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5.3 Emotional Intelligence

A survey of managers in a UK supermarket chain found that those with high emotional intelligence experienced less stress, enjoyed better health, performed better and reported a better work/life balance. There are wide reaching benefits - both for the manager and for those who work for them - in being more emotionally intelligent.

The term emotional intelligence was popularised in the 1990’s by Daniel Goleman, but the idea goes back for centuries. Indeed Goleman begins his book Emotional Intelligence with a quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle which captures the essence of EI:

Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.

One of the things which the term Emotional intelligence itself did was to legitimise – to some extent anyway - discussion of feelings in organisations where the main focus was on completing tasks and where discussions were assumed to be based on logic and rational argument.

The simple framework shown in Figure 5.3.1 is a very good way of describing the essence of emotional intelligence. It is based on the notions of awareness and responsibility.

Some of the ideas below may seem very rudimentary. It is also interesting to overlay them with what we know from career development work about interpersonal communication. However, learning is context-specific and a there are many reasons why being skilled at supporting the career development of others does not necessarily mean you are equally skilled at management interactions. It is worth giving these issues some specific thought in relation to leadership and management.

Figure 5.3.1 A framework for Emotional Intelligence


The starting point in emotional intelligence – as it is with so many things – is self awareness. Simply noticing what emotions you are feeling can be very useful.

One thing which helps is to be able to put a name to the emotion that you’re feeling – I’m sad, I feel angry, I’m over the moon, and so on. It is very useful to have a vocabulary to name emotions. There are families of emotions – for instance, sad, mad, bad and glad is a simple way of expressing some of the main families of emotions. And then within each family there are different intensities of emotion – for example, pleased, content, happy and delighted are different intensities within the glad family.

You might imagine a palette of emotions, somewhat similar to the range of colours you are offered when you create a Word or Powerpoint document on your computer. You might consider, for instance that the red colours represent anger. These can range from a pale pink – mildly irritated - to a deep maroon – incandescent with rage.

One way of naming emotions is simply to find one word which completes the sentence I feel ….. Often when someone says a sentence which begins I feel … they go on to tell you what they think, not what they feel. A useful check is to see if you can insert the word that after I feel without altering the meaning. If you can, then almost certainly you’re dealing with a thought not a feeling. Compare:

o I feel [that] we may miss the train (a thought)
o I feel anxious (a feeling).

• Empathy

The other aspect of Awareness is awareness of how the other person is feeling, which is often described as empathy. To understand another person empathically is to stand in their shoes, seeing the world from their perspective, appreciating their hopes and aspirations, their concerns and fears.

A vital skill in empathy is the ability to listen attentively, seeking to understand the other person. Sometimes they will tell you how they feel, but often may communicate this non-verbally through their tone of voice, the colour of their cheeks, their gestures or their movements. When you listen to understand another person, you need to look out for what’s not being said as well as the words that are spoken. Picking up on emotions that are revealed non-verbally is inevitably more provisional or tentative than picking up on the words that they say. Having a rich vocabulary that enables you to describe the other person’s emotion or emotions accurately is again very useful.

Note that empathy is not the same as sympathy. When you sympathise with someone, you are imagining how you would feel if you were in their position. When you empathise, you seek to understand how they feel in their situation. As an illustration, let’s assume that someone tells you they’ve just been made redundant. If you were in that position, you might feel very anxious about how you were going to manage on a greatly reduced income. Asking them how they feel might reveal that they are glad to be free of a job they didn’t enjoy and are looking forward to making a fresh start in a new career.

• Self management

We move now from awareness – of yourself and others – to responsibility. It isn’t enough simply to be aware of feelings, you also need to respond appropriately and skilfully. Let’s begin with how you manage your own emotions.

Someone who is emotionally intelligent is able to control what they do with their emotions. They can choose wisely whether to state assertively what they are experiencing or to maintain a poker-faced silence. Suppose, for example, that you notice you are becoming angry in a conversation with another person. In some situations it might be important and useful to disclose that you’re feeling angry, perhaps going on to explore with the other person what’s led up to this and what needs to happen now. In other contexts it might be unhelpful or pointless to reveal that you’re angry. As Aristotle wrote, to be angry with the right person, to the right degree isn’t easy.

Here are two simple ideas which can be helpful. The first is simply to count to ten before you respond to something which has triggered a strong emotion in you. The second is to take yourself out of a situation where you sense that you may be about to respond inappropriately, giving yourself time to calm down, to consider what you want and to decide what, if anything, to do.

• Relationship management

Similarly, as you become aware of how the other person is feeling, you need to choose how to respond. An emotionally intelligent person has a range of social skills that enable them to respond appropriately and successfully to a wide range of people and situations. For example, imagine you are talking to someone and you realise they’ve become bored. If the conversation is important, you may need to persist but change how you’re engaging with them so that you regain their interest. At other times, it might be more appropriate to recognise that the other person isn’t interested in what you’re saying and simply end the conversation. Being flexible in how you respond is valuable.

A very useful skill in responding from your empathic understanding of the other person is the ability to play back what you’ve heard or noticed. When someone hears their situation played back accurately, they feel understood, and may well feel valued. This helps to build rapport and enhances the relationship between you.

In this video clip Daniel Goleman talks about emotional intelligence.

Exercise: Acceptable and unacceptable emotions

Although Aristotle suggested that everyone finds it easy to become angry, some people find it very, very difficult to become angry, or perhaps to acknowledge to themself that they are indeed angry. Moreover, there are some emotions which you may find it easy to accept in other people and some that you find it hard to tolerate.

1) Which emotions do you freely allow yourself to feel?
2) Which emotions do you find it difficult to acknowledge in yourself?
3) Which emotions do you readily accept in others?
4) Which emotions do you find it difficult to accept in others? How do you respond when you notice these emotions?


Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury.