Emotional intelligence is one of the most valuable qualities you can have, both at work and in life. But what exactly is it, and how is it different from general intelligence, or IQ?
"Emotional intelligence (or EQ) can seem like a complex concept," says Gemma Leigh Roberts, an organizational and performance psychologist, LinkedIn Learninginstructor, and founder of Career Compass Club and the Resilience Edge. "EQ is about understanding, recognizing, and managing your own emotions; recognizing and understanding emotions displayed by others; and interpreting that information to help manage relationships and social situations."
The Difference Between Emotional Intelligence and General Intelligence
Unlike IQ, EQ isn’t a static, quantifiable measurement of abilities. Instead, it’s a more subjective and nuanced soft skill that can be learned and improved upon over time.
“IQ is measurement of reasoning ability and problem solving reflected in a number or score (which is fairly static over a lifetime),” Roberts explains. “One of the key differences between IQ and EQ is that IQ is generally fixed—we have a level of IQ we’re born with, and research suggests it’s hard to alter this to a large degree.”
On the other hand, “EQ is less of a score or one-off measurement, and more of an ongoing interpretation of emotions and how those emotions impact behaviors and relationships.” Roberts says. “EQ is different in that research tells us we can enhance EQ levels with the right guidance and practice.” So good news—we all have the potential to improve our EQ.
The Undeniable Importance of Emotional Intelligence
Very emotionally intelligent people are empathetic and compassionate, but that doesn’t mean they’re overly sensitive or sentimental. Instead, someone with high EQ can discern emotions in both themselves and others, identify the catalyst of those emotions, and figure out how to deal with them. They're the people who pick up on near-imperceptible shifts in tension at the dinner table, or know instinctively that something's bothering a coworker who’s feeling a little off—and know the right way to approach them.
Emotional intelligence can be an amazing secret weapon to have both professionally and in life in general, because it’s all about people skills.
“EQ is linked to self-awareness,” Roberts says. “Understanding yourself and your emotions can lead to creating better and more honest relationships, and can help you change your behaviors with others where it isn’t serving you well, communicate more effectively, and reduce psychological impacts such as stress and anxiety. Those with higher EQ are generally better at defusing tense and challenging situations and managing complex relationships.”
Conversely, someone with low EQ is difficult to communicate with and build relationships with. They may not be adept at moderating their own emotions, reading the room, or showing empathy.
“If you work with someone who is unpredictable and can fly into a rage unexpectedly, you’re going to feel uncomfortable and on edge around them,” Roberts says. “Also, if you work with someone who doesn’t display empathy, and can’t see situations from other perspectives, it’s likely to cause friction.”
Common Examples of Emotional Intelligence
You probably have a pretty solid EQ if you have the ability to:
...Understand why emotions arise in specific situations.
You can tell there’s tension in the meeting because everyone’s misunderstanding each other, or you recognize you’re being short with colleagues because you’re anxious about something in your personal life. “Identifying the emotion you feel and understanding why you feel that way is key in developing your EQ,” Roberts says.
...Adapt your own emotional response for different situations.
“You may find that specific situations make you feel angry, such as a boss that doesn’t listen to you,” Roberts says. “Once you understand what you feel and why, you can choose to react in a different way (with practice!).” This will give you control over your emotions, create better outcomes, and mitigate stress.
...Easily empathize and recognize others’ emotions.
“When you think about tricky relationships you’ve had, have you always considered why people behave the way they do?” Roberts points out. “Your angry partner might be struggling with fear about job insecurity. Maybe your challenging boss is under pressure you don’t know about. It’s important not to assume you know why someone’s behaving the way they do—be open to trying to understand why.”
...Tailor your message to your audience.
How you communicate with people matters. Your delivery, tone, intentions, word choice can all affect the other person’s interpretation of what you say. It gets even more complicated when you realize that every single individual perceives what you say a little bit differently. It’s impossible to please and cater to everyone, always, but if you want to be heard and understood, it’s smart to at least recognize this. “If you can understand other people’s perspectives, emotions, and challenges, you can then communicate with them in a way that works for them while achieving the best outcome for both of you.”
How to Improve Emotional Intelligence
One of the best things you can do to up your EQ is educate yourself on the topic and how it relates to you as a unique individual. Roberts suggests reading more about the topic, taking a course, or even working with a specialized coach, if you’re really serious about.
From there, make a regular effort to self-reflect. This could be every day, at the end of every week, or for more general, situational check-ins. How do you react in certain circumstances, and why? Where can you improve or adapt, either to manage your own or others’ sensibilities?
And finally, welcome any and all feedback. “Ask how you come across, whether you manage your emotions in potentially emotionally charged situations, and whether you empathize with others,” Roberts suggests. “Based on the reflections and feedback you receive, decide how you want to work on managing your emotions and how you want to behave differently to create better relationships. It helps to create accountability—maybe with a mentor, coach, colleague or friend who you can regularly check in with to tap into their support and guidance.”