What is Emotional Intelligence?

We hear the term “Emotional Intelligence” a lot in workplaces. We get told that great leaders have it. Our performance reviews tell us to increase it. But what is it? Here’s my own definition:

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to consciously align your behaviors to a desired outcome.

It may sound simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That’s because behaviors are influenced by emotions, and emotions are influenced by a variety of things like personal needs, values, past experience, and instinct. The raw input of our environment passes through these filters, and our brain delivers a verdict in the form of an interpretation. And that, in turn, produces a behavior.

How The Brain "Channels & Chooses"

Basically, it’s “Channel and Choose.” Your brain receives stimulus, channels it through your own personal filters, and then chooses an action.

One of the wondrous and amazing things about the human brain is that it can operate at a meta level of consciousness, above these routine brain processes. We can become aware of our own needs and values that trigger particular emotions. We can process those emotions and then evaluate potential responses. We can learn to recognize situations that create an “emotional-hijack” and produce ineffective (or even destructive) behaviors—and change that course.

Some think that “Emotional Intelligence” is all touchy-feely and requires you to act a certain way all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Emotional Intelligence is about being able to choose your behaviors, rather than having the behaviors choose you. It’s about recognizing patterns in yourself and others so that you can be in control of your actions.

Understanding oneself is the first level of Emotional Intelligence. With that insight, we can then move into understanding what drives other people’s behaviors. This is where the concept becomes extremely powerful.

How Does It Work?

Let’s say you’re trying to enlist colleagues to support a proposal. You know it’s a great idea, and you explain it in detail, and yet one of your associates blows up defensively and stalks out of the room. What happened? Well, that person’s brain filtered a strong negative emotion. Was it something you said? Was it how you said it? Could you have anticipated this reaction and changed your approach? This is where Emotional Intelligence gives us a rich toolkit.

People are all different, and yet there are predictable behavioral patterns that form personality styles. You may be familiar with some of these frameworks such as Myers-Briggs, Social Styles, or DiSC.  These frameworks provide a structured way to understand behavioral tendencies, and develop an understanding of how your behavior affects others. These skills increase your effectiveness by improving your relationships with others. You can learn to tailor and adapt your communication style so that it meshes well with different styles, to produce a positive result. In avoiding other people’s emotional triggers and hijacks, the path remains open for collaboration.

How Do You Get Some?

Studies show that Emotional Intelligence is more important than IQ in determining the future success of a person. The good news about Emotional Intelligence is that it can be learned and refined over time.

1. Gain Insight to Yourself. There are many ways to do this. You can complete a standard assessment such as the DiSC Inventory or the Social Styles index. These assessments are available through a variety of sources online and deliver a detailed report of your overall tendencies.

Another means of insight is to ask people you trust. This requires courage and a thick skin, and your genuine desire to take in whatever they have to say, even if you disagree. Hearing something that seems totally inconsistent with your self-perception can be very painful, but it’s also the best way to see gaps between your intentions and your behaviors.

2. Learn About Emotional Intelligence and Personality Styles. Two of the principal works on Emotional Intelligence are Emotional Intelligence by Dr. Daniel Goleman, and Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Drs. Travis Bradbury and Jeanne Greaves. Books like People Styles at Work (Robert Bolton & Dorothy Grover Bolton) break down how each personality style filters information, communicates, and interacts with the other styles. There are numerous books and classes available on the DiSC framework, as well.

3. Work on One or Two Behaviors at a Time. Rather than trying to take on the whole world of personality differences, choose one or two areas that seem to cause you the most trouble. Maybe it’s having people listen to you?  Perhaps it’s your short temper? Observe the situations where this happens, note the external stimulus or triggers, and think about how your brain may be unconsciously delivering a filtered response that is counter-productive.  You’ll be amazed at how much calmer you can remain when you are aware of your own “hot buttons.”

4. Get a Coach or a Mentor. If you want a truly objective viewpoint, a coach or mentor can be invaluable. They will help you to recognize patterns in yourself and others, and build your ability to consciously choose your behaviors rather than being driven by pure emotion.

Once you understand how your emotions influence your behaviors, and the behaviors of others, you will look at interactions as opportunities to build rapport and enhance communication. The benefits are immense to decision-making, relationships, and even to your overall health.  According to Warren Bennis, author of On Becoming a Leader,

“Emotional Intelligence is much more powerful than IQ in determining who emerges as a leader. IQ is a threshold competence. You need it, but it doesn’t make you a star. Emotional Intelligence can.”

And who doesn’t want to be a star?


8 responses to “What is Emotional Intelligence?

  1. Excellent article, Pam! Emotional intelligence is still a very nebulous concept for many and you’ve done a good job quantifying it and offering tips on how to improve it.

    Being able to understand one’s emotions is critical to making effective decisions. That’s not a skill that comes out of the box. For a lot of people, emotions are a big black roiling sea of blech and critically examining them can be daunting.

    I find constant introspection, especially after a surge of strong emotion to be vital to developing this skill. It can be hard to do, but very worth it. When you understand your emotions, you get on the path of being able to control them, and control your responses to them.

    • Hey Geoff, thanks for stopping by the blog. I love your line “big black roiling sea of blech”– I’m smelling a book title there! The advice to “count to ten” when you’re upset or pissed makes sense now that I understand that it literally takes time for a stimulus to travel from the “emotional” center to the “rational” center of the brain.

  2. Great post Pam! Emotional intelligence is quite a tricky one to try and understand a wide variety of people’s emotions when making decisions, but enjoyed reading your insightful tips. Thanks Pam.
    Lisa Drake

    • Thanks for the comment, Lisa. I agree it’s so tricky to understand a wide variety of people’s emotions. The most helpful thing for me has been to understand my own emotions, which is also tricky but more readily accessible 🙂 This way, I can moderate my reactions to emotional triggers that might otherwise set me off. Beyond that, we can’t observe others’ emotions per se… only their behaviors, from which we can attempt to deduce their underlying emotional state. Not easy stuff, for sure!

  3. Nice post, Pam. We’ve just posted on our site about how the people aspect is one of the 4 ‘bottom lines’ in our Quadruple Bottom Line (QBL) – People, Planet, Profits, and Projects. In fact, We’ll be visiting here often since you actually have (at least) two (people and projects) of the four covered!

    Keep up the great work!


  4. Thanks Rich, for the comment and support of the concept. I like the QBL framework, very cool!

  5. I enjoyed your post, Pam. I would like to learn more about your views on the “filter” in your diagram which I’m assuming are thoughts and about “stimuli”.

    Regarding the first, one of the things that I’ve found is that people are often conditioned to think in ways that are not aligned with their desires. For example, I met one woman who recently came to the realization that she had been told what was good for her rather than learning how to determine that for herself. In other words, the filter isn’t really totally of our own creation, so how do we become aware of that and correct it?

    Regarding the second, are we always responding to a external stimulus? Are we ever the initiator rather than just the responder?

    Again, thank you for the post and reaching out. ~Mike Lehr

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for stopping by. You raise some interesting questions. As you know, any attempt to present something as complex as human cognition in a simple diagram results in generalization.

      When I talk about Emotional Intelligence, I use the word “Filter” to represent all of our knowledge, assumptions, experiences, conditioning, and beliefs that contribute to an ultimate interpretation of a situation, and then produce a reaction or behavior. An example I use in workshops is an adult coming upon a lion in a zoo. The initial limbic decision would be “RUN!” but then as the message passes through our Filters we quickly assess that the lion is in a cage, and we’ve learned that a cage means restraint, and thus our determination is that the situation is safe. However, a toddler who has not yet learned that a cage means safety may freak out and run away, following her initial limbic guidance with nothing else to contribute to a choice of behaviors.

      When the filter contains conditioning of which we’re unaware, as in your example of the woman who was always told what was good for her– yes, it is possible to become conscious of that. For me, Emotional Intelligence, or “Social Intelligence”, is always about the behavior or response. So if a person finds themself in a negative pattern of reaction, they can trace backwards to ask whether this is a reasonable/healthy response to a situation. One can dig deeper to determine what drives that interpretation, if they wish, or they can just choose to alter their interpretation consciously. Since the woman you mention came to this realization, I’d be interested in knowing how she accomplished this?

      As for whether we’re always responding to external stimulus, the answer is “no”. I look at Emotional Intelligence as the science of how we respond to external stimulus, and therefore de facto it is not considering all the other thought processes and factors that also drive human behaviors. Does that make sense? Interested in your thoughts on this.

      Again, thanks for your thought-provoking comments!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s