Emotional Intelligence: Why EI can be more important than IQ

‘We are simply talking about your cop-on: your ability to handle yourself, handle others and handle what’s happening around you’

"There's nothing worse than when you're not feeling great and someone says, 'just think positively'," says Alan Lyons, author, psychologist and managing partner of KinchLyons. "Because that's just an outcome. Positive psychology, as opposed to popular psychology, actually has a science behind it."

A qualified coaching psychologist, Lyons is one of a growing troupe of psychologists in this country who earn a living from helping people assess, understand and leverage the value of their emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence should be seen as a model of well-being and high performance, based on knowing yourself, connecting with others, handling stressful situations and making better decisions. But it’s also about understanding what makes you feel good, rather than just what you’re good at. So it shouldn’t be confused with competency.”

According to the 2009 A Dictionary of Psychology, emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) can be defined as "the ability to monitor one's own and other people's emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour".


The term "emotional intelligence" has been knocking about since the 1960s, but became mainstream in the mid-1990s after the bestselling book by that title, written by Daniel Goleman. In it, he proposed the "mixed model" of EI, which mixed one's own innate EI ability with personality traits broken down into self-awareness, self-regulation, social skill, empathy and motivation. The 1980s-centric "ability model", on the other hand, had taken the view that EI was a more static or preordained mental ability, somewhat like logic or IQ, that centred upon perceiving, using, understanding and managing your emotions.

Both models (and a third, the noughties-laden “trait model”) are not without their critics, but their cumulative effective over the past 30 years has been to project EI out of the science journals and into mainstream western consciousness.

“There are many forms of intelligence, whereas school would make you think that there is just one: academic IQ. And if you don’t have that you’re not intelligent! IQ is a very good predictor on how you will go in school but once you leave school that drops off a lot,” says Lyons.

"It's said that your IQ is your price of entry into an organisation, but once you are in it, how you develop is more down to EQ. Just look at the US version of The Apprentice TV show; the winner has always been the person with the highest EQ, not IQ. It's something you can personally develop but it does naturally develop over your life anyway, but the sooner you get it, you can then accelerate it."

While the assumption is often made that EI means your ability to read people, the reality is its far more nuanced and introspective than that. Its bedrock, in fact, boils down to the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself”, or, in modern psychology speak, intrapersonal intelligence: the ability to understand oneself and appreciate one’s feelings, fears and motivations. Only then comes the top bun on the burger, interpersonal intelligence: our capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people. No bottom bun, no top bun, no burger.

“A lot of people think EQ is only about being good with interconnecting with other people, which it can be, but it starts with your own self-perception and levels of your own self-awareness. Change will only happen when you are aware of it,” says Lyons, who adds that many Irish people believe that being a good communicator means being able to talk, rather than listen as well. And while there is a “huge, positive correlation” between EI and happiness (along with mental health, job performance and leadership skills), context is key. As Lyons makes clear, you could be very emotionally intelligent but find yourself stuck in the middle of raging war, and so be quite miserable.

Switching off autopilot

George Bernard Shaw once advised that you, "Better keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world." Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are just a couple of widely-accessible means, popularised over the past decade, that can help keep that window clear and bright, but taking a validated EQ assessment with an accredited professional (see sidebar) is arguably the best place to start. However, simply reading and talking about EI can be very helpful too.

"If we are talking about the proverbial man in the street," says author and performance coach Jane Downes, "then forget about all the terms that are wrapped around emotional intelligence and go for the basics. We are simply talking about your cop-on: your ability to handle yourself, handle others and handle what's happening around you.

“Awareness is the key. We need to know how we are functioning and what we need to be doing better. But if we are going through life on autopilot then we’re not even aware of these things. We need to have awareness of how we’re problem solving, making decisions, how we are handling situations and what we could do differently or better next time.

"When we are 18 or 19 our IQ levels off, whereas EQ can be developed throughout our life," says Downes, who established her career coaching and training business, Clearview Coaching Group, in 2004. "As we know, life presents problems. We need to be able to sit down and weigh things up; to pro and con it, and to view events through optimism, rather than always just pessimism. This is our social functioning – how we're handling life – and it's really important." And much can be gained from observing those who continue to do well in life, personally and professionally, by applying their street smartness or cop on, rather than falling back on education, nepotism or academic results.

“You can be as sharp as a tack, but if you can’t convey that, in terms of how you’re communicating, how you’re getting on with other people and even yourself, it’s going to hold you back. In the workplace, we know the biggest traits looked for is the ability to adapt and be resourceful: these are emotional intelligent skills are their very best.”

Wants v fears

"If people were more aware of what their wants were, their fears wouldn't even come into it. It's our fears that very much drive us, more than our wants," says counsellor and psychotherapist Siobhan Murray, who emphasises the chief importance of being able to recognise our own emotions before trying to recognise others.

“If we spent more time teaching the next generation about emotional intelligence, about how to understand the driving force for the wants that they have, we will also end up with a much kinder society, not just to those around us but to ourselves,” says Murray.

“Sitting in front of my clients on a daily basis, the biggest thing that I see is how incredibly hard they are on themselves. So often, they’d never speak to a friend or a family member the way they speak to themselves.”

Clinical Psychologist Dr Clare Kambamettu says when someone comes to her to talk about working together, that person's ability to tune into their emotional state, and to reflect on that in a meaningful way, always informs how successful any intervention or therapy will be.

"The studies that I've seen show that EQ is more important than IQ when it comes to thriving across the board, whether it's in your relationships, your work or just day-to-day life. Because it enables us to adapt to our circumstances and to deal with difficulties that we all face," says the director of Lighthouse Clinical Psychology service at Galway Bay Medical Centre.

“I work with lots of children and families and I think if there was a little more education available for parents around the importance of building emotional intelligence in those first years of life, it would really stand in favour of the generations ahead.”

Sidebar 1: How to raise your EQ

While costs vary on the range of services provided, expect to pay at least €200 for a reputable, scientifically-validated EQ assessment (using the EQ-i 2.0® Assessment Tool, for example ) with a qualified EI assessor, including detailed feedback and review of the results.

As such EI assessments, training courses and one-to-one coaching sessions are typically aimed at the business/corporate sector, you will likely need a four-figure sum in reserve should you chose to avail of the full range of EI services accredited professionals can offer.

Too costly? Then opt for the suggested reading material (below) to begin with, possibly followed by a mindfulness course (eg, anywhere from about €150 for an eight-week evening course) as a means of helping develop your own intrapersonal intelligence: the foundation layer for all growth in EI.

If budget or location should preclude such a course, then consider a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) online course as an alternative health check and boost for your intrapersonal intelligence, such as that on the A Lust for Life website (alustforlife.com/mental-health/cbt-online-course/a-lust-for-life-online-cbt-course-week-1 ). But do so remembering any such free, online options will be a rather light and rudimentary crash-course in CBT, when compared with the results one-to-one therapy can achieve with an accredited cognitive psychotherapist.

Sidebar 2: Recommended reading

Psychologist Alan Lyons suggests The EQ Edge by Steven Stein and Howard Book, as a great place to start learning more about EI, as well as Daniel Goleman's seminal 1998 Harvard Business Review article, What makes a leader? (richardreoch.info/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/What-Makes-a-Leader..pdf)

Lyons cites the weekly columns in The Irish Times Health + Family of child and family psychotherapist, Dr John Sharry (solutiontalk.ie ), as an excellent source for understanding and developing EI in children. And for a wider context-setter on how you might be ranging on the mental health and well-being spectrum, check out the Psychological Society of Ireland, scientifically-backed, Psychology Matters 40 Tips (psihq.ie/psychology-matters-psi ).

"The starting point in all of this is to read about and get a feel for it," says author and performance coach Jane Downes. "Get a handle on it at its most basic form, and then decide whether you're going to give a bit of time to this." Aside from the aforementioned The EQ Edge, the founder of Clearview Coaching Group recommends The Emotional Intelligence Quick Book, as well as Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (both by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves).

Sidebar 3: The well-balanced world of Emotional Intelligence

Dr Steven Stein, founder and chief executive of Canadian-based Multi-Health Systems, and his team of researchers collected emotional intelligence data from professionals in more than 150 countries. Through analysing the results of 10,000 respondents, Stein tells The Irish Times he found interesting patterns across different demographics, such as age, gender and geographic location.

"While there are small differences in the emotional intelligence scores between the five world regions, with Africa possessing the highest overall score and Asia possessing the lowest overall score, the differences do not indicate that any world region faces difficulties or challenges with emotional intelligence as a whole.

“These differences indicate that a variety of emotional intelligence skills are valued in each of the workplace cultures, though the specific skills vary across world regions.”