We like to put numbers on things. Like IQ. Or SAT scores. Or, if you’re into baseball, like I am, batting averages and ERA. John and Julie Gottman created theories and a whole modality of couples therapy based on numerical data. Physicists rely on equations to explain how the universe works. Quantifying our world, clearly, is very important to unlocking the deeper mysteries of our experience.

But what about emotions? How do you quantify those? There are tests you can take, like the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test, to receive a score, not unlike an IQ test (which has its own set of controversies). There are emotional intelligence assessments for the workplace, too. But is that really our best shot at understanding our emotional capacity as human beings?

Some arguments suggest, based on a handful of studies and surveys, that Emotional Intelligence—defined by John D. Mayer, professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, as “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions”—is a greater predictor of success than IQ. Daniel Goleman, psychologist and science journalist who reported for The New York Times, also makes the same claim about success in the workplace.

Why is that? Why is our ability to control and express our emotions, as well as to handle our relationships with empathy, a sign that we’re more likely to succeed?

Does having a high degree of emotional intelligence have to do with how we’ll succeed in our relationships?

Why is emotional intelligence so important?

Emotional intelligence helps us to be aware of and control our own emotions, to understand them, and to manage and use them to attend to any given situation in an appropriate way. It is, at it’s most basic function, emotional self-control and mindfulness of others. Which may mean that, if you have a higher degree of emotional intelligence, you’ll be more able to keep your temper under control if you’re faced with a frustrating or angering situation.

Emotional intelligence also increases our capacity for empathy—the ability to imagine yourself in another’s situation, and to try and feel what they feel. Empathy is incredibly important in every kind of relationship because it creates an emotional connection, which leads us to try and be more kind and helpful to one another. It means that when you hurt, I hurt.

While empathy is only one part of emotional intelligence, it can enable us to be less preoccupied with our own well-being and more concerned with mutual well-being. It allows us to understand what others feel and perceive, how our emotions will make them feel, and how the emotions of everyone involved will impact and determine the outcome of any given situation.

Most importantly, emotional intelligence can be learned, no matter if you’re 5 years old or 65 years old. While personality traits are believed to be more-or-less consistent throughout one’s life, emotional intelligence can always be gained and improved upon.

Emotional intelligence: an everyday anecdote

Last weekend, I was stuck at Logan Airport in Boston with a three-hour flight delay. As much as I wanted to get back to Seattle as quickly as possible—I was exhausted, frustrated, and swearing under my breath—I knew that the gate attendant had no control over the situation. It was a safety issue, which is fine because I’d like to be on a safe plane.

But some other folks at the gate demanded answers, and when they didn’t hear the answers they wanted to hear, they asked for the attendant’s name so they could file a complaint. They needed someone to blame. They needed a scapegoat, even though the delay was for their own safety. There were raised voices and demands. One of the demands was for a cheeseburger, which an airline employee dutifully retrieved from the concourse.

That’s right. A grown man was nearly shouting, “I’m mad! Give me a cheeseburger!” like a child throwing a tantrum in a shopping mall. And even after he was fed, he didn’t seem to care that the attendant, at this point, was serving as a punching bag for angry travelers. He was the first to complain, and others quickly followed suit.

I looked that that attendant, who was clearly exhausted and doing her best to keep smiling, and I felt empathy for her because when I waited tables and things were going wrong beyond my control, I also served as that smiling punching bag for hangry diners.

That’s not necessarily a relationship anecdote, but think of it this way—even in those minor interactions with people we may never see again, we’re experiencing something together, and we’re relying on each other to get through it all. I’m relying on the airline staff to make sure the plane is safe before we’re airborne, even if it takes a while, and they’re relying on me to understand that and go with the flow.

That sounds like a relationship to me, even if it’s temporary.

And I firmly believe, as a former waiter, that if you really want to know who someone is and how they treat people, look at how they treat the service staff, or, in this case, the airline staff. A higher degree of emotional intelligence would, in my estimation, probably push us to be a bit more kind and understanding toward those who are ultimately trying to help us.

But how do you utilize emotional intelligence?

Trust me, it’s not like I wasn’t upset. Sitting at an airport gate for three hours with no update on a timeframe for departure isn’t a pleasant experience. My five-hour layover was turning into an eight-hour layover. I had every reason to be visibly angry, but why? None of this was personal. In fact, a delayed flight is probably the most impersonal “slight” that one could experience. It had absolutely nothing to do with me, and everything to do with making sure we were all safe.

I also knew that letting my anger loose wouldn’t do anyone any good. Why would I yell at an airline employee for something they cannot control? I know I wouldn’t want to be yelled at. I wouldn’t want to be someone’s punching bag. And I certainly wouldn’t want to buy the person punching me a cheeseburger.

At the gate, it was more about using my emotions constructively, about keeping them at bay and not taking things personally. To use my anger constructively meant to recognize it, understand it, accept it, and realize that, frankly, I had to let it go. And when I did, I found it a bit easier to understand that, as valid as my anger and frustration were, they were not helpful or useful emotions at the time.

That’s a small anecdote of emotional intelligence, and I couldn’t help but look at that situation with a curiosity of the emotions at play. I wasn’t the only one keeping my cool, but being able to view how adults, when faced with disappointment and delay, would respond gave me a window into how best to use our emotions constructively. Those who kept their cool seemed to have a more enjoyable flight and weren’t too anxious to get home, nor did they negatively affect those around them.

And that guy who demanded a cheeseburger? He caused a scene both at the gate and on the plane. He had to get something out of his bag while we were taxiing, and the flight attendants, aware of his treatment of their colleagues, were more than happy to bark at him to sit down when he delayed takeoff for everyone else. Even though he complained about being delayed, in the end, he made us even later. He wasn’t aware of how his emotions were controlling his actions, which were affecting others, yet the flight attendants—who I always admire for their gumption—were acutely aware and handled the situation. In doing so, they also exhibited emotional intelligence.

Emotions have utility. They drive us to accomplish our goals, to assert our needs, to confront our fears, to understand who we are, and to understand other people. That’s part of what emotional intelligence is—understanding the emotional landscape inside you and around you, and being able to navigate that landscape effectively.

It doesn’t always work. We will all face moments of intense anger, or sadness, or fear, and they can feel unbearable and uncontrollable. That’s when the emotional intelligence of others around us becomes useful. It enables us to understand and help each other in constructive ways so that we all benefit. And it enables us to bounce back from difficult feelings and continue to move forward.


This is part one of a four-part series on Emotional Intelligence. Parts two, three, and four are forthcoming.


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A graduate of the Syracuse University MFA program in Creative Writing, Christopher Dollard is a former professor of literature and writing and an accomplished poet and essayist. Check out more of his work at christopherdollard.com.