What Is Emotional Intelligence? Definition, Key Elements and Examples

Updated February 27, 2023

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 define emotional intelligence and discuss why it’s important, with tips on improving your EI.

What is emotional intelligence?

An illustration of one person talking to another person.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand and manage your own emotions as well as being able to understand and influence 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

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 test: Relies on the respondent’s answers or statements to rate their own behaviors. 

  • Ability test: Respondents perform tests to assess their abilities to perceive, identify, understand and manage situations.

Related: Emotional Intelligence Skills for 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

Characteristics of emotional intelligence

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman defines the five key elements of EI as:

1. Self-awareness

If you’re 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 toward something.

4. Empathy

Empathy allows you to identify and understand the feelings of others, which may help you to handle workplace situations more effectively. For instance, when a coworker is visibly stressed, you can react with empathy.

5. Social skills

Social skills are tools you use to communicate and interact with others. 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

How to improve your emotional intelligence

While it can take time and practice, emotional intelligence can be improved. Try these tips:

Practice awareness

Take time to pay special attention to interactions around you. Listen to what others are telling you through their words and non-verbal cues. Observing the way people use and react to emotion can help you fine-tune your ability to empathize.

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 emotions influence your decisions and behaviors. 

For example, you might notice that when you feel overwhelmed, you tend to be short-tempered with others. Or when you’re feeling sad or disappointed, you might notice your shoulders slouch or your head points downward.

React and respond to others

Practice addressing and working with others based on the way you observe what they’re feeling. When deciding how you should react, consider how you’d like to be treated under the same circumstances. 

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’re unsure, ask others about their preference in that moment.

Learn from your mistakes

If you find that you misinterpreted a certain emotion or the way you handled someone’s feelings didn’t 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

Examples of EI in the workplace

Here are specific ways you might use emotional intelligence at work:

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 their team to let go. Because of this knowledge, you understand that simply listening to their 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 not contributing to the discussion. While it may seem that they’re not paying attention, you decide to have a casual conversation with them to ensure everything is OK. During this talk, you learn they didn’t get a good night’s sleep because their mother-in-law is ill.

During project review

During a review of your recent completed project, you receive professional criticism about ways it can be improved. After the meeting, you’re feeling deflated and anxious. After processing your emotions, you realize you were focusing on the negative because of all the time and effort you put into the project. Pivoting from being disappointed, you opt to become motivated to make your next project better.


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