Spiritual Reflections

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence is something that can be learned, comes in all varieties, is influenced by a variety of factors, and is worth practicing and monitoring throughout all of our lives.

“I held my tongue this time when she commented sharply about the project I’d just completed.” I knew she had a poor night’s sleep, and I had learned that her sleeping habits and work tension produce conversations that are unlike her normal functioning. I later reflected that I did a wise thing by curbing my temper. When we think before we act, use our street smarts or common sense in expressing our emotions appropriately and effectively, we are using our emotional intelligence. 

Emotional intelligence is a term that has evolved from many branches of psychology, initially stemming from a controversy about the concept and measurement of general intelligence, developmental and abnormal psychology. When formal intelligence tests were created to evaluate the needs of mentally challenged children during the first decade of the 1900s, theorists recognized the difference between verbal and non-verbal skills and measured them in different ways. With the advancement of research techniques, factor analysis provided the perspective that intelligence has many interacting “factors” (abilities) each of which could be measured, e.g., long term and short memory, visual perception, and spatial organization. The educational and political flavor of the United States in the 1960s fueled controversy over the very notion of quantifying intelligence and recognized that the education of many educationally challenged children was being overlooked. This debate included the fact that many intelligence tests were biased against populations other than middle class white children. (Jensen, A.) 

Continuing the trend of “many abilities,” Howard Gardner (who grew up in Scranton during the 1940s and 1950s) made popular the position that human abilities come in multiple forms, such as bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, and linguistic (Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences, 1983). Gardner later added naturalistic (1996) and existential (1999) forms of intelligence. Although Gardner does not name it as emotional intelligence, his notions of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences come very close to that notion. He described them as: the capacities to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes (intrapersonal), and the capacities to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others (interpersonal). His view advanced the point that all humans possess these many abilities in various degrees, that there is a biological/neurological basis to them, that they can be developed or ignored. 

Other branches of psychology (personality, abnormal, educational, neurological) contributed to the understanding of the whole person, not just one domain of the person. Developmental psychologists posited that social and emotional environments interacted together as prime factors in a child’s development, especially the development of a sense of self (self-identity), a foundational component for relationships and other life challenges. 

In spite of these theories, our parents intrinsically knew that they must guide their children in understanding their emotions, and the expression of those emotions for their future personal and professional success.

They knew that a preschooler needs to learn the how of expressing fear and anger, in an appropriate and acceptable manner (at the right time, with right actions/words, self-regulation, the dos and don’ts of expressing emotion). A parent’s maxim: “Respect yourself and other people.” 

Following on Gardner’s work of inter- and intrapersonal intelligences, a theory of emotional intelligence was developed and popularized by Goleman (1995). He described his notion of emotional intelligence as the ability to identify, monitor one’s own emotions and to express them efficiently and appropriately. He speaks of five foundational elements: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. (Doesn’t this sound like the attempts of our parents to train us in managing our emotions?) Goleman’s work, mostly in the work place, considered emotional intelligence as the largest single predictor of success. Although not a causal relationship, emotional intelligence has been associated with, shown to interact with, bullying, violence, drugs, leadership, work success, job performance, and health. In schools, syllabi for coursework in social-emotional learning have been implemented with elementary grade children. We know from research that the high “emotionally intelligent child” has skills more available for bouncing back from being teased or sitting still in a group to listen to a story. Emotional intelligence, then, can be applied to the workplace, to school, or to ordinary daily life to help reduce stress and to manage feelings and impulses. 

Emotional intelligence can help a leader face a crisis or a stressful situation resulting in lower levels of stress, less emotional reactivity and fewer unintended consequences. When we are stressed to meet deadlines, to work without sufficient resources (physical, material, mental), when we are navigating change, especially in interpersonal relationships, ministries and/or living situations, these skills provide a path for appropriate and efficient reactions, externally and internally. 

Thus, it is from many fields of psychology (cognitive, measurement and evaluation, multiple intelligences, personality, developmental psychology) that the term “emotional intelligence” has emerged. In plain talk it refers to our awareness of our emotions and how to express them appropriately for the common good. Emotional Intelligence is something that can be learned, comes in all varieties, is influenced by a variety of factors, and is worth practicing and monitoring throughout all of our lives. We all experience stress across our life span and want to maintain a healthy self, and positive enduring relationships. Other articles in this issue of Journey will speak to implications of using our emotional intelligence, e.g., in pandemic or grief situations, in highly intense ministries, and how reflection can assist in bolstering these skills. 

Sister Beth currently serves as the IHM Congregation Archivist. 


  1. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: a theory of multiple intelligences. NY: Basic Books. 
  2. Goleman, D (1995.) Emotional Intelligence. Why can it matter more than the IQ? NY Bantam Books. 

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