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What Is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

Who Is Emotionally Intelligent -- And Does It Matter?

A Description of the High EI Individual

Generally speaking, emotional intelligence improves an individual's social effectiveness. The higher the emotional intelligence, the better the social relations. In a recent review, my colleagues and I described the emotionally intelligent person in these terms:

The high EI individual, most centrally, can better perceive emotions, use them in thought, understand their meanings, and manage emotions, than others. Solving emotional problems likely requires less cognitive effort for this individual. The person also tends to be somewhat higher in verbal, social, and other intelligences, particularly if the individual scored higher in the understanding emotions portion of EI. The individual tends to be more open and agreeable than others. The high EI person is drawn to occupations involving social interactions such as teaching and counseling more so than to occupations involving clerical or administrative tasks.

The high EI individual, relative to others, is less apt to engage in problem behaviors, and avoids self-destructive, negative behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, drug abuse, or violent episodes with others. The high EI person is more likely to have possessions of sentimental attachment around the home and to have more positive social interactions, particularly if the individual scored highly on emotional management. Such individuals may also be more adept at describing motivational goals, aims, and missions. (Mayer, Salovey, & Caruso, 2004, p. 210)

Note that the specific kind of boost that emotional intelligence gives the individual will be subtle, and as a consequence, require some effort to identify. It will not be exhibited in all social circumstances.

Nonetheless, EI Is Important

Some of us accomplish certain tasks with great ease and sophistication; others of us simply can't do those tasks. This is the case with most challenges we face in life. Some of us are great chess players while others of us have trouble just figuring out how the pieces move. Some of us are fabulous conversationalists, while others of us have trouble just saying hello.

Now, the world could do without the game of chess, and the world could do without fabulous conversationalists, but it would be a poorer place for it.

Emotional intelligence is an intelligence having to do with discerning and understanding emotional information. Emotional information is all around us. Emotions communicate basic feeling states from one individual to another -- they signal urgent messages such as "let's get together" or "I am hurting" or "I'm going to hurt you."

What ability tests of emotional intelligence tell us is that only some people can pick up and understand and appreciate the more subtle versions of those messages. That is, only the high EI individual understands the full richness and complexities of these communications.

Emotional information is crucial. It is one of the primary forms of information that human beings process. That doesn't mean that everybody has to process it well. But it does mean that it is circulating around us, and certain people who can pick up on it can perform certain tasks very well that others cannot perform.

We all need emotional intelligence to help us through our emotionally demanding days. Even if we are not emotionally intelligent ourselves, we may rely on those higher in emotional intelligence to guide us.

But guide us to what? What is it that people high in emotional intelligence can see that so many others are blind to? The key to this lies in what those high in emotional intelligence are particularly good at doing themselves.

They're particularly good at establishing positive social relationships with others, and avoiding conflicts, fights, and other social altercations. They're particularly good at understanding psychologically healthy living and avoiding such problems as drugs and drug abuse. It seems likely that such individuals, by providing coaching advice to others, and by directly involving themselves in certain situations, assist other individuals and groups of people to live together with greater harmony and satisfaction.

So, perhaps even more important than scoring high on an emotional intelligence test, is knowing one's level at this group of skills. Discovering one's level means that you can know whether and how much to be self-reliant in emotional areas, and when to seek others' help in reading the emotional information that is going on around oneself. Whether one is high or low in emotional intelligence, is perhaps not as important as knowing that emotional information exists and that some people can understand it. Knowing just that, one can use emotional information, by finding those who are able to understand it and reason with it.

This is the information age. All of us are dependent on information and using it wisely. The advent of the ability model of emotional intelligence enriches our knowledge of the information surrounding us -- it tells us emotional information is there and that some people can see it and use it. The model encourages all of us to use emotional information wisely -- whether through our own direct understanding, or through the assistance of those who do understand.