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The Truth About Emotional Intelligence

What emotional intelligence is and what it is not.

Key points

  • Emotional intelligence is best conceived as a set of skills for communicating emotionally, or what are called “emotional competencies.”
  • Social intelligence is perhaps more important and relates to how we behave in, and manage a variety of, social situations.
  • Improving your emotional and social intelligence isn’t easy, but viewing them as a set of skills rather than inborn traits is a good start.

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—the 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 are actually two approaches to measuring EQ—the “mixed model,” which views emotional intelligence as a combination of traits and skills, and the “abilities model,” which views EQ primarily as the possession of skills/abilities.

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). This is a large part of the abilities model of emotional intelligence. In short, what really matters is your skill in recognizing and “decoding” others’ emotional expressions, your ability to convey your emotions to others (“emotional encoding”), your skill in regulating your emotional feelings and expressions, and your learned understanding of emotions and emotional processes in yourself and others.

The Truth About Emotional Intelligence

While some of us may have been born with traits that are related to better understanding of and use of emotions in communication, it is really our abilities to use these emotional competences effectively that matters. Of course, honing your skills in reading others’ emotions, in more accurately conveying emotions to others, and regulating your own emotions and emotional expressions is hard work. This is what most “emotional intelligence” training programs aim to do, but realize that it’s not easy. It takes a great deal of dedication and practice to be able to improve your emotional competences.

A Better Way to Look at Emotional Intelligence

While the emotional competences that underlie much of emotional intelligence are important, our research suggests that social intelligence may be even more important. Social intelligence (SI), on the other hand, is mostly learned. SI develops from experience with people and learning from success and failures in social settings. It is more commonly referred to as “tact,” “common sense,” or “street smarts.”

The Key Elements of Social Intelligence

Verbal Fluency and Conversational Skills. The highly socially intelligent person can carry on conversations with a wide variety of people, and is tactful and appropriate in what is said.

Knowledge of Social Roles, Rules, and Scripts. Socially intelligent individuals learn how to play various social roles. They are also well versed in the informal rules, or “norms,” that govern social interaction. In other words, they “know how to play the game” of social interaction. As a result, they come off as socially sophisticated and wise.

Effective Listening Skills. Socially intelligent persons are great listeners. As a result, others come away from an interaction with an SI person feeling as if they had a good “connection” with him or her.

Understanding What Makes Other People Tick. Great people watchers, individuals high in social intelligence attune themselves to what others are saying, and how they are behaving, in order to try to “read” what the other person is thinking or feeling. Understanding emotions is part of emotional intelligence and social intelligence and emotional intelligence (as measured by emotional competences) are correlated—people who are especially skilled tend to be high on both.

Role Playing and Social Self-Efficacy. The socially intelligent person knows how to play different social roles—allowing him or her to feel comfortable with all types of people. As a result, the SI individual feels socially self-confident and effective—what psychologists call “social self-efficacy.”

Impression Management Skills. Persons with SI are concerned with the impression they are making on others.

How to Improve Emotional Competences and Social Intelligence

Begin by paying more attention to the social world around you, and to others’ emotional messages. Work on becoming a better speaker or conversationalist. Work on expressing emotions in your speaking. Networking organizations, or speaking groups such as Toastmasters, are good at helping develop basic communication skills. Work on becoming a more effective listener, through what is called “active listening” where you reflect back what you believe the speaker said in order to ensure clear understanding. At the emotional level, try to discern what others are feeling and reflect back to them. This is the core of empathic communication. Most importantly, study social situations and your own behavior. Learn from your social successes and failures.


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

Riggio, R.E. (1986). Assessment of basic social skills. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 649-660.

Riggio, R.E., Messamer, J., & Throckmorton, B. (1991). Social and academic intelligence: Conceptually distinct but overlapping constructs. Personality and Individual Differences, 12, 695-702.

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