According to traditional theories in the field, emotional intelligence is a trait people have from birth. Just as genetics determines your height and hair color, it also has a hand in how you manage your emotions, or even in how you perceive the emotions of others. Under this widely accepted model, it's possible to predict a person's opportunity for success in life based on how well he or she scores on various emotional intelligence tests.
But what if you happen to be one of those unlucky people who just wasn't born with strong emotional intelligence? Are you destined to be unsuccessful in life, plodding along one meaningless path after another as those born with this trait assume the coveted leadership roles? Of course not.
Modern theorists such as Edwin Locke, define emotional intelligence as a skill, rather than an inherent trait. Locke, who published a study on emotional intelligence in the April 14, 2005, issue of the "Journal of Organizational Behavior," suggests that you can improve emotional intelligence just like any other skill in life. In fact, corporations and major organizations invest a great deal in improving these so-called soft skills that fall under the emotional intelligence umbrella. You might expect this type of training in the business world, or in positions often filled by people with lower intelligence on average, but you may be surprised to learn that even the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, or ACGME, has incorporated emotional intelligence training.
The ACGME, which helps to train doctors and other medical professionals, believes that helping improve a doctor's ability to communicate and empathize with patients also can improve overall patient care. To this end, the ACGME provides training in basic emotional intelligence skills, such as maintaining an appropriate tone of voice and learning to stay patient, with more advanced skills aimed at minimizing safety-related outbursts, including both physical and verbal altercations [source: Jacob].
Some argue that emotional intelligence training can be seen as a means of teaching conformity, but others see it as a way to better understand one another's unique personalities. By improving your emotional intelligence skills, you'll be better prepared to celebrate and understand what other people bring to the table, and also able to act and react appropriately.
How are you feeling as you read this? Agitated? Excited? Bored? Or do you even know? Many of us go through the day so intent on the tasks at hand that we're oblivious of our own feelings and those of others. Yet according to a number of theories concerning emotional intelligence, being able to recognize, manage and utilize emotions to shape thought and behavior is a key predictor of a variety of social outcomes. Research shows, for example, that people with higher emotional intelligence enjoy more rewarding personal relationships as well as more successful work relationships [source: Mayer].
Although the jury is out on whether emotional intelligence is an inborn characteristic or whether it can be learned and strengthened (some still question its legitimacy as an actual intelligence), it stands to reason that a person can improve their ability to deal with emotions just as they can improve their ability to play the notes on a piano or recite their multiplication tables. True, some people are innately gifted when it comes to schmoozing with the boss and winning over friends, but that doesn't mean socially awkward wallflowers are doomed to live their adult lives painted into a corner.
Evidence supporting this fact is small but growing. One area where the theory has been put to the test, not surprisingly, is in the classroom. Among other things, studies show emotional learning classes can help children recognize facial expressions better, help them control themselves better when they become upset and also make them less likely to misread intent in ambiguous social situations [source: Bennett].
According to Daniel Goleman, whose 1995 book "Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ" has been credited with bringing the term into the popular lexicon, emotional intelligence can be divided into the four domains of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Each of these areas can be further broken down into 20 different EI competencies, including accurate self-assessment, self-confidence, empathy, emotional self-control, influence and communication -- all skills that can be practiced and improved upon. You can start right now by answering this article's opening question. Just don't tell my editor if your answer is "bored."
Just as psychologists debate whether emotional intelligence can be measured, they remain divided on whether the subject can be taught. Still, schools and workplaces have invested in emotional literacy training programs. Such a program in the classroom might involve teaching children to control anger or deal with loneliness, while a workplace curriculum would teach employees how to have more positive customer interactions. Benchmarks of success are unclear and subjective, so the value of these programs is uncertain. Critics of emotional intelligence classes claim that these programs only teach conformity. These critics say that there isn't one correct emotional response to a given situation -- not everyone needs to cry at a funeral, for example -- and to teach otherwise risks needlessly making some people feel as if they're in the wrong.