Is Emotional Intelligence Something You Can Learn?

The news is good if you're looking to become more emotionally intelligent.

Posted Jun 08, 2019

Wouldn't you like to have better street smarts? How much better could your life be if you knew how to regulate your emotions and gauge the feelings of others? Would better relationships, stronger friendships, and success at work be yours? Emotional intelligence (EI), also known colloquially as EQ, hopped from the psychological literature into the popular imagination due to claims that it’s an ability more important to your success in life than your academic intelligence. In brief, the originators of the concept defined high EI as meaning that you are unusually equipped to have empathy toward others, understand yourself, and regulate your emotions so that you don’t explode or implode at the least frustration that comes your way. Naturally enough, the next question became whether EI can be trained. If you could just raise your EI up a couple of notches, so the thinking goes, you’d be able to rise to the top of your organization, winning friends and respect from all in the process.

Of course, the picture is more complicated than this. Can it be all that easy to gain a skill that involves changing your entire way of understanding yourself and others, not to mention the way you communicate? In a new comprehensive review paper, Colorado State University’s Victoria Maddingly and Kurt Kreiger put their meta-analytic skills to work in evaluating the claim that EI is a teachable quality. Their findings suggest that there may be hope for you if you weren’t blessed with this ability at birth.

Maddingly and Kreiger begin their review by noting that some researchers regard EI as an “ability that allows you to engage in sophisticated information processing about one's own and others' emotions” and that, furthermore you can “use this information as a guide to thinking and behavior” (p. 141). If you know someone high in EI ability, then the chances are good that you feel comfortable in this person’s presence, are constantly amazed by the way this person can “read your mind,” and admire how well this person can keep from getting angry, no matter what the provocation. You could literally spill this person’s carefully prepared glass of iced cappuccino all over the floor, and there’d be no angry recriminations sent your way.

This “pure” version of EI contrasts, as the Colorado State researchers note, with “mixed-model” approaches, which include a “kitchen-sink” like “constellation of noncognitive competencies that lead to successful coping under difficult situations…[and] incorporate motivation, personality, temperament, character, and social skills” above and beyond emotional recognition and management” (p. 141).  Again, it would be highly desirable for people to have these qualities, but in terms of a training model, Maddingly and Kreiger suggest that such a broad concept is difficult to translate into a clear set of measurable indicators on which progress can be tracked.

Complicating matters further, from a research-based standpoint, the “construct space” of training studies “is even messier” (p. 141).  For the purposes of their analysis, the research team divided, as best they could, the training literature into the pure, ability-based, type of EI education, from the programs that regard ability as being part of the “mix” along with other abilities acquired through experience.

Coming at the evaluation of training programs from an organizational psychology perspective, Maddingly and Kreiger note that employers in many types of industries seek to improve the EI of their workers because they think of it as something that is “good.” If it worked, organizations could help their employees perform better and be happier, an outcome that no one could deny is worthwhile.

The messiness of the concept is matched, in the literature, by the messiness of the available data. Much to their dismay, the Colorado researchers discovered that the training programs available at their disposal weren't always described in sufficient detail, or in any detail at all, to allow for the distinction between ability and mixed-model approaches. Some training studies did not include control groups (the usual gold standard) but instead used pre- and post-treatment comparisons on the EI outcome variables with no control groups. To account for these methodological distinctions, the authors conducted two separate meta-analyses with 56 samples from 50 pre-post studies (2,136 participants) and 28 samples from 26 treatment control studies (2,174 participants).  Samples of working adults in these studies represented occupations from various public and private service sectors (managers, nurses, police officers, teachers, retail sales workers) and the student samples were drawn from a variety of post-secondary levels with most coming from MBA programs. All of the student samples completed the training in the context of a course they were taking, not for experimental (extra) credit.

Across studies and samples, and despite differences in methodology, the findings provide reasonably robust, encouraging, evidence that EI can in fact be trained. The size of the training effects were, the authors note, comparable to those reported for training in other domains. As you might expect, the studies published in academic journals showed larger effect sizes than those which were reported in unpublished doctoral dissertations, but even those so-called “gray literature” studies supported the benefits of training.  Contrary to expectation, men and women benefited equally from training, even though women tend to receive higher scores overall on EI.

One question you might have is, if EI can be trained, how can you improve yours? The authors report that the studies varied in their level of specificity regarding training, so this question can’t be completely answered. However, Maddingly and Kreiger offer cautiously-worded suggestions about how the best training programs seem to operate, and so these might be qualities for you to seek.

The first component of a successful EI program is that you are given the opportunity to discuss the ideas offered in training with your fellow learners. As the authors note, “trainees should acquire more emotional intelligence when they can discuss the meaning of the construct and how it applies to them” (p. 150). This conclusion is consistent with other literature on adult education. Being able to apply new ideas to your life and share your thoughts with others can give you the chance to test whether these ideas are going to work. If you are picking an EI program, or one is being offered at your workplace or other setting, find out how much of the training will involve this peer-to-peer interaction.

The second, related, component of successful EI training involves being able to practice your ideas in between sessions through talking to others and getting feedback on the new approaches you are trying to use in your everyday life. For example, you might receive training in reading the emotional cues of other people. Try out how well you’re doing by asking people you already feel comfortable with about whether the way they’re feeling is the way you think they’re feeling. Perhaps you have company at your house and you’re discussing what color rug might fit in well in your dining room. One of your friends offers a suggestion but instead of exploring it, you just move on to what someone else is saying. It’s clear that you’ve now potentially offended your friend. The next time you get the chance, ask if in fact you did seem overly dismissive. Now your EI will benefit from being able to check out your read of the situation while also offering an apology.

To sum up, EI is a quality that most people would probably like to have. If you think yours needs some brushing up, it’s encouraging to know that the growth you seek is attainable.

References

Mattingly, V., & Kraiger, K. (2019). Can emotional intelligence be trained? A meta-analytical investigation. Human Resource Management Review, 29(2), 140–155. doi: 10.1016/j.hrmr.2018.03.002