Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to a person’s ability to understand and manage their emotions as well as recognize the feelings of others. Research shows it is a useful tool for navigating work life, relationships, education, and mental and physical well-being.

Behavioral experts commonly refer to the five components of EI, which involve behaviors such as a person’s self-awareness and empathy for other people.

This article explores EI, its components, why it is important, and examples.

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EI refers to a person’s ability to recognize, understand, and manage their emotions as well as their ability to understand others’ emotions.

Many people think of intelligence in terms of cognitive abilities, such as those that make up their IQ. These include the ability to:

  • use logic to solve problems
  • pick up new skills easily
  • use a large vocabulary
  • memorize and retain information

Since the 1990s, though, psychologists have increasingly noted the importance of EI. Research from 2015 suggests it may be more important than IQ for predicting a person’s efficiency at work.

While some aspects of EI may be genetic and closely related to personality type, research from 2018 also shows that a person can learn and improve upon their levels of EI with training and by making small changes to their daily routines.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman created one of the most popular models of EI. It breaks down EI into five key components, according to a 2018 research review.

1. Self-awareness

A key part of EI is a level of understanding and self-awareness of a person’s own emotions.

An individual with high EI is not only aware of what emotions they are feeling but can put words to their feelings. They can also understand the consequences of their emotions and how they may change and shift over time.

2. Self-regulation

Once a person has achieved the first component, they can move on to self-regulation. An individual with a good awareness of their own emotions can better manage the emotions and behaviors that come along with them.

This may involve noticing a difficult emotion and slowing down or resisting any impulsive action that may follow.

Learn more about emotional self-regulation here.

3. Motivation

Motivation is the process that stimulates and directs someone toward achieving their goals.

It is a key part of EI, 2016 research suggests. Motivation allows a person to remain true to their goals and persevere, even during challenging times.

A person with low motivation may be discouraged easily by any obstacle and give up. A person with high motivation realizes that the reward of their personal goals is worth the time and effort spent getting there, even when they face obstacles.

Learn more about techniques to say motivated here.

4. Empathy

Empathy refers to how tuned to the emotions of others a person is. Someone with high EI can accurately identify which emotions another person is feeling and can tell the difference between genuine and false emotions.

A person may do this by noticing certain facial expressions or changes in another person’s voice or body language.

Learn more about empathy here.

5. Social skills

A person with higher levels of EI may be better at interacting appropriately with others than a person with low levels of EI.

EI can help a person build relationships, communicate with others, and maintain friendships.

EI can help a person work with and supervise other people. It can also help them to cope with and be more resilient to stresses that they might face in life.

Research has shown that EI can be important in many aspects of a person’s life. A 2019 study, for example, states that increased EI can improve a person’s:

  • work-related outcomes, including their teamwork and management skills and their overall job satisfaction
  • psychological health and well-being
  • physical health, including somatic complaints and HbA1c levels
  • social relationships

Another 2019 study found that EI training led to improvements in:

  • stress management
  • general mood
  • self-expression
  • emotional understanding
  • emotion management

Research from 2019 has shown that students with higher levels of EI are generally more happy, sociable, and self-confident, as well as better at handling stress.

According to a 2020 research review, studies have also shown that EI can help students develop social relationships in school, which can positively impact their academic performance.

Research has suggested that people with lower levels of EI are less able to regulate their emotions and more likely to engage in mood regulation strategies that negatively affect their overall health.

A 2018 study, for example, shows that people with low levels of EI may be more likely to use smoking and alcohol as coping strategies and may be more at risk of self-harming behaviors and eating disorders.

Learn more about how to show emotional support to someone here.

Below is an example of how a person may display low or high EI when faced with a difficult situation.

A manager finds out that a time-sensitive email has not been sent to one of their largest clients. The manager may feel anger toward their team or fear losing their job.

A person with low EI may lash out in anger at their team or attempt to deny the problem. As a result, the team may become discouraged and avoid taking responsibility.

A person with high EI would be aware of their own feelings but realize that acting upon them may not bring them closer to achieving their goals. Instead, they may encourage a calm, supportive atmosphere to motivate the team and find resolutions to the problem.

With empathy and strong social skills, the manager with high EI would also know the correct time to ask questions and take disciplinary action toward those responsible for the mistake, making sure that these conversations do not disrupt the team.

Learn more about low EI and how to deal with it here.

People can improve their EI in several ways.

A 2018 study, for example, found that participants were able to improve their EI over a period of 4 months by practicing transcendental meditation.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states that there are ten behaviors people can practice to help build their EI. These are:

  • Clarifying a daily intention: A person can set an intention, such as building understanding, based on their schedule that day.
  • Practicing self-care: If a person is well-rested and relaxed, for example, they are more likely to be able to control their emotions.
  • Performing an emotional checkup: A person should regularly consider how they are feeling and how their body is reacting to emotions.
  • Slowing down: A person should try pausing and taking a breath before reacting to or entering stressful situations.
  • Asking questions: The AAFP notes that people who are curious about their own and others’ emotions are more able to build empathy. A person should ask questions to better understand how others are feeling.
  • Creating space for emotions: If a person acknowledges their negative emotions, they will be more able to work on these. One way a person can practice this is by engaging with mindfulness.
  • Being aware of others: A person should pay attention to their environment and to how others are feeling. A person can remove distractions like their phone by turning it off when engaging in group conversations.
  • Making an effort to connect with others: By interacting thoughtfully with others, a person can become more aware of others’ emotions.
  • Apologizing when needed: People with higher levels of EI are generally more willing to admit when they have made mistakes, apologize for these, and take accountability.
  • Beginning and ending the day positively: A person can begin their day positively with a morning ritual, such as listening to their favorite song, and end their day by noting what they are thankful for.

Learn more about why self-compassion is important and how to practice it here.

EI can help a person recognize and navigate their own, as well as others’, emotions.

Higher levels of EI can positively influence a person’s emotional and physical health as well as make them more resilient to stress.

A person can improve their EI by practicing meditation and by making small changes to their routine.