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Emotional Intelligence Isn’t Want Many Think It Is. Here’s What They Are Getting Wrong

For starters, EQ and EI aren't the same thing.

Photo by Orkun Azap on Unsplash

The following is an adapted excerpt from my new book, “EQ, Applied.”

It’s not uncommon for people to be fooled by their emotions.

Often, people believe what they want, instead of what reality is screaming. Many put faith in the mainstream media and its political predictions, or in “too good to be true” promises, like that of medical technology startup Theranos.

The thing is, many who are deceived would describe themselves as emotionally intelligent, and their dupers as the opposite.

But it’s not so simple.

The problem? Emotional intelligence isn’t what most people think it is.

I define emotional intelligence as a person’s ability to identify emotions (in both themselves and others), to recognize the powerful effects of those emotions, and to use that information to inform and guide behavior.

Emotional intelligence can help you reach your goals and help you persuade others to your opinion. But to truly understand this ability, there are two misconceptions you need to set straight:

1. EQ (emotional quotient) and EI (emotional intelligence) aren’t the same thing.

2. Emotional intelligence isn’t inherently virtuous.

EQ Doesn’t Equal EI

For years the term emotional intelligence was only ever abbreviated with the initials EI.

So, where did the abbreviation EQ come from?

The earliest appearance I could find was in an article authored by Keith Beasley for the May, 1987 issue of British Mensa Magazine. However, it appears that the term’s breakout moment was the October 2, 1995 issue of TIME magazine, which led with the question: “What’s your EQ?”

That TIME article covered the launch of Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence. (Goleman’s book went on to become a best-seller and inspire a movement.) Ironically, Goleman himself has explicitly stated that he prefers EI as the abbreviation to the concept he helped popularize. Nonetheless, as the topic of emotional intelligence became increasingly popular, the catchy abbreviation stuck.

Here’s the problem with EQ: It will forever be linked to IQ–and the very meaning of the word “quotient” implies a degree of measurement.

But EQ tests don’t really measure emotional intelligence.

Why not?

Because emotional intelligence, by definition, emphasizes practical use–an individual’s ability to apply his or her knowledge of emotions to manage one’s own behavior (or, to influence others). The very best EQ test may measure your knowledge of emotions and how they work, but it won’t evaluate your ability to put that knowledge to work in real, everyday situations.

I’m not saying tests of emotional intelligence don’t hold any value. Similar to IQ tests, these assessments could provide a subject (or others) with insight into one’s emotional knowledge and abilities.

And I still use the abbreviation EQ–when referring to a person’s knowledge of emotions and how they work. This is useful shorthand, and can be adopted liberally: just as we speak of athletes having a high basketball or football IQ, an allusion to one’s EQ is easily understood.

But you should stop thinking of EQ and EI as interchangeable. By definition, emotional intelligence is a practical ability. And while a person may comprehend the principles of how emotions work in real life, application of that knowledge is another story.

This concept is important because it helps explain why we, even with a high EQ, can still do such stupid things (emotionally speaking). You and I may believe we’re open to feedback. We might think we’re sensitive to others’ feelings.

But are we really? It’s often those who believe they’ve mastered a skill who need to develop it most.

Becoming aware of your emotional behavior (and that of others) is certainly important. Instead of focusing only on increasing your EQ, however, I recommend putting forth equal effort to applying what you’ve already learned.

Because what really matters isn’t how much you know.

It’s how you use what you know.

Emotional Intelligence Has a Dark Side

The fact is, there’s great potential for emotional intelligence to be used for the greater good.

It’s important to realize, however, that there is equal possibility for one to use these skills to exploit, bully, and abuse. Psychologists have documented how narcissists and egomaniacs use such skills to manipulate others, for example.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A political candidate who plays on a crowd’s fears and emotions to gain favor, despite his or her hidden agenda
  • A husband or wife who hides an extramarital affair so that (s)he can string along both mate and lover
  • A manager or employee who distorts the truth, or purposefully spreads unconfirmed rumors and gossip to gain a strategic advantage

Each of these persons are using skills of emotional intelligence, albeit in a manipulative and deplorable way.

Ironically, the best defense against being manipulated by those with high emotional intelligence…

Is to work to increase your own.

That way, you’ll have better chances of recognizing when others use fear, deceit, or other nefarious means to persuade and influence.

Emotional intelligence is a practical ability. It can be used to harm, but it can also be used to protect.

In the end, you shouldn’t focus on identifying your (or someone else’s) EQ. Just as you mature and change through the years, the process of developing emotional intelligence is continuous.

That’s why I will always consider myself a student of emotion–and I encourage you to do the same. Because if we continue to question, observe, explore, and apply–we’ll continue to learn, and we’ll keep getting better.

And that’s what I call emotionally intelligent.

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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