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The Truth About Emotional Intelligence

What emotional intelligence is and what it is not.

Key points

  • The very term “emotional intelligence” suggests inborn capabilities; more important are learned “emotional skills.”
  • Emotional skills consist of being able to express emotions, decode them, and control them.
  • Developing emotional skills is not easy, but it can be done with hard work and dedication.

There is quite a bit of disagreement among psychologists about whether emotional intelligence is a true form of “intelligence.” Core intelligence (IQ) is our ability to think and process information— ability to reason, plan, make decisions, solve problems, and learn from experience. Much of intelligence is inborn and relatively stable. It is what we do with intelligence, however, that matters. We use our intelligence to gather and retain knowledge and (hopefully) to put it to good use.

Emotional intelligence (EQ), on the other hand, is conceived to be our basic ability to process and manage our own emotions and to recognize, understand, and manage the emotional messages exhibited by others. Part of the controversy over emotional intelligence is that the same underlying mechanism—core intelligence—may be responsible for our ability to process emotions and emotional information. In other words, emotional intelligence is not a distinct entity. Think of it as a subset of general intelligence.

Why Does This Matter?

Intelligence of any sort is only useful when we use it to develop and hone our skills in dealing with our environment. Viewing emotional intelligence as some sort of inborn trait does us a disservice because there is a tendency to believe that some of us have it (i.e., are born with it) and some of us don’t. A better way to look at EQ is to view it as a set of skills that can be developed and improved.

There is a long history in the study of nonverbal communication related to people’s abilities to both convey/express our emotions and “read” others’ emotional messages (and other nonverbal cues, such as cues of dominance and liking/disliking).

What Is the Truth About Emotional Intelligence?

A better way to view EQ is as a set of emotional skills that can be developed. The model I use comes from basic communication processes and consists of ability to convey emotional messages: emotional expressiveness, ability to read and “decode” others’ emotions: emotional sensitivity, and skill in controlling and regulating both the experience of emotions, and conveying those emotions to others.

  • Emotional expressiveness: Although some of us are naturally more emotionally expressive— we easily show our felt emotions through our expressive faces and body movement— emotional skill also involves the ability to pose different emotions on demand. Think of it as two forms of acting: (1) method acting, which is creating an inner emotional state (e.g., thinking of something extremely sad or of a joyful time) and showing it, or (2) simply demonstrating the facial expressions, tone of voice, and gestures that are consistent with a particular emotion (e.g., gritted teeth, narrowed eyes, and clenched fists of rage). Like actors, we can learn, over time, to better express our felt emotions, or feign emotions, if we think it necessary and important. For example, if we are working in customer service, we need to use our emotional skills to provide “service with a smile” and appear positive and helpful to customers. In a relationship, we may need to draw on our emotional skills to show our partner that we are pleased or displeased with what’s going on.
  • Emotional sensitivity: This is our ability to “read” others’ emotional body language cues. It is a building block of being emotionally empathic. We can develop this by training ourselves to be more attentive to the subtle cues of emotion in others—listening for emotional voice tones, searching for those fleeting facial expressions that might otherwise go unnoticed, and attending to body cues of nervousness or anxiety.
  • Emotional control: In many instances, we may need to dampen or regulate our expression of felt emotions. For example, when in an emergency situation, we may feel fear, but we control our expression of it in order to not frighten others, such as our kids or our spouse. Or, we may want to stifle that expression of joy when we learn that our boss has canceled an extremely long and boring meeting.

Obviously, these three emotional skills work together. For example, emotional expressiveness and emotional control combine in our ability to pose emotions on cue. Both emotional sensitivity and emotional expressiveness allow us to note others’ emotions and reflect back that we are sympathetic.

How Do We Develop Emotional Skills?

The short answer is practice. It takes time. We start by becoming better observers of body language, particularly facial expressions, which are a rich source of emotional information. We need to listen to detect emotion in tone of voice. And, we need to practice our own nonverbal behavior and get feedback to know if we are improving. Taking acting or improv classes can help. It takes time and dedication, but our research has shown that emotional skill can be developed.


Rosenthal, R. (Ed.), (1979). Skill in nonverbal communication. Oegeschlager, Gunn & Hain.

Riggio, R. E. (2010). Before emotional intelligence: Research on nonverbal, emotional, and social competences. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 3(2), 178-182.

Riggio, R.E. & Merlin, R.* (2012). Guide for social skill training and development. Redwood City, CA: MindGarden.

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