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Expert Q&A: What Is Emotional Intelligence?

mood meter poster
By Stephanie WatsonApril 14, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

Marc Brackett, PhD, studies the ways emotions affect our relationships, mental health, decision-making, and academic and workplace performance. As director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Brackett and his team are helping schools across the country teach students the principles of emotional intelligence. Their research shows that learning to harness emotions can help both children and adults thrive at school, home, and in everyday life.

WebMD: What is emotional intelligence?

Brackett: Emotional intelligence is the way we reason with our emotions and about our emotions. We see it as a set of skills, which we define with the term RULER:

  • Recognizing emotions
  • Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • Labeling emotions
  • Expressing emotions the right way
  • Regulating emotions appropriately



WebMD: Why is emotional intelligence important?

Brackett: Emotions matter for a variety of reasons. The first is for attention and learning. Our ability to manage distractions while we work on a project or take a test helps us focus and perform at our best. Emotions also affect our decision-making and judgment. For example, in one study we showed that teachers’ feelings influenced how they evaluated their students. The third is relationship quality. How we feel and how we display our feelings influences the way people respond to us. Emotions are like signals that tell people to approach or avoid us. The fourth is mental and physical health. If we don’t have strategies, for example, to manage our sadness or hopelessness, it can eventually lead to depression. Likewise, feelings of nervousness can eventually lead to anxiety if they’re not managed effectively. And finally, emotions help improve our everyday effectiveness at school or work. Life is filled with disappointments, frustrations, and negative feedback, and unless we have the strategies to manage those difficult experiences, often we give up or we don’t succeed.

WebMD: What misperceptions do people have about emotional intelligence?

Brackett: Some people take the view that emotional intelligence is a soft skill that isn’t important or measurable. We take the stance that emotional intelligence is a hard set of skills that do matter. We’ve done studies where we’ve measured people’s emotional intelligence–both children and adults–and we’ve found that people with more developed emotional intelligence tend to be healthier and happier, have better relationships, and have less burnout in their jobs. They also tend to be rated as more effective leaders. Pretty much all around, we find that these skills make a difference.

WebMD: Is emotional intelligence something you’re born with, or can you be taught it?

Brackett: Some of it is inborn, but much of it is learned. For example, you’re not born with language for emotion. You have to be taught words to understand who you are. The same goes for regulating emotion. You’re not born with effective strategies to manage emotion. If you’re raised by parents who yell, scream, hit, and ignore, that’s what you’re going to learn. If you’re raised in a family that asks you how you’re feeling, checks into the reasons for those feelings, and teaches you strategies to manage your feelings, you’re going to learn emotional intelligence.

WebMD: What are schools doing to address kids’ emotional intelligence?

Brackett: We have an approach to social and emotional learning that we call RULER, which is an acronym for the five skills of emotional intelligence. The first tool we teach is called the emotional intelligence charter. The Charter allows students to share how they want to feel in the classroom. That helps to make the classroom a place where students can feel safe talking about their feelings. The second tool is called the Mood Meter. There are four quadrants, each of which represents a different family of feelings. Yellow is happy and excited. Red is anxious and angry. Blue is down and disappointed. Green is calm and content. Students learn how to plot their emotional states using the Mood Meter, which helps them build emotional self-awareness. The third tool is called the Meta-Moment. It helps students handle strong emotions so they can manage difficult situations and triggers. And the fourth tool is called the Blueprint, which helps students become better at resolving conflict and seeing disagreements from other people’s perspectives. Adults use these same tools to model the skills of emotional intelligence.

WebMD: How do these tools help students learn more effectively?

Brackett: Our research finds that embedding these tools into a school shifts many things. Classrooms become places where there’s more warmth, more connectivity between teachers and students, and more student engagement. We also see shifts in students’ emotional states. When they develop emotional intelligence skills they become less anxious, they have less emotional distress, and they have stronger academic gains.

WebMD: Some educators say teaching emotional intelligence is a fad and its importance is overrated. What do you think?

Brackett: Our emotions are in our brains just like our thoughts are, and they’re working together at every moment of every day from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. Until we acknowledge that emotions matter and that they influence all aspects of our functioning, from our decisions to our relationships to our health, our society is not going to thrive. Educators who don’t take emotional intelligence seriously are, in many ways, doing a disservice to our nation’s youth because the research is so clear that children who have these skills do better. And the research is clear that schools that adopt these practices have better outcomes.

WebMD: How does addressing emotional intelligence equip teens for later life?

Brackett: You need emotional intelligence skills to be able to handle transitions effectively. Otherwise, when you get angry and frustrated you will likely allow emotions to take over. Emotional intelligence also is important for the college transition. Your peer group in college has more influence than your parents, and you’re going to be in situations where you’ll have to make pretty tough decisions. Unless you have well-developed emotional intelligence skills, chances are you’ll make less effective decisions. We’ve shown in our research that college students who have less developed emotional intelligence are more likely to drink, do drugs, and engage in at-risk behaviors. We see emotional intelligence as a buffer for students against these negative outcomes. Then when you get a job you might have a really difficult boss, or a colleague who’s lazy, or a client who doesn’t have good skills. And again, you’ll need emotional intelligence. We argue that you need these skills from womb to tomb.

Read more in WebMD’s special report, Teens and Stress.

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