A guide to emotional intelligence

You have probably heard the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ before, probably along with bold claims like “emotional intelligence matters twice as much as IQ” (1), or 80% of success is accounted for my emotional intelligence. But leaving the hype aside for a moment, what exactly is emotional intelligence, and is there any truth to these incredible claims?

A quick guide to emotional intelligence

As a field, emotional intelligence is quite a confusing because there are a number of different constructions, each with slightly different definitions. The leading model, and the one with the largest research base, is the Mayer-Salovey model. In this model, emotional intelligence is defined as the capacity to:

  • Accurately perceive emotions
  • Generate emotions so as to assist thought
  • Understand emotions and emotional knowledge
  • Regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth (2)

In other words, it’s the “cooperative combination of intelligence and emotion” (3). This model also views emotional intelligence as an ability, or set of skills, rather than a trait or a ‘gift’.

This framework of emotional intelligence does not make the bold claims you might have heard of. These belong to other models, and in fact, researchers using this model actively try to expose these popular but unfounded claims. If you’re reading up on emotional intelligence and come across contentions, then make sure you keep your skeptic’s hat on because you might be reading something that isn’t supported by the research.

The four branches of emotional intelligence

The skills and abilities that make up emotional intelligence can be broken into four ‘branches’:

1) Perception and expression of emotion

Branch one is the ability to recognise emotion signals in other people, through their facial expressions, bodylanguage and voice; including the ability to detect false emotional expressions. It also involves the ability of a person to express their own emotions through these same channels. An example might be the salesperson, who knows just when the prospect is ready to buy.

2) Using emotion to aid thought

This branch reflects a sensitivity to the fact that certain emotions are more suitable for certain types of thinking than others, and the ability to intelligently draw upon this knowledge as required. An example could be the entrepreneur, who knows that good moods help him come up with original ideas, so he boosts his mood somehow before a brainstorming session.

3) Understanding emotion

Branch three is the analysis of emotions, an awareness of the trends of emotions, and an understanding of what outcomes usually result from which emotions. It includes the ability to label and distinguish between different emotions, their intensity, and the transitions between different emotions. A high level of skill in this branch reflects a high degree of self-awareness.

4) Managing emotion

This represents the ability of an individual to manage their own emotions and the emotions of others, in line with their particular goals, their self-knowledge, and social norms. An example could be the young child who is taught to count to ten when feeling angry, or the sports coach who motivates his team at half time a la Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.

The order of the branches represents the extent that the ability is integrated into the rest of a person’s psychology. That probably requires a bit more explanation. If you imagine that you have a set of emotional systems in your brain (which you do), branch one is the most deeply integrated into these ‘hard-wired’ systems, while branch four will be the least integrated into these, and the most open to variation through experience. This fits into other observations, such as the Paul Ekman’s fascinating research, where he demonstrated that tribal cultures with little exposure to outsiders used the same facial expressions to display the same emotions as the rest of the world (branch 1), and the differences between cultures in which emotion is appropriate to display when (branch 4).

And that, in a nutshell, is it. Hopefully this quick guide to emotional intelligence gave you a more realistic view of what it is, without the hype that usually comes along with it.


(1) Goleman, D. (1998). Working with emotional intelligence. NY: Bantam.
(2) Mayer, J.D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications (p 3-31). NY: Basic Books.
(3) Mayer, J.D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D.R. (2004). Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings and Implications. Psychological Inquiry, 15(3), p197.

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  • I had read a book on called Emotional Intelligence once while I was in high school. Didn’t really read it cover to cover… just the important stuff. Skipped all the technical stuff in the first few chapters.

    It was an eye-opening book. Other books I have read which have transformed me are…
    1. The Magic of Believing – Claude Bristol
    2. How to Win friends and influence people – Dale Carnegie
    3. How to sell yourself – Joe Girard

    Today I am what I am coz of these character-building books…
    .-= Architecture Student´s last blog ..Evolution of Persian Gardening Style | The Paradise Gardens =-.

  • Scott says:

    Interesting topic. This was a great post for me to read given that my emotions tend to stifle my success and well-being at times. Ironically, I’m an intelligent, intuitive person. Your points about using emotion to aid thought and managing emotions will both be helpful in my developing ideas and performing better in my sales and marketing job.

  • Warren Davies says:


    Glad it was useful! Yes there does seem to be an obvious use for emotional intelligence in sales and marketing. I’ll look into how to learn EI at a later time…

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