work of the various authorities in the field of emotional intelligence, I have a different perspective from many of them.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

Keeping It Under Control

I describe emotional intelligence as a person’s ability to identify emotions (in both themselves and others), to recognize the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior.

Some (like Trent) feel that EI supporters want you to try and control your emotions. That mainstream EI turns us into robots. That it promotes the idea you should “avoid conflict and heated discussion.”

Maybe that’s how some EI practitioners feel. In contrast, I strongly believe in the need for conflict, and at times, heated discussion.

Emotional intelligence isn’t about always avoiding those moments. It’s learning to identify when they’re coming, so you’re not constantly walking into them inadvertently, and dealing with them in a way that you won’t later regret.

It’s also learning to see your thoughts and feelings from the perspective of others, so your emotions don’t prevent them from discounting your opinion before they’ve even heard it.

The “EQ” Problem

Many also have a problem with the abbreviation “EQ.” Like Trent, they see the idea of trying to quantify another person’s intelligence as inappropriate.

I actually agree.

I use “EQ” as shorthand to speak about an individual’s knowledge about emotions and how they work, as opposed to “EI,” which I use in reference to someone’s practical ability.

But I don’t believe standardized tests accurately measure EQ, just like I don’t believe IQ tests accurately judge how traditionally “intelligent” a person is (whatever that means).

I subscribe to the theory psychologist Howard Gardner proposed, namely, that humans have different ways of processing information (different forms of “intelligence”), and that each of these are relatively independent of one another. For example, Gardner believed people could be visually or musically intelligent, while not mathematically intelligent.

Similarly, what Gardner termed “interpersonal” and “intrapersonal intelligence” is what I refer to as emotional intelligence. But I’d never endorse assigning a value to someone’s EQ.

So why use the term EQ at all?

Simply put, because it’s easy to understand and accomplishes a purpose: It communicates the idea of a single individual’s ability to manage emotions effectively.

Judging Others

Since I don’t believe in trying to quantify others’ EQ, I also find attempts to judge individuals as emotionally intelligent (or not) as both pointless and dangerous.

For example, was Steve Jobs emotionally intelligent? Many say no, based on his reputation for interactions with others.

But it seems that Jobs did know how to use emotions to his advantage–not only to push the buttons of those working with him, but to effectively connect with a colossal audience.

Another example: Consider the world of politics.

Experts go on record to claim that certain politicians severely lack basic skills of emotional intelligence (like empathy for those with opposing opinions).

But those same candidates are masters at playing on others’ fears and emotions to fuel their rise through the system. (One might argue that all politicians do this, to a degree.)

Does the candidate that you despise really lack emotional intelligence?

Or does he (or she) know exactly what he’s doing?

That’s why you’ll never see me trying to judge another person’s EQ, namely because:

1. A person can be adept at certain skills of EI while lacking others.

2. EI has to do with a person managing emotions in line with his or her motives. And it’s very difficult to know a person’s true motives.

Parting Thoughts

Emotional intelligence is not the cure-all to the world’s problems. Far from it. Some of the most unethical persons in human history could also be the most emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence is also not about constantly suppressing your emotions, or never disagreeing with others.

In contrast, emotional intelligence is a set of skills that prevents you from being dominated by your feelings, and keeps your emotions from getting in the way of making the decision you really want to make–as opposed to the one that “feels right” at the time, but leads to major regret.

In short, it’s about making emotions work for you, instead of against you.

And if you don’t work to develop it, it’s all too easy to become a victim.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on