Emotional Intelligence: The Skill That May Be More Important Than IQ in Achieving Success

Find out what emotional intelligence is and if you have the secret smarts that will lead you to happiness and fulfillment in life

For more than a hundred years, people have thought that IQ, or intelligence quotient, was the measure of how smart you are. But researchers, psychologists and business leaders are learning that there are more types of intelligence than the book smarts IQ tests measure—and that it’s just as important, if not more, to have emotional intelligence. But exactly what is emotional intelligence?

“Emotional intelligence involves a complex array of capabilities that deepens our ability to identify, reflect, regulate and manage feelings,” says Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in New York. “And when we can manage these feelings, we experience greater success coping with the demands of everyday life.”

In addition to helping our mental health and personal relationships, emotional intelligence can be equally useful in the workplace. “There is a correlation between high EQ and success in life—you’ve probably heard it called ‘soft skills,’ ‘people smarts’ or ‘social savvy.’ EQ is all of this and more,” says Jen Shirkani, a business leader, expert in emotional intelligence and author of Ego vs. EQ. “Someone with high EQ can communicate with others effectively, can manage change well, is a good problem solver, uses humor to build rapport, has empathy and remains optimistic even in the face of difficulty.” A big part of how to be smart is knowing how to read people by understanding yourself and others.

Why is understanding emotional intelligence gaining more recognition? “Life and increased mental health awareness have taught us that people are more than test scores,” says Michele Leno, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Michigan. “Intelligence is diverse. We are more accepting of different types of smarts.” But how do you know if you have emotional intelligence? And can you get it if you don’t already have it? Yes, you can learn something new every day to grow your EQ—here’s how.

Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more knowledge, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.

What is emotional intelligence?

“Emotional intelligence is a set of skills that include one’s ability to recognize their own impulses and moods, and the ability to read situations accurately and respond most appropriately,” Shirkani says. Basically, EQ, also called EI or EIQ, is the ability to perceive and understand emotions in ourselves and others, Serani says.

Popularly identified and named by psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, EI has since become a trending topic in psychology and business alike. The concept is as much about identifying and managing our own feelings as it is about handling the feelings of the other people in our lives.

“Someone with self-awareness can identify their own moods and their underlying causes and know when they are having an impact on the way they are behaving,” Shirkani says. “By reading others, they pick up nonverbal signals and understand their audience, which helps them then respond more appropriately, including using a good sense of timing.”

People with high emotional intelligence might also be adept at reading body language or be comfortable asking questions to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

Why is emotional intelligence important?

First and foremost, emotional intelligence can lead to greater personal understanding and fulfillment. Research has shown that those with a high EQ are better able to regulate their emotions in daily life, have greater levels of happiness and may even be protected against being a victim of bullying in school.

“Emotional intelligence is so important because it gets us through the good and not-so-good times in life. It is responsible for self-confidence and self-love,” Leno says. “Emotionally intelligent individuals remember to self-check and ask questions such as, ‘How am I doing today?’ Awareness of one’s needs and efforts to meet them requires EI.”

This self-awareness gives people with high emotional intelligence a greater ability to cope with stress and solve problems in their lives, she says.

Second, understanding emotional intelligence is important in our personal relationships with others. “Individuals with higher EQs tend to have greater meaningful connections and attachments to others and can negotiate the social and emotional aspects of life more effectively,” Serani says.

Last, the importance of emotional intelligence shows up in the workplace. “Research has proven that EQ is up to twice as important as IQ and technical skills for jobs at all levels,” Shirkani says. “Moreover, EQ can account for the entire advantage in positions of higher responsibility.”

Want to be a good manager? EQ helps you to be fair but firm, assertive and sensitive. “It allows you to show care while holding people accountable because you have made enough of an emotional investment in them that they know you are acting in their best interest,” she says.

Both Leno and Serani note that a high IQ may get you through the door to a great career, but a high EQ will keep you there. “The ability to effectively manage an overwhelming workday or refrain from yelling at your boss involves EIQ,” Leno says.

How is EQ different from IQ?

To help you understand what is emotional intelligence and what isn’t, let’s start at the beginning: What is IQ?

According to Serani, an IQ test measures cognitive abilities such as logic, planning, problem solving, adaptation, abstract thinking, reasoning, language and the capacity to generalize. “We have placed greater emphasis on IQ, since everyone wants to know how smart you are—schools and employers focus on IQ,” Leno says. This is primarily “due to long-held beliefs that a number derived from testing tells us everything we need to know about a person’s skills.”

But employers are recognizing that there are more dimensions to an employee’s potential than IQ, particularly when it comes to working on a team or managing others. “When you can identify, understand and use emotions positively to manage challenges and conflicts, to communicate well and empathize with others, you solve issues more effectively,” Serani says.

Even in an academic environment, “the student who gets a full scholarship to college but drops out prematurely due to feeling overwhelmed may have a high IQ and low EIQ,” Leno says.

Another difference is that IQ is generally considered fixed throughout life and can’t be altered (although some say IQ can be increased). “The best news about EQ is that it can be learned,” Shirkani says. “Unlike IQ, which stays constant after someone is in their early 20s, EQ is a set of competencies one can develop, much like a technical skill.”

This could be why research has shown that EQ training can lead to greater EQ in business environments. Plus, EQ is correlated with maturity—Shirkani says there is typically an increase in your EQ over the course of your lifetime. That could be why a 2021 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that high EQ correlated with wisdom.

Still, emotional intelligence and IQ are not completely separate. “EIQ and IQ are similar in that they represent our capacity to accurately process information—deficits in either area will cause us to misinterpret or miss relevant details and respond inappropriately,” Leno says. “EIQ and IQ should not be separated, as one relies on the other.”

Signs of emotional intelligence

Signs Of High Emotional Intelligence GraphicRD.COM, GETTY IMAGES (4)

OK, but what is emotional intelligence in relation to your life—and exactly what does it look like? Serani says that EQ abilities fall into four categories: perceiving emotions, understanding emotions, managing emotions and using emotions to guide thoughts.

Our experts gave us some examples of emotional intelligence giveaways:

  • Being able to identify your own emotions: “EI allows us to identify our feelings and their origins,” Leno says.
  • Being able to “read” others: “These people [with high EQ] can emotionally and mentally plug into others to read the situation at hand and behave accordingly to get the best results for everyone,” Shirkani says.
  • Thinking objectively: “Emotionally intelligent people see beyond black or white,” Leno says.
  • Having a good sense of humor: “EQ helps us remember not to take ourselves so seriously and be more self-deprecating,” Shirkani says.
  • Being resilient: “Emotional intelligence allows us to recover after a setback,” Leno says.
  • Not taking things personally: “My EQ helps me understand that someone might not like my idea simply because it is not a good idea or I haven’t presented it well,” Shirkani says. “Having emotional intelligence results in someone who is not easily offended, [someone] with the tools they need to face uncomfortable conversations and address things they deem to be triggering before they escalate.”
  • Maintaining healthy relationships: “EI allows us to understand differences and get along with others,” Leno says.
  • Setting boundaries: “Emotionally intelligent individuals understand the need to protect their physical and emotional space,” Leno says. Shirkani stresses that people with EQ are not just pushovers or “yes” people—they do understand how to set boundaries and say no.
  • Problem solving: “People with EI offer practical solutions because they understand the importance of making life less complex,” Leno says.
  • Sensitivity to others’ feelings and moods: “People with EI are empathic and more easily relate to others. They can sense when someone is feeling down or happy,” Leno says. This can also help when giving bad news or critiques, Shirkani says. “The way it is delivered is critical,” she says.
  • Appreciating even small wins: “EI people embrace the small things in life and use them as motivation to achieve bigger goals,” Leno says.
  • Taking a break when needed: “EI allows us to appreciate self-care and rest,” Leno says. Letting our feelings come out can be part of this. “People with EI know that crying is cathartic. They allow themselves to shed a few or several tears when needed,” she says.

How do you measure EQ?

There’s no shortage of emotional intelligence tests, though not all have been scientifically validated. Each measures EQ in a slightly different way, but you’ll generally come across either self-evaluations or what’s known as “ability” tests.

Self-reported tests are exactly what they sound like: easy-to-take EQ tests that ask you to answer a string of questions about yourself. Ability tests, on the other hand, ask you to solve problems related to emotions. For instance, they might ask you to pick which emotion a person might feel before a job interview. There are even mixed EQ tests that combine both types.

How can you learn your EQ?

You can get a basic understanding of your emotional intelligence through online quizzes and screenings. But you’ll have better luck turning to the pros.

“The most reliable and valid assessments occur with trained mental health professionals that administer tests like the Bar-On Emotional Quotient Inventory, Emotional Abilities Test, Emotional Competence Inventory 2.0, Emotional Self-Concept, Geneva Emotion Recognition Test, Meta-Emotional Beliefs and Test of Emotional Intelligence [TIE],” Serani says. A mental-health worker can then help you boost your brain power in areas where you’re lacking.

In the business world, EQ training and coaching professionals can help evaluate employees’ or teams’ EQ. Assessments “can be used to develop high potentials, raise interpersonal effectiveness, nurture company culture and can even be used to make better hiring decisions,” Shirkani says. “The best way to improve emotional intelligence is through a coaching engagement where someone can provide objective feedback and recommend specific activities based on someone’s range of scores.”

But the best test may be life itself. “Emotional intelligence is tested, indirectly, in everyday life,” Leno says. “How a person manages when faced with challenges is the most reliable measure of EI.”

Can you improve your EQ?

“Absolutely,” Serani says. “While IQ remains constant, EQ can be enhanced and learned. Your ability to understand emotions can broaden over time.”

This could be why EQ training in businesses has taken off—because it works. So if you think your EQ score is not yet ideal, that’s OK. “EQ is not the measurement of one’s personality, it is not a way to predict one’s career, and it is not static,” Shirkani says.

Contact a mental health professional for an evaluation, or inquire at work about an EQ workshop for your team. “Being able to understand your own emotions, as well as others’, leads to greater emotional well-being and creates deeper meaning in your life,” Serani says.

About the experts

  • Deborah Serani, PsyD, is a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in New York. She is also the author of Living with Depression and the Sometimes When children’s books, which promote social-emotional learning.
  • Jen Shirkani is a business leader and expert in emotional intelligence. The author of Ego vs. EQ and Choose Resilience, she is a keynote speaker at national and state conferences, universities, government agencies and business organizations.
  • Michele Leno, PhD, is a licensed psychologist outside of Detroit, Michigan, and the founder of DML Psychological Services. With a wide range of clients working in corporate America, she has developed strategies on how to ensure workforces are supported and resilient.


Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a regular contributor to RD.com’s Culture and Travel sections. She also writes about health and wellness, parenting and pregnancy. Previously editor-in-chief of Twist magazine, Donvito has also written for Parade Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Parents Magazine online, among others. Her work was selected by author Elizabeth Gilbert to be included in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. She earned a BA in English and History from Rutgers University.