Introduction to Emotional Intelligence

What are Emotions?


According to the International Handbook of Emotions in Education, emotions “are a response to an event – either internal (a memory or thought) or external (a conversation, a conflict with another person, or an upcoming task) – that integrates physiological, cognitive, behavioral, and expressive processes and that may shape our reaction to that event.”


So, basically, emotions are what an external or internal stimulus, that has some sort of significance for us, makes us feel in our bodies; the more we care about the stimulus, the stronger our emotional response tends to be. But why do we have emotions?


Emotions have an evolutionary role, helping us survive catastrophes and enemy attacks millions of years ago (through emotions such as fear, hate, or courage), and procreate for preserving our species (through emotions such as love or envy). Today, emotions help us understand ourselves and others (emotions such as satisfaction are indications of what we like and what we don’t like), fulfill our dreams and reach our objectives (through motivation), and have healthy relationships with others (through empathy, for example).


Emotions influence all of our decisions, and every action that we (or others) perform causes an emotion. Every conflict that has ever occurred in our history (and that might occur in the future), has been (and will always be) caused by emotions, or rather, by our ability (or inability) to manage emotions.


In summary, emotions are created as follows:

Our brain predicts every fragment of what we will see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, as well as every action that we will take, by combining unconscious memories of our past, and estimating how likely it is for each memory to apply to our current situation.


Matching current memories with memories from the past is called memory association, and it allows for predictions to happen. These predictions are our brain’s best guess of what is going to happen in our current situation, preparing us for what’s to come and allowing us to plan a course of action.


Through prediction, our brain constructs the world we experience, and emotions are the brain’s way of communicating the results of its predictions to us.


Something that is somehow important to us occurs, which we appraise; we then feel a certain way about this occurrence, and react to this entire experience, influenced by our feelings.


Emotionally intelligent people train themselves in responding consciously to their experiences, instead of reacting to them unconsciously.


Beware, though: emotions should not be confused with sensations.


Sensations are feelings we usually experience in one part of the body, such as the arm or the stomach. Emotions are internal feelings that cannot be localized in a specific part of the body, such as anger or sadness. We can feel a sensation in one foot and not in the other, but we cannot experience anger in one leg and not the other. Emotions are felt throughout the body, rather than just a specific part.


Here are some facts about emotions:


  • The word “emotion” comes from the Latin word muvere, which means “to move.”
  • Researchers have identified at least 27 emotions, which are distinct yet intimately linked to one another.
  • We express our emotions through gestures and other movements in the body that are sometimes not consciously felt.
  • They can last from several seconds to several days, depending on the importance of the event that brought them about, and the amount of time we spend thinking about that event.
  • Emotions are neither good or bad; they provide information about ourselves (and our needs), and shape our thoughts, actions, and our relationship with ourselves and others.
  • Emotions are contagious and can be used to control or manipulate others. Throughout history, some political leaders have been known for using fear and anger to control the masses.
  • We all have Emotional Intelligence in different degrees, but no one lacks it; and we can all develop this skillset further.


Emotions can improve our lives (they can energize us, and help us grow and achieve our goals) or stand in our way (they can overwhelm us, and interfere with our learning and development), especially when they are not pleasant. Even the unpleasant ones, however, serve a purpose.


Emotions are uncontrollable (we cannot switch them on and off like a lightbulb), so there is no point in judging or rejecting them. We must respect, accept, value, and leverage all emotions. This includes unpleasant emotions. The key is to be intelligent about them.

Where did it all begin?


Academic discourse on EI first appeared in the early 20th century, with psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung suggesting that some people use a “feeling function” to understand the world. The term emotional intelligence first appeared in publications in 1964 and 1966; more works on the subject were produced over the following decades.


In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner introduced the idea that traditional types of intelligence, such as IQ, fail to fully explain cognitive ability. He went on to develop the idea of multiple intelligences, including both interpersonal (the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of others) and intrapersonal intelligence (the capacity to understand oneself, and to appreciate one’s feelings, fears, and motivations), which are now part of the EI skillset. The term emotional intelligence appeared again in Wayne Payne’s 1985 doctoral thesis A Study of Emotion: Developing Emotional Intelligence.


In 1990, University of New Hampshire professor John Mayer and Yale University president Peter Salovey wrote an article on the importance of emotions for productive outcomes, called Emotional Intelligence. They developed one of the most important models and tests for measuring emotional intelligence.


John Mayer and Peter Salovey were the first to conceptualize emotional intelligence in a comprehensive way, defining it as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action”, and refining the definition a few times over the following years. Psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman expanded on the notion and, in 1995, published his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.


Goleman’s definition of Emotional Intelligence 


There are a few additional definitions of Emotional Intelligence, apart from the one given by John Mayer and Peter Salovey. One of them has been created by Dr. Daniel Goleman, whose work led to the development of a new field.


Daniel Goleman popularized the concept with his 1995 best-seller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, by explaining what it means and why it is crucial for all of us. The book published research on emotions, brain function, and the role emotions play in social behavior. Scientists now know that the brain has an amazing ability to change and heal itself in response to mental experience. This ability, known as neuroplasticity, is one of the most important modern-day findings for understanding the brain, and constitutes the fundamental principle upon which EI coaching and training is based.  


According to Dr. Goleman, emotional intelligence “refers to the ability to recognize and regulate emotions in ourselves and in others”. Dr. Goleman synthesized years of research and findings in psychology and integrated them into a framework for Emotional Intelligence.


His model, co-designed with Dr. Richard Boyatzis, recognizes four domains of Emotional Intelligence:

Dr. Goleman defines the four domains as follows:


  • Self-awareness – The capacity to tune into your own feelings, sense inner signals, and recognize how your feelings affect you and your performance. This domain is the cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence.
  • Self-management – The ability to manage ones’ internal states, impulses, and resources. People who know how to manage their emotions are flexible and adaptable to new situations, and strive to perform at their best, to appreciate feedback, and to see the positive in people, situations, and events.
  • Social awareness The capacity to handle relationships and be aware of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns.
  • Relationship management – The skill of or adeptness at inducing desirable responses in others. This domain includes being able to inspire and accomplish goals with and through others, and efficiently manage conflicts.


Based on this framework, Dr. Goleman and Dr. Boyatzis define an emotionally intelligent person as someone who “demonstrates the competencies that constitute self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skills at appropriate times and ways in sufficient frequency to be effective in the situation.”


A more simplistic but still efficient definition of Emotional Intelligence is the following: the ability to create a bigger space between an emotional stimulus and the response to it, so that the resulting behavior becomes a conscious choice.

Sign up to our Newsletter and discover how Emotional Intelligence can benefit you!