6 Questions

6 Questions on Emotional Intelligence with Psychologist Daniel Goleman

by Rebecca Dalzell

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, arguing that social skills are as valuable as book smarts, and changed how we measure leadership ability.

05 Min Read Time


When psychologist Daniel Goleman published his book “Emotional Intelligence” in 1995, it shattered the notion of the intelligence quotient, the IQ, as the primary predictor of success. While IQ tests measure your potential to learn, assessing short-term memory, analytical thinking, mathematical ability and spatial recognition, emotional intelligence refers to the capacity to recognize and manage feelings.

In “Emotional Intelligence,” Goleman argued that students should focus on selfawareness, self-management, empathy and social skills — the pillars of emotional intelligence — in school. Those are the tools, he said, that would help kids thrive later in life.

Since then, the concept of emotional intelligence has taken on a life of its own. School districts, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, have incorporated emotional and social learning into their curricula. Hiring managers screen candidates for emotional intelligence; professional coaches teach executives how to improve their self-control, active listening and persuasion skills, which are central to emotional intelligence.

And while emotional intelligence is more subjective and therefore harder to measure than IQ, Goleman and his colleague Richard Boyatzis developed a 360-degree professional assessment tool, the Emotional and Social Competency Inventory, for HR professionals and coaches in 1998.

Today, Goleman, the author of more than a dozen books, continues to write and lecture on the subject. (He recently started a certification program for emotional intelligence coaches through Key Step Media and will launch an online course for individuals in fall 2018.) We spoke with Goleman about why emotional intelligence matters and how anyone can improve it.

Your book “Emotional Intelligence” was on the bestseller list for a year and a half. Why do you think it resonated with people?

I think that the concept of emotional intelligence was an “aha!” experience for people. They knew it intuitively, but they didn’t have the words for it. Maybe they knew a kid in high school who ended up being a top business leader but wasn’t that great academically, and the book helped them realize, “Oh, it’s because he or she had emotional intelligence!” Emotional intelligence is one of those things that you see once it’s pointed out to you.

How has the conversation about emotional intelligence evolved in the last 20 years?

When I wrote that book, people said you can’t use the word “emotion” in business. That was 23 years ago. Now everybody says we need our leaders to have emotional intelligence. It’s become a standard.

Companies are looking for people who have emotional intelligence. If you look at internal company studies, called competence models, you find that the higher you go in the ranks, the more emotional intelligence abilities matter. This is what makes people highly effective.

Why does high emotional intelligence correlate with leadership ability?

A leader with high self-awareness is able to articulate a shared vision that’s inspiring and motivates people. A leader who has good self-management can work toward goals and not let setbacks stop them.

They can manage their own emotions, so they’re not blowing up at people; they stay positive and frame whatever happens in a way that gives people a sense of hope and encourages them to keep going. Leaders with empathy can tune in to people and know how their team is responding to whatever is going on. They’re able to inspire, manage conflict, articulate that shared vision in a way that mobilizes people. They influence everyone in the right way, in the right direction.


A leader with high self-awareness is able to articulate a shared vision that’s inspiring and motivates people.

Aren’t some of these skills ingrained?

That’s an old assumption. Neuroscientists now know that how you’re brought up, what you learn from other kids, what you learn in school, what you learn in life, changes brain circuitry. It changes what genes activate. Any human behavior is partly genetics, but it’s also largely environmental.

How has new research about the brain affected the understanding of emotional intelligence?

I just wrote the book “Altered Traits” with Richard J. Davidson about three decades of research on meditation and mind training — essentially, mental fitness. It shows that sustained efforts to manage emotions actually strengthen the circuitry that [does] that job.

A principle called neuroplasticity says that the more you exercise a mental function, the stronger its supportive, underlying circuity becomes. It’s very parallel to going to the gym and lifting weights. Every rep makes the muscle that much stronger. Changing a habit, like working to manage your anger, also has that effect in the brain.

How can people improve their own emotional intelligence?

Coaching is probably the best way because each of us has different strengths and weaknesses. A coach can help you zero in [on your weakness] and work with you to improve it. If you’re not going to work with a coach, find people who know you well, and whose opinions you trust, who can be candid with you.

That will lead you to see, “Well, I’ve talked to a few people, and they all mentioned X. So I guess I should work on that.” Then you want to develop a learning plan for a new way to do it better. The contract you then have is with yourself to do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.

Let’s say your bad habit is not listening to your kids or co-workers — you cut them off and take over the conversation. If you’re going to change that, to become a better listener, you have to be aware that you’re doing it and have something better to replace it with. You have to practice the new way. This might be pausing and hearing the person out, which would be a big habit change for you. But it’s going to change the brain.

Stick with it for three to six months until you do it automatically. If you don’t need to think about it, that means it’s the brain’s new default option.