How important is emotional intelligence?

Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be. - Stephen Covey

Emotional intelligence, or EI, is the ability of individuals to recognize their own and other peoples' emotions, to manage their own emotions, and the capacity to use this information in their thinking and behaviour. EI has been widely used in the corporate world for over 25 years, but translates quite easily into everyday life as well.

The most important thing about emotional intelligence might just be that it isn’t set in stone. Whatever your emotional intelligence is right now, you can improve it. The foundation of EI is self-awareness - that is, awareness of what your own emotions are and how they affect your behaviour. As a little kid in school you started to learn new words like dog and ball and run and walk. And if you hadn’t learned those words you couldn’t talk very well and you certainly couldn’t read, and in the end your communication would be quite limited. The same thing is true of emotions. How good is your emotional vocabulary? One man in a counselling group I recently ran said that until that session he thought the only emotions were hungry, horny, and tired. Everyone laughed but we all knew that none of these words were emotions.

If you want to check your own vocabulary, write down all the negative and positive emotions you can think of. Even silly ones. Unfortunately most of us find that the list is pretty short. So why is it helpful to have a better emotion vocabulary? Let me throw in a different kind of example to explain this. If you were trying to describe to a friend the colour of your new car and your car was dark blue but the only colour words you knew were red, black, and white it would be very difficult and frustrating to try to describe your actual car colour. Similarly, knowing your own emotions more specifically can help you to understand your own reactions and those of the people around you. Rather than avoiding a vaguely unpleasant feeling, you can actually figure out what’s going on and manage it.

So what can you actually do to improve your EI? Try this:

  1. Next time you’re feeling strong emotion and don’t know what it is, or better yet, before the next strong emotion that arises, Google the word "emotion".
  2. Print off one of the lists of emotions you find (there are many).
  3. Try to identify the exact emotion that you’re feeling or others around you are feeling.
  4. Use this knowledge to manage your own emotions or to understand someone else’s.

Dianna Campbell-Smith

Dianna Campbell-Smith is a Registered Psychologist who specializes in counselling, coaching and clinical hypnosis. She runs a private psychology practice in South Calgary, and worked previously as Director of Counselling Initiatives at Calgary Counselling Center.

Dianna is a Psychology Today verified therapist.