Developing Greater Emotional Competency

Since the term Emotional Intelligence (EI)  was popularized in the mid -1990’s by former New York Times science writer, Daniel Goleman, work on EI has found its way into mainstream business.
Goleman’s first book, Emotional Intelligence,  was based on the work of university researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey, who were trying to scientifically measure the difference in people’s emotional abilities.  At the time, Mayer and Salovey granted Goleman permission to use the term emotional intelligence for a book he was writing on emotions.

This post isn’t intended to take sides in the controversy that developed over the use of the term emotional intelligence or the scientific rigor that many critics of Goleman’s work allege is lacking.  Regardless of the debate, there is no doubt that the concept of emotional intelligence struck a deep chord in American society.  Certainly the introduction of any language for emotional life within the workplace was sorely needed!  Remarkably, until Goleman’s book opened the door, discussion of feeling was still almost taboo with the “modern” workplace.

What’s a Competency?

Arguably, scientific measurement of the complexity of human emotion isn’t exact. While there are some reputable instruments on the market gauging emotional tendencies – they are not always the reliable predictors of behavior or performance measurement that employers can bank on.

In fact, this is true with most personality and style measurements. Emotional competence, like other skills and abilities must be viewed within the interconnected system of each person.

Daniel Goleman’s early work can also be attributed to academic Howard Gardner, whose ground breaking conception of individual competence changed the face of education after the publication of his classic work, Frames of Mind in 1993.

Gardner’s idea was that each human possesses multiple human “intelligences.”  This important contribution broadened the scope of understanding and appreciation of human capacities beyond analytic reasoning.  Another important benefit of the EI (Emotional Intelligence) “revolution” has been the recognition that IQ is not the only criteria for success in work.

 Chart of Howard Gardner’s Multiple “Smarts”

Category Description

Abstract Intelligence Symbolic reasoning


Social Intelligence Dealing with people


Practical Intelligence Getting things done


Emotional Intelligence Self-awareness and self-management


Aesthetic Intelligence Sense of form, design, music, art and literature


Kinesthetic Intelligence Whole-body skills like sports, dance

While there is still consensus today that IQ is fixed in childhood (that doesn’t mean we ever stop learning) the good news about EI (or as some call it EQ) is that learning has the potential to be unlimited.
Research conducted since the formulation of the EI concept, has made that abundantly clear. Our capacity to grow our emotional awareness and develop our skill in emotional self-management is infinite.

The Emotional Competencies

In the past decade, Goleman has revised his core EI capacities expanding the category of social awareness to social intelligence.  Goleman explained, “When I wrote Emotional Intelligence, my focus was on a crucial set of human capacities within an individual, the ability to manage our own emotions and our inner potential for positive relationships. Here the picture enlarges beyond a one-person psychology—those capacities an individual has within—to a two-person psychology: what transpires as we connect.”

While not in agreement with all of Goleman’s categories, our work in developing EI centers on the same four core emotional competencies:

  • Self Awareness (emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment)
  • Self-Management ( emotional self-control, self-regulation, emotional literacy, trustworthiness, resiliency, self-motivation, optimism)
  • Social Intelligence (social awareness, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness)
  • Relationship Management (inspiration, influence, conflict management, assertiveness, collaboration)

All EI learning is based on the development of the first competency – Self-Awareness. Without a strong foundation (that is always fluid and changing) of personal self-awareness, it’s difficult if not impossible to do the hard work of self-management.  Growth of all the competencies depends on it. While there are multiple layers to work on within each competency – a few essential skills can play a major role in developing and strengthening these core competencies:

  • Self-Awareness – Once again the preeminent skill.  The challenge is that development of this skill is never “done.” It is, essentially, a moment by moment opportunity.  Skillful self-awareness transforms us from reactors to external (and internal) stimuli to responders and even, creators, of our own experience. Author David Rock refers to the “attentional blink,” the time gap required between identifying different stimuli (such as, one thought or feeling after another) . Usually we have ½ second before the mind can be free to think about something new.

Seems impossible, but there is growing research that shows that becoming more “mindful” can slow this process allowing us more time to shift our internal directional signals!  Developing mindfulness also appears to accrue benefits over time, allowing us to take in more of our experience and increase choice.  One way mindfulness supports this is by decreasing our “internal noise” which distracts us and limits attention and focus.

  • Self-Management – Often clients want to skip to this competency and get it done! We want to get to the bottom of that unwanted emotion and make it go away. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. First step is that we must begin to develop a much broader and more specific emotional vocabulary for our experience. Most people tend to describe their feelings in a handful of generalized terms. Our emotional landscape is rich and deep and our language needs to fit the experience.

Emotional literacy is essential to being able to accurately describe what we are feeling.  Recent research has revealed that verbalizing (naming) our feelings can actually limit and even reverse our limbic response by switching on the prefrontal cortex (reasoning).  Researcher Matthew Liebermann points out, When we put feelings into words you’re activating the prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light.”

  • Social Intelligence – The essence of this competency requires constant practice to understand your self within a larger social framework. What’s the impact of You on those around you (and beyond)? What’s the impact of the social environment on YOU – your thoughts, feelings and actions? 

Skills development in this area can be very challenging. Most of us are coming from Me vs. We thinking most of the time.  All of us are the products of our cultural conditioning so our orientation to others will have its roots in our early learning. This can require lots of remedial learning.
Empathy – the great “joining” emotion is a critical tool to develop to expand this core competency. Every time we meet  another person, we get the chance to practice our empathic skills.  Changing our perceptual lens to develop greater capacity to understand the world from another’s perspective is critical to developing greater social intelligence.

  • Relationship Management – Some people are natural “relaters.” They gravitate towards others in ways that create comfort and acceptance. This is a tall order for others, especially those who are more unassertive or aggressive in their relating style.  But for most of us, developing skill in relating to others successfully is challenging.

While there is a time to assert our needs and feelings with others, excelling in this competency requires us to turn our attention to what others’ think, feel and wantListening authentically is critical.  Wherever we are in our listening skills abilities, improvement is always possible. Listening deeply is the key to all the categories of this competency whether it be as a source of influence and inspiration, resolving conflict constructively or sharing and working collaboratively with others.  Developing our emotional competencies is a life-long journey. It cannot be accomplished in one training program or a few coaching sessions.  It requires a willingness to stay the course (however wavering). It depends on our commitment to deep and honest self-assessment and an end to the rationalization that keeps our lives and relationships in the same place – year after year.

Given your best efforts, over time, a new kind of wisdom will emerge. From that behavioral changes won’t seem as daunting. Relationships will become easier and more rewarding.  But most important – your competencies will build a core inner strength that will serve you in every part of your life.  You can’t lose what you’ve gained and no one can take them away. They are your gift – and your treasure.

Thanks for reading!

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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