The tricky thing about emotional intelligence is that despite being widely agreed to be a positive attribute, experts don’t agree on what it is.
One explanation is that emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, express, understand, manage, and use emotions. Kurt Kraiger, a professor at the University of Memphis who studies the concept, tells me he thinks of emotional intelligence as “acute awareness of one’s and other’s emotions, the capacity to manage those emotions to accomplish tasks, and the capacity to connect with others using emotions appropriate to the context.”
But this is just one theory. Finding a unified definition of emotional intelligence is important because it determines how it is measured. Measurement, in turn, is critical because it sets the stage for improving and augmenting emotional intelligence.
Overall, emotional intelligence is thought to positively influence health, relationships, and how well one does at school or work. Some research suggests people with emotional intelligence are more resilient to stress.
These benefits help explain why there’s such serious interest in determining how to be more emotionally intelligent. For now, it’s not known how much improvement is really possible — but there are actions you can take that are proven to boost emotional intelligence at least a little bit.
Measuring emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence as a concept has been around since 1990. Since then “there’s been a lot of opinions about what it is, what it isn’t, and how to measure it,” says James Floman. Floman is an associate research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.
There are three main theories or models of emotional intelligence, and how emotional intelligence is measured depends on the model you’re adopting, Floman explains. There is the ability-based model of emotional intelligence, the personality model popularized by the book Emotional Intelligence, and the mixed model which combines elements of the other two.
There’s no consensus on the specifics of emotional intelligence — how it comes about, how it's defined, and the capacity for improving it. Some researchers think emotional intelligence is an innate ability, while others think of it as a set of skills, Kraiger explains.
“I would argue that in general, people who are seen as having more emotional intelligence have learned from experience,” Kraiger says.
Other scientists say that if you have these four traits, then you’re more likely to be emotionally intelligent:
- You think about your reactions
- You see bad situations as a positive challenge
- You can modify your emotions
- You can put yourself in other people’s shoes
You may see those traits in yourself, but it can be difficult to scientifically verify whether or not you truly exhibit these characteristics.
“One of the issues with self-reporting is that people have a narrative about themselves about these skills,” Floman says. “But those stories don’t necessarily reflect their actual competence.”
Floman is part of a team at Yale developing new emotional intelligence tests in an effort to robustly measure three of the four branches of emotional intelligence: emotion perception ability, emotion understanding ability, and emotion regulation ability.
The fourth branch — defined as facilitating thought — is more difficult to measure. It refers to the process of intentionally modifying the environment in a way that’s conducive to facilitating the emotions one wants. In practice, this could look like turning on a song that pumps you up when you want to feel more confident before an important meeting.
“It’s really important to have a measurement that we have some confidence in so that we can make sure that we’re measuring what we think are the core targets of intervention,” Floman says. “If we don’t have a high-quality way to measure, we can’t test whether or not an intervention is working or if it’s actually doing what we think it's doing.”
Can you become more emotionally intelligent?
The answer, in part, depends on which aspect of emotional intelligence you’re talking about.
“We know emotional intelligence can be altered, but the extent that it can and for whom — those questions are still outstanding,” Floman says.
For example, the extent to which a person can improve their capacity for perceiving emotions is a “hotly debated subject,” Floman says. There’s evidence that you can get better at perceiving emotions, but it’s a hard skill to get better at once you’ve reached adulthood.
Kraiger says that role-playing and practicing “what if” scenarios can help people practice recognizing and labeling the emotions of others. Put into practice, this sort of scripting can help individuals in various professional situations, such as dealing with an upset customer.
Kraiger was part of a team that evaluated the robustness of previous studies focused on improving emotional intelligence. “While some studies find a positive effect and some don’t, overall we find that yes, emotional intelligence can be improved through training,” he says.
Other studies on cognitive behavioral therapy show it can help people become more emotionally resilient and stable over time, Floman says. “It doesn’t work for everyone, and there’s a lot of variables involved, but if there’s a meaningful relationship with a counselor, then often there’s a change,” he explains.
There’s also increasing evidence about the effect of meditation on one’s mood, as well as the long-term ability to manage emotion.
Managing emotion can be split into two categories — managing the emotions with yourself, and supporting the emotions of others. Floman is especially interested in the way emotional intelligence can strengthen social connections because of the powerful link between having a supportive community and good mental health.
With improved forms of measurement, scientists can determine the best ways to develop skills related to emotional intelligence — and more people can experience the benefits.