When Daniel Goleman published the breakthrough book “Emotional Intelligence” in 1995, few had heard of the term. In academic circles, it was a new concept–a theory formed by two psychologists, John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, which posited that just as people have a wide range of intellectual abilities, they also have a wide range of emotional skills that profoundly affect their thinking and actions.
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, really?
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 is 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 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.
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) feedback 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:
- By exercising a little self-control, searching for common ground, and relaying a sense of vulnerability, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs perfectly responded to an insult and inspired others.
- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent an extraordinary email to encourage his employees–after they committed an epic fail.
- The FBI’s former lead kidnap investigator used the power of empathy to negotiate with hardened criminals and save hundreds of lives.
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.
If you enjoyed 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 Inc.com.