Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Emotional Intelligence

The concept of Emotional Intelligence (EI) was originally proposed by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in 1990. Over the years the original definition has moved through so many changes that it has lost almost all its meaning. It currently means different things to different people.

What did it originally mean? EI was created to describe someone’s ability to be aware of their own (and others) emotions accurately and then use this information to control their individual actions and thoughts. What this means is that someone with high EI can fully understand emotions by paying attention to them, understanding them and effectively managing them. This ability can then make the person more effective in many areas of life.

Since so much of this deals with a person’s mental ability, the originators of EI believed it was definitely another form of intelligence.

EI consists of four different but related parts that vary from the simple to the complex. The first level includes a person’s ability to accurately perceive emotions in others as well as in him or herself. The next level adds the ability to use this new information to pave the way for more effective thought processes.

The third level would include the ability to understand emotional states in other people. This is often done by being able to deduce how others feel, by listening to clues through their language, and noticing specific body language. Additionally, the person would also understand how they were conveying emotions to others through the signals of speech and body language.

Finally, the highest level of EI occurs when someone can manage their emotions in ways to help them achieve personal goals. People with the highest level of EI are sharply in tune to their own inner states. For example, they tend to be more accurate in detecting variations in their own heartbeat. They can also understand the reasons for what may happen because of their specific emotions. They can often accurately estimate how they feel about any future event that might trigger and emotional response in them.

Research in EI has shown that high levels of EI are often found in people who are more socially competent. They also have better quality relationships. Other people see them as being more sensitive than those with lower EI. People with lower EI scores experience more interpersonal conflicts and often have more behavior problems such as drug and alcohol abuse.
Emotional Intelligence can also affect one’s work relationships. As you can probably guess, managers get more work from employees if they, themselves, possess high EI. They were also rated as better performers by their own supervisors.

Drs. Salovey and Mayer give an example of what we might see and hear from a person with high Emotional Intelligence who uses all four levels of EI. They pretend someone is visiting a friend in the hospital who was brought in because of a car accident.

The first level is the awareness of emotions of self and others. Upon visiting his friend, this imaginary person "surveys the hospital room, the visiting relatives, and his unconscious friend. As he does so, he may wonder, ‘What is each family member feeling?’ Perhaps he perceives the worry and anxiety in their faces." Then he might wonder about his own emotions, Is he feeling guilty because he could have kept his friend from driving away from the party. He might also feel relief because he was not in the car with his friend.

The second level of EI would prompt him to use this information to think clearly and take appropriate action with others in the room. He might inquire about the health of his friend from the hospital staff and talk with family members to see how they are doing. This would be an example of how he would use emotional understanding to expedite his own thoughts.

As he begins to relate to the other people he might begin to engage the third level of EI by trying to understand their unspoken emotions and those he also felt. He might ask himself questions such as, "What sorts of feelings are common in such a situation?" and "How can these feelings be expected to change over time?" He would understand the shock the family is experiencing because he is aware that this is typical for something so severe and unexpected. He can expect that the family might have to begin dealing with more negative emotions in the near future.

Finally, he can use all this new information to help himself manage his own emotional state — as we teach in The Worry Free Life. If he has one or more of the unhealthy emotions, he can use his five-step procedure for minimizing them. If his painful emotions are healthy, he can use mindfulness to accept them and become stronger. When he has taken care of his own emotional state, he can then comfort the family and act as a compassionate and empathic listener.

You can see that if you are currently at a lower level of Emotional Intelligence, you can learn to gain greater skills for increasing your EI. We have an entire chapter on learning the skills of levels one and two. Other chapters will help you develop your Emotional Intelligence over time so that you can be more capable in your personal and interpersonal life.

This blog was adapted from an article in the journal, American Psychologist (September 2008, Vol. 63, No. 6, 503–517)

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