What Is Emotional Intelligence? Definition, Key Elements and Examples

By Hanne Keiling

October 11, 2021

Senior Content Manager at Indeed passionate about making career advice enjoyable and accessible, so people feel confident about getting and succeeding in the right jobs.

Emotional intelligence, or EI, helps you identify and understand human emotions. Having high emotional intelligence can help you build relationships in the workplace, accomplish tasks and achieve goals. In this article, we will discuss the definition of emotional intelligence, why it is important, how to improve it and show how it might be used in the workplace.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognize, understand and manage your own emotions as well as understanding and influencing the emotions of others. It involves being aware that emotions drive behaviors and impact people either positively or negatively.

While emotional intelligence can seem like a vague or complex concept, there are specific ways you can develop this skill. Taking time to hone and build on these skills can help you become better at building relationships and accomplishing shared tasks.

EI can be helpful when you are:

  • Giving or receiving feedback

  • Navigating change

  • Meeting tight deadlines

  • Working through setbacks and failure

  • Dealing with challenging relationships

Related: Emotional Intelligence Skills You Need in the Workplace: Definition and Examples

Why is emotional intelligence important?

Emotions can lead you to act without thinking. Having emotional intelligence can help you avoid those situations when you might act on impulse rather than fact. Understanding and managing your emotions and those of others can help you be more successful in your personal and professional life.

Emotional intelligence can play a large role when you are:

  • Having difficult conversations without hurting others’ feelings

  • Managing your emotions when feeling stressed or overwhelmed

  • Improving relationships with others

  • Resolving conflict

  • Coaching and motivating others

  • Creating a collaborative environment

Related: The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace

What are the characteristics of emotional intelligence?

The six key elements of EI include:

1. Self-awareness

If you are self-aware, you understand your emotions and their triggers. You also know how your emotions and actions affect those around you.

2. Self-regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to control and adjust your emotions to create a more positive effect. Being in control of your feelings is essential in any situation because your emotions have a strong effect on other people.

3. Motivation

Motivation is the desire to do something. It relates to emotional intelligence because your desires can promote different feelings towards something. Always look for something positive in your situation and it will help motivate you to do your best.

4. Empathy

Empathy allows you to identify and understand the feelings of another person. Understanding others’ feelings lets you handle workplace situations more effectively. For instance, when a co-worker is showing signs of dismay, you can react with empathy to alleviate a situation that might have become worse.

5. Social skills

Social skills are the tools you use to communicate and interact with other people. Having strong social skills allows you to listen, speak and resolve conflicts more effectively. Social skills can be used in the workplace to develop your career and are essential tools for leaders.

Read more: 5 Ways To Develop Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Examples of EI in the workplace

While we do use emotional intelligence in all areas of our lives, there are specific ways we use this skill at work with our colleagues, clients and managers. Here are a few examples of scenarios when emotional intelligence can be helpful:

During a phone call

During a phone call with a client regarding the performance of a campaign, your contact expresses anger about their unhappiness with your partnership. You also know that their organization is going through layoffs and your client is responsible for selecting members of her team to let go. Because of this knowledge, you understand that simply listening to her complaints with a calm, empathetic demeanor is the best response. You schedule another call for a better time.

During a meeting

During a meeting, you notice your employee is being quieter than usual and is not contributing to the discussion. While it may seem that they are not paying attention, you decide to have a casual conversation with them to ensure everything is okay. During the talk, you learn that he did not get a good night’s sleep because his mother-in-law who is staying with them was very sick.

During project review

During a review of a recent project you put together, you receive professional criticism about certain ways it can be improved. After the meeting, you are feeling deflated and anxious. After processing your emotions, you realize that you were focusing on the negative because of all the time and effort you put into it. Instead of feeling disappointed, you decide to feel motivated about the ways you can make your work better.

How emotional intelligence is measured

Several assessments have been developed to measure levels of emotional intelligence. Such assessments are frequently used to identify potential leaders within an organization. The most common types are self-report tests and ability tests. The self-report test relies on the respondent’s answers or statements to rate their own behaviors. Ability tests have respondents perform tests to assess their abilities to perceive, identify, understand and manage situations.

Related: Why You Should Take an Emotional Intelligence Quiz

How to improve your emotional intelligence

While it can take time and practice, soft skills like emotional intelligence can be improved. Here are four steps you can take to improve these skills:

1. Practice awareness

Take time during the business week to pay special attention to the interactions around you, both yours and others. Listen to what others are telling you through their words, body language and facial expressions. Observing the way people use and react to emotion can help you fine-tune your own ability to empathize.

2. Look inward

While observing others and their interactions can be helpful, monitoring your own emotions and responses can also increase your emotional awareness. Consider how your own emotions influence your decisions and behaviors. For example, you might notice that when you feel stressed, you tend to be short-tempered with others. Or when you are feeling sad or disappointed, you might notice your shoulders slouch or your head points downward.

3. React and respond to others

Practice addressing and working with others based on the way you observe what they are feeling. A helpful method when deciding how you should react is to consider how you would like to be treated under the same circumstances, however, know that others do not always have the same reactions.
For example, while you might enjoy talking about your emotions with others when you feel anxious or stressed, others might prefer to process their emotions alone. If you are unsure, ask them about their preference at that moment.

4. Learn from your mistakes

If you find that you misinterpreted a certain emotion or the way you handled someone’s feelings did not work well, learn from your mistakes and treat the situation differently the next time.

Building relationships through empathy, communication and active listening can help you be a highly valued team member at an organization. Displaying examples of ways that you have connected with others using emotional intelligence in your cover letter and during interviews can also help you be a competitive candidate.

Related: 55 Tips for How To Improve Emotional Intelligence

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