What is Emotional Intelligence?


what is emotional intelligence

Counseling adolescents in a school setting for over two decades has helped shape my perspective on what truly matters in young people’s lives as they graduate high school and launch toward adulthood into the world of bigger and increasingly complex, life decisions. Many of the young people I’ve counseled have visions of vintage cars, beach houses, extravagant travel and other signs of tangible wealth as future goals. At some point in their counseling relationship I inevitably ask: what does it matter if you have the lucrative job, the fancy car, the impressive home, the well-worn suitcase if you don’t enjoy healthy, joyful relationships? Silence.

When I pose the same question to adults, they get a bit shifty. I can feel that I’ve cut a close corner toward difficult truths about marriages with intimacy problems, children who have become emotionally distant, friendships void of vulnerability and closeness we all long for but are ill-equipped to request. The truth is that many of us could be living richer, more fulfilling lives if we were to develop our emotional intelligence skills and enhance the quality of our most meaningful relationships. But first, we have to know what is emotional intelligence?

What is Emotional Intelligence?


“Emotional Intelligence” was a phrase first coined in 1990 by scientists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer. They described it as “as form of social intelligence that involves 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.” The definition of emotional intelligence was expanded to include a model of 12 competencies by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. The competencies are organized in four “clusters”: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.


  • Emotional Self-Awareness: The ability to understand our own emotions and their effects on our performance.


  • Emotional Self-Control: The ability to keep disruptive emotions and impulses in check and maintain our effectiveness under stressful or hostile conditions.
  • Achievement Orientation: Striving to meet or exceed a standard of excellence; looking for ways to do things better, set challenging goals and take calculated risks.
  • Positive Outlook: The ability to see the positive in people, situations, and events and persistence in pursuing goals despite obstacles and setbacks.
  • Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change, juggling multiple demands, and adapting our ideas or approaches.

Social Awareness

  • Empathy: The ability to sense others’ feelings and perspectives, taking an active interest in their concerns and picking up cues about what others feel and think.
  • Organizational Awareness: The ability to read a group’s emotional currents and power relationships, identifying influencers, networks, and organizational dynamics.

Relationship Management

  • Influence: The ability to have a positive impact on others, persuading or convincing others in order to gain their support.
  • Coach and Mentor: The ability to foster the long-term learning or development of others by giving feedback, guidance, and support.
  • Conflict Management: The ability to help others through emotional or tense situations, tactfully bringing disagreements into the open and finding solutions all can endorse.
  • Inspirational Leadership: The ability to inspire and guide individuals and groups towards a meaningful vision of excellence, and to bring out the best in others.
  • Teamwork: The ability to work with others towards a shared goal; participating actively, sharing responsibility and rewards, and contributing to the capability of the team.

(Goleman and Boyatzis, 1995)

What Does Emotional Intelligence Mean?


Being emotionally intelligent isn’t just having these competencies; it’s understanding them, and using them with intention. Emotionally intelligent people are in touch with their emotions and are able to articulate them appropriately, even in difficult situations. This emotional awareness is at the heart of recovery and at the center of all healthy relationships.

The staff at Project Courage understands that clients need education and coaching around emotional awareness and regulation; that these are not skills generally taught at home or at school. Substance abuse complicates relationships that are already multi-layered, and clinicians work with clients to help them navigate difficult emotions and to find new ways to show empathy and vulnerability. Helping clients achieve and maintain sobriety is the primary goal at Project Courage; achieving increased emotional intelligence that can help ensure lifelong trusting relationships post-treatment is an immeasurable bonus.

By Kerry L. Smith, LCSW