What is Ability Emotional Intelligence?

“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it is not the triumph of heart over head — it is the unique intersection of both.” – David Caruso

We have all had experiences with people who seem to have extraordinary emotional intelligence.  Perhaps we are unaware of the specific nature of their strength, but we notice them because they seem particularly adept at perceiving the emotions of others, responding tactfully in social situations, and managing their own emotions.  People with high emotional intelligence often excel in their interpersonal relations, picking up on the myriad of nuances present in human interactions.

Four Branch Model of Ability Emotional Intelligence

Mayer and Salovey’s four branch model of emotional intelligence points to four basic capacities or skills that encompass emotional intelligence.  According to this model, emotional intelligence involves the abilities to:

  • Accurately perceive emotions in oneself and in others
  • Use emotions to facilitate thinking
  • Understand emotional meanings
  • Manage emotions

Perceiving Emotions

The ability to accurately perceive one’s own emotions and the emotions of others is perhaps the most basic building block of emotional intelligence.  This ability has been a crucial element to human survival since the dawn of man.  If someone were to consistently misread nonverbal cues/facial expressions, they may quickly find themselves in potentially dangerous situations.  Humans are able to recognize certain “universal emotions” across cultures: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger.

Consider your own ability to accurately recognize emotions in others based on nonverbal cues.  Do you find yourself feeling generally in tune with your own feelings and the feelings of others?  It is important to recognize the possibility of believing that one accurately perceives another’s emotions, but actually being off base.  This is a reminder of the importance of checking in with other people about what they are truly feeling, rather than assuming that you “know.”  When other people feel that you are genuinely interested in their emotional experience, they often feel respected and validated.  This can be as simple as saying, “I’m sensing that you might be feeling a bit down today.  Does that fit with your experience?”

Using Emotions to Facilitate Thought

This aspect of emotional intelligence is reminiscent of Dialectical Behavior Therapy‘s (DBT) concept of “wise mind.”  The idea behind using emotions to facilitate thought is to use your emotions constructively and ascertain what important information your emotions are trying to tell you.  Even intense emotions like anger or sadness can be used constructively.  Anger can serve as a healthy motivating force to fight against an injustice or to defend yourself from danger.  Sadness can provide useful information about an important loss.  When you learn to use emotions in constructive ways, there is less fear of emotions and a greater ability to effectively integrate heart and mind.

Cognitive scientists have noticed that emotions prioritize thinking.  This means that when we have an emotional response to something, our attention and focus is shifted toward whatever is prompting the emotion.  When this system is functioning effectively, you are able to direct your thought processes toward things that really matter.  For someone who has difficulty with intense emotions, this system may not operate as effectively as it could.  For example, if someone tends to feel very intense emotions with the slightest provocation, the emotions are not facilitating thought in a useful way because the emotional responses may not be aligned with the event in a realistic way (In DBT, this is time to “check the facts“).

Understanding Emotions

Emotions are incredibly valuable wellsprings of useful information… when they are interpreted accurately. Consider the way that the emotion of fear can be used to let you know that you need to be careful or to remove yourself from a dangerous situation.  Or perhaps how the emotion of happiness lets you know that you find a person or event positive or in your best interest.  Emotions are rich with important meaning.

How do you typically interpret and make sense of your own emotions and the emotions of others?  Do you generally find yourself able to use emotions in a constructive way based on an accurate understanding of their true meaning?  Many people shy away from painful emotions and prefer to feel only “positive” emotions.  While this seems perfectly understandable, consider the potential ramifications to choosing to avoid all things “unpleasant.”  When you ignore painful emotions and pretend they do not exist, you are missing out on very useful information embedded within those emotions that can be utilized to make effective and balanced decisions that are based on seeing the “full picture.”

Managing Emotions

The final piece in the puzzle is being able to effectively manage or regulate emotions.  Even if you are able to accurately perceive emotions, use them to facilitate thought, and understand their meaning, this may not be enough if you are not able to manage those emotions.  A great deal of emotions are not under our voluntary or conscious control.  The important thing to understand about managing emotions is to notice how you tend to response when emotions arise.

We all feel similar emotions of sadness, fear, joy, guilt, shame, and anger.  A big difference between someone with high emotional intelligence and someone without it is if they are able to appropriately manage emotions.  It is important to point out that being able to “manage emotions” is not the same thing as “overcontrol of emotions.” Effective management of emotions means achieving a delicate balance.  This balance involves showing emotions in ways that are useful to yourself and others, genuine and authentic to your internal experience, and appropriate to the context or situation.

For example, the emotion of anger may be appropriately displayed when your close friend has betrayed you in some way and you are confronting them about this in private.  Conversely, the emotion of anger would be inappropriately displayed if you chose to cause a scene at the workplace because you were upset with something small a coworker had done.

As with all expressions of emotion, there are a wide variety of factors to take into consideration.  The individual with a high level of emotional intelligence is able to navigate his or her internal emotional world, tune in to the emotional world of others, and use emotions productively.  What areas of emotional intelligence are well developed for you?  What areas do you notice that you could use improvement?

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Mayer, J.D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D.J. Sluyter (Eds.) Emotional development and emotional intelligence. New York: Basic Books.

Featured image: Emotions – 37/365 jours – Mc Knoell / CC BY-ND 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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