Decoding People Smarts

What we mean by the phrase “emotional intelligence.”

By Lisa James

September 2008

 Intelligence was once defined as the rational thinking capacity that helps propel some kids to the head of the class. But we’ve all known people who have a knack for tuning into emotional vibrations—their own and those of others—and employing that knowledge. This savvy is emotional intelligence (EI), sometimes called emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ.

John “Jack” Mayer, PhD, a psych­ology professor at the University of New Hampshire who helped formulate EI, says the concept stemmed from research on how to define intellectual capacity by type; some, like verbal comprehension, are universally accepted. To help solidly define EI, Mayer and his colleagues developed a four-part model: accurately perceiving emotions (what do I really feel?); using emotions to clarify one’s thoughts (how can I use my emotions to help me think about what’s truly important?); understanding emotions (what do my emotions really mean, and why do I feel this way?); and managing emotions (how can I use my emotions to reach my goals?).

Once EI turned pop psychology, though, its meaning became diffuse. David Caruso, PhD, special assistant to the dean of Yale, says, “Are we referring to a trait called reasonableness? It’s been studied for years, and now people call that ‘EQ.’ Being assertive, being happy—that’s all labeled as ‘EQ.’” Still, EI remains useful. “People with low EI don’t pick up on emotional signals,” Mayer says, “and if they do pick up signals they can’t interpret them.” Tests are available to gauge your emotional smarts, including one called MSCEIT that Mayer and Caruso helped develop.

High EI isn’t always necessary. “If your job doesn’t involve a lot of interpersonal contact, EI may not be particularly important,” says Mayer. But what do you do if it is?
You compensate. One simple method is to ask for feedback early, such as in the middle of a meeting instead of at the end—what Caruso calls the Ed Koch “How am I doing?” technique. You could also team up with someone at the office who’s a little better at reading emotions than you are.

For example, you’re pitching a client and you don’t know if it’s going over. In that case, “I always position myself next to a colleague who’s really good at that,” says Caruso, “and if things aren’t going well he’ll cough to get my attention or he’ll redirect the conversation.”

Caruso says EI can help at home, too. Your teenage son is behaving defiantly; instead of trading insults, you realize he blew a test at school and that his defiance may be covering for his embarrassment. Or say your spouse has reacted frostily to the news that your big promotion will require a lot more travel time. “Hearing your spouse say ‘I’m upset’ isn’t good enough—what does that mean?” notes Caruso. “It can mean surprise, sadness or anger.” If you don’t know which, ask.

Knowing how to manage your emotions, instead of having them manage you, is part of overall well-being. Being aware of emotional intelligence—especially if it isn’t one of your natural strengths—can help.

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