What Is Emotional Intelligence? Here’s the Definition in Just 1 Sentence

References to this concept are everywhere, but what does it really mean? Here's a simple, practical definition.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Nowadays, you find references to emotional intelligence everywhere, along with advice as to how sharpening your “EQ” (emotional quotient) can dramatically increase your chances of success.

But there’s only one question:

What is emotional intelligence?

Basically, emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and effectively manage emotions–both your own and those of others. 

Of course, we could spend hours talking about what that means. But in my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence,I distill the entire concept into a single, even simpler sentence:

Emotional intelligence is the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.

This definition is powerful because it emphasizes the fact that emotional intelligence is a practical skill. It’s not just understanding how emotions work–it’s being able to use that knowledge to help yourself and others. 

To understand the full scope of emotional intelligence, it’s helpful to break it down into four general abilities.


Self-awareness is the ability to identify and understand your own emotions and how they affect you. This means recognizing how emotions impact your thoughts and actions (and vice versa) and how your feelings can help or hinder you from achieving your goals. 

Self-awareness includes the ability to recognize your emotional tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. 


Self-management is the ability to manage emotions in a way that allows you to accomplish a task, reach a goal, or provide a benefit. It includes the quality of self-control, which is the ability to control your emotional reactions. 

Since emotions involve your natural, instinctive feelings and are influenced by your unique brain chemistry, you can’t always control how you feel. But you can control the way you act (or refrain from acting) upon those feelings. Practicing self-control can therefore reduce the chance you say or do something you later regret, especially in an emotionally charged situation. 

Over a longer period of time, self-management can even help you proactively shape your emotional tendencies. 

Social awareness

Social awarenessis the ability to accurately perceive the feelings of others and understand how those feelings influence behavior. 

Social awareness is founded on the quality of empathy, which allows you to see and feel things from the perspective of others. Empathy keeps you in tune with others’ wants and needs, and it equips you to better satisfy those desires, increasing the value you have to offer. Social awareness also provides you with a more complete picture of others and helps you understand the role emotions play in your relationships. 

Relationship management

Relationship management is the ability to get the most out of your connections with others. 

It includes the ability to influence through your communication and behavior. Instead of trying to force others into action, you use insight and persuasion to motivate them to act on their own accord. 

Relationship management also involves bringing emotional benefits to others. Doing so gradually increases the level of trust and strengthens the bond between you and your partners. 

Working together

Each of the four abilities is interconnected and naturally complements the others; however, one isn’t always dependent on another. You will naturally excel at certain aspects of the four abilities and display weaknesses in others. For example, you may be great at perceiving your own emotions, yet you struggle to manage those feelings. The key to strengthening your emotional intelligence is first to identify your personal traits and tendencies and then to develop strategies to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. 

Consider the trait of social awareness. The ability to anticipate and understand the feelings of others can help you avoid creating unnecessary offense, a skill that makes you more likable and draws others to you. But that same attribute can become a weakness if it inhibits your ability to speak up when you should or stops you from giving critical (yet helpful) feed- back for fear of how others will react. 

High social awareness is therefore most effective when it is tempered with the other three abilities. Self-awareness helps you identify when this perception of others’ feelings is holding you back from saying or doing something that could be helpful. Self-management involves preparing yourself for such situations and cultivating the habits that motivate you to action. Finally, the ability to manage relationships will help you say whatever you need to say in a way that accomplishes your purpose while increasing influence, mitigating hurt feelings, and building trust. 

So, what does emotional intelligence look like in real life?

Here are just a few examples:

These examples illustrate the power of emotional intelligence, but you’ll have plenty of chances to see it in your own life as well.

You’ll also have opportunities galore to build your EQ. As you learn to identify your natural abilities, tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, you can use that data to inform personal strategies to manage your thoughts, words, and actions–and use these to achieve your goals.

Achieve this, and you’ll be making emotions work for you, instead of against you. 

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

A version of this post originally appeared on

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...


What is the Definition of Emotional Intelligence?

by Justin Bariso

How Do You Tell if You're Emotionally Intelligent?

by Justin Bariso

Ask Yourself This 1 Simple Question to Instantly Boost Your Emotional Intelligence

by Justin Bariso

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.


We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.