How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence


Caveat: some of the ideas explained in this article may be outdated. Yet Emotional Intelligence is a force that can shape your daily life and routines positively.

One question that always puzzled me is: “How to determine whether a person is intelligent?”

I have to confess that I did not know the answer to that question, until recently.

But that inquiry brings us to a deeper one: “how can we measure intelligence?”

The most common metric (IQ) has been a cause of frustration and discomfort for many who found out not to be as smart as they thought. But how reliable is IQ in measuring overall intelligence?

Is it fair to say that a person with a low IQ would get condemned to a useless life?

It leads us to the source of all misunderstandings: Can intelligence and therefore success get relegated to a standardized test such as the IQ?

Two brilliant guys

Let me tell you the story of two very “smart” guys: Jeffrey and Kenneth.

Jeffrey was born in 1953, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Second, of four kids, since childhood hour he showed to be smarter than other youngsters.

It became evident when Jeffrey got was finally admitted to the Southern Methodist University in Dallas where he received a full scholarship and eventually studied business.

After graduation and working for a while with a Houston bank, Jeffrey was sent to Harvard Business School graduating in the top 5% of his class (Bio).

Kenneth was born in 1942, in Tyrone, a small town in Missouri, as the only child. As the child, Kenneth showed to be very smart as well.

He worked his tail off by delivering newspapers and mowing lawns. Subsequently, he earned a degree in economics from the University of Missouri and not satisfied yet; he received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Houston in 1970 (Bio).

What did they have in common?

They were both brilliant, successful and wanted to make a lot of money. Their paths crossed when Kenneth hired Jeffrey as the consultant (while working at Mckinsey and Co).

Kenneth’s company operated in the utility industry, and it was one of the biggest and most successful corporations in the US.

Kenneth was impressed by Jeffrey’s performance, and eventually, he hired him as CEO of the Capital & Trade Resources of the organization (the primary division of the company).

Jeffrey’s career was so successful that (by 1997) he was nominated CEO of the whole business. Only Kenneth retained a more influential role within the organization.

It would have been great if the story ended there, but let’s see what happened next!

The story unraveled

Kenneth and Jeffrey were two brilliant individuals, with MBAs and PhDs, and very high IQs, therefore, destined to succeed. Jeffrey and Kenneth were not the only smart guys in the company.

Ever since Jeffrey became CEO, top graduates were hired to run the business’ operations. The company became so successful that Kenneth and Jeffrey were everywhere: from business magazines to finance newspapers.

Their reputation in Wall Street snowballed. How did the company grow so fast?

Jeffrey had the brilliant idea to use the market to market accounting. It means that the firm was valuing its assets at market value instead of historical cost.

For example, when the company invested in new plants, they could already show its future estimated profits on the balance sheet.

And if the acquired plant did not produce any benefit in the future, the company created ad hoc off-balance sheet financial vehicles to hide the losses.

Therefore the company balance-sheet was always kept “clean” from losses. Those complex operations allowed the company to maintain a high rating, while not risking a dime. But were all those activities legal?

As it turned out, they were not. Indeed, when the operations became too complicated, the company could not hide them anymore, and the financial situation became unbearable.

When voices spread that the firm had billions lost in those operations, it became one of the greatest scandals in American history. The company was Enron, and the two protagonists of the story were: Jeff Skilling and Kenneth Lay.

They were the smartest guys in the room.” In 2006 both Jeff and Kenneth were convicted of fraud and became the most obvious case of how smart people can do stupid things.

Does a Nobel Prize keep you away from troubles?

Let me tell you the story of LTCM (Long-term Capital Management), a hedge fund which eventually collapsed by taking too much risk. LTCM was founded by Robert C. Merton in 1993 and had on its board, Myron S. Scholes.

Who are they? Both Merton and Scholes were Nobel Prizes, awarded in 1997, just one year before LTCM collapsed.

You might think “why is this relevant to our story?” Well, the LTCM firm got founded on the idea that a formula (they won the Nobel Prize thanks to this method), could succeed in all financial circumstances.

That formula worked for a couple of years, until 1997. During that year the firm lost a staggering $4.4bln and had to be bailed out by other institutions (When Genius Failed – The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management)

Is it possible that two Nobel Prizes, among the smartest persons on the planet, were not able to foresee the risk involved in their operations? Maybe they did understand the risk rationally but not emotionally.

But if that is the case can we still define those people intelligent? Of course, they are among the people with the highest IQ in the world. What is the other aspect of intelligence that goes beyond IQ? Emotions. Indeed, emotions can hijack the intelligence of an individual.

Daniel Goleman calls it “EI” or “Emotional Intelligence.” Although the term “Emotional Intelligence” got used for the first time by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, Goleman was the one who formulated a systematic approach to EI.

Who is Daniel Goleman?

Daniel Goleman is an international psychologist who eventually became famous through the book “Emotional Intelligence.” He was born in Stockton, California, in 1946.

After getting a scholarship to Harvard, he studied clinical psychology. After that, Goleman continued his education in India and Sri-Lanka where he started to investigate the implications of meditation practices on stress reduction.

He then joined the New York Times in 1984, but soon he realized that the topic of emotional intelligence required his attention until the book on the subject came about and sold more than 5 million copies worldwide.

What is Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

How many times do you find yourself doing something you promised it wouldn’t happen again?

Such as saying something in public you were not supposed to say, falling still into an old bad habit that you were trying to abandon. In all those cases the reason we fall back into the trap is that we lack Emotional Intelligence, or “the capacity to assert self-control, persistence and most of all to motivate oneself.”

Why is it so difficult to change our bad habits or behaviors? Try to stop and think for a few seconds how many times you burst into anger and treated people around you poorly.

Then, a just half-hour later you regret what you did. Why don’t we stop such behaviors when they are happening?

Well, because we lack Emotional Intelligence, or the ability to understand what we are feeling at a particular moment.

In other words, if you are having a dispute with your family and suddenly you are about to “lose your mind” how you can avoid that?

While you talk or listen, try to analyze your internal mental state, assess your body sensations and if you detect some feelings of discomfort get out of the dispute for the half-hour.

This time will give you the chance to make your mind and let the cortisol (a hormone released during stressful situations) to be absorbed by the organism; therefore making you more relaxed.

Of course, this is just one situation you may face in life, but the point is that EI requires a lot of mindfulness and the ability to see oneself from the outside.

It is almost like you are inside your head while you react to something and on the other hand, you are someone else, looking at yourself from the outside! Does it sound crazy?

I know it seems overwhelming and It is not easy since a lot of practice is required. Thereby the next natural question is: why would I waste my time doing so when I could be studying technical staff? Let me answer.

Correlation between IQ and career success

Of course, you can spend your whole life studying hard and acquiring technical skills that will make you more successful when it comes to your career advancement.

But will they? As shown in many types of research IQ scores have a weak correlation with professional success. Instead, cognitive ability (EI) resulted from a much more reliable predictor of job performance (IQ correlation with success). In few words, the IQ without the EI does not get you anywhere.

And the reason is pretty simple: do you remember the stories at the beginning of the article? Enron and LTCM are just extreme examples of lack of Emotional Intelligence.

If you compare two individuals, one with a higher IQ and lower EI and another with a more moderate IQ but high EI should not surprise you if the second person will become more successful in life.

Why? Intelligence in standard terms (IQ) gets completely wiped out by emotions. Unless EI gets developed.

Why do we feel emotions such as anger and fear?

Evolutionary speaking those emotions make perfect sense. Imagine a homo sapiens two hundred thousand years ago, in a jungle. The Sapiens is about to be attacked by an old tiger weighing around 150kgs.

Fear strikes, his body freezes (to allow hiding) so that the body will be in a state of max alert and he gets ready for the fight or flight response.

Think of all the times you heard a noise in the middle of the night; something fell, your heart rate increased, you froze. On the other hand, your brain started to scan all the possible scenarios: is it a bird? Is it a thief?

In other words, emotions are a defensive mechanism used by our organism to face dangerous situations.

Indeed, for example, when anger strikes your heart rate increases, the blood is pumped faster and toward areas of the body such as our hands. In turn, this gives you the chance to defend yourself by allowing the energies to flow where needed the most.

If this makes sense when it comes to situations of real danger, it can become counterproductive when it comes to social conditions.

Think of an argument with a co-worker where your anger mounts to the point that you almost physically attack him/her. What just happened to you? Why could you not control that reaction?

Another example: last time you spoke in public your hands sweated, and you could barely open your mouth or move your tongue to articulate a word. How to control that?

To answer, we have to dig deeper and ask: Why do emotions are triggered faster than thoughts? But to respond to this question, we must understand how our brain works.

Our brain is an evolutionary machine

In our head, we have an evolutionary device. What does it mean? Think of when you bought an I-phone for the first time. In the package, you found the phone ready to be used.

The software got installed, and all I-phones come with the same configuration. On the other hand, to make it work properly, you need to install apps.

The apps make your I-phone more functional. Therefore, what will differentiate one I-phone to the next are the apps installed on it.

For example, one I-phone will have ten apps, another twenty and of course, the one with more apps has higher functionality.

I know it may sound very simplistic, but the point is that when humans come to life, they have all the same “package”: our brain (software).

Then later in life, we start to learn many things such as how to talk, walk and so on (apps).

Once reached the mature stage we can learn several languages or play several musical instruments. Those “upgrades” are similar to an I-phone with more apps on it.

Keep in mind though that to preserve the functioning of your I-Phone you must update the software first otherwise, all the apps installed will be worthless.

The same applies to our brain. You can learn all the skills you want, but to be very useful you must learn how to control your emotions first (upgrade your software).

Then it will make more sense to go on and learn ten languages or to play ten musical instruments (apps).

The next thing to figure out is how our brain evolved. It turns out that our mind grew gradually; in other words, it developed one layer at the time.

The new brain has three primary layers or systems: reptilian, limbic and neocortex. The reptilian brain is the oldest. Therefore, it evolved before the other layers.

Indeed, that part of the brain controls vital functions such as breathing, body temperature, heart rate, and balance. The limbic system evolved subsequently, and it is the part related to emotions and memory.

The neocortex, the last to develop played a key role in thoughts, consciousness processes, language and so on.

Keep in mind this is only an (over)simplification of our brain, which is way more complicated than that. 

What triggers emotions?

The limbic system is the part that plays a vital role when it comes to emotions. And evolutionary speaking emotions are essential for survival.

Also, emotions are crucial because they allow us to form memory. In the limbic system, there are two main parts: the amygdala and the hippocampus.

Those parts are linked, and the activation of the amygdala becomes crucial to allow the hippocampus to form memories to be stored in our brain.

Also, the amygdala is like a “human alarm.”Indeed, it signals all the situations that may be “relevant” to the hippocampus, which in turn stores those memories for future purposes. The issue is that the amygdala continuously scans the surroundings.

Therefore, if it gets over-activated, it may become dysfunctional. Think of a paranoid person that sees danger anywhere. Well, this person’s amygdala is over-stimulated.

Think of your car’s alarm that is too sensitive and gets armed all the time someone passes a few feet away from the vehicle.

How to control emotions? One way to manage your feelings is to tame the amygdala. In other words to make sure you do not get hijacked by it. How to do so?

It comes very handily our neo-cortex area: in particular the left pre-frontal cortex. That is the part related to consciousness, thought, and language.

Many types of research showed that increased activity in this area of the brain inhibits the amygdala; therefore it keeps it under control.

Taming the amygdala is not that easy at first, and the reason stands in the fact that the signals that arrive from the outside world, such as sounds, vision and so on may be acknowledged first by the amygdala, then by other areas of the brain.

Stop victimizing yourself: it is counterproductive!

One way to develop Emotional Intelligence is to learn how to use productive self-talk. How many times you did something wrong, and you ended up saying “I always make the same mistakes” “I am a failure” or “It is always my fault.” If you do use such kind of self-talk is time to STOP.

It is the kind of self-talk that allows the amygdala to dominate within your brain, reinforcing itself from time to time until the other parts of the brain become numb.

One key to change self-talk is to modify the perception of things. Anyone knows that if you take two persons looking at a glass of water half empty and half full, the optimist will see the entire half and the pessimist the empty half.

In reality, none of them is right or wrong; their perception is different. To change your opinion of things, you must be aware and conscious throughout your day.

Think of how many times you get caught in thoughts entirely unrelated to the situations you are facing.

For example, you see an object, such as a pen that for some reason reminds you of a person that few days before mistreated you. You get swept by that thought that leads to another view and so on until you become so angry and nervous, although you were having a nice day. That train of ideas must be stopped if you want to keep a positive mood throughout the day. But to do that you must be aware, or be able to “think about your thoughts and keep them on track.”

Indeed, the emotional brain, unfortunately, is indiscriminate; it creates links between memories that are not rational or controlled. If you let your emotional mind run undisturbed, this will bring most of the time to unpleasant emotions and feelings.

How to stop it? Use your consciousness and understand what is happening in the background. In other words ask yourself: is it rational what I am thinking? Is this thought useful to the situation I am facing now? Those questions will help to activate the prefrontal cortex while inhibiting the amygdala.

Three advises from Daniel Goleman

Daniel Goleman through his writings suggest us to be very careful about many aspects of our personalities such as self-awareness, personal decision-making, managing feeling, handling stress, empathy and so on. Also, he would remind us of three elements that are crucial:

Know thyself: 

Start to become aware of your thought processes. In any moment of your day, from the smallest errand to the critical meeting try to keep track of your thoughts.

For example, if your boss is mad at you and you start sensing a feeling of fear that kicks in start to tell yourself “I am sensing fear,” such an exercise can be beneficial to detach you from the actual situation and train your left prefrontal cortex to act. Do not let the amygdala dictate your life!

Master thyself: 

Once you become good at understanding your feelings start to work on your impulses. In other words, if there is any wrong habit that is making you a slave, try to become aware of it, and gradually develop “the capacity to resist that impulse to act” instinctively.

Temperament is not destiny:

Keep in mind that you choose. Of course, your emotional troubles are coming from a long time ago, most probably when you were just a kid. On the other hand, that does not imply that your personality determines your destiny. Quite the opposite, choose the qualities you would like to have and start to implement them now! (see Warren Buffet on How to develop character )

Start practicing Emotional Intelligence

If you are one of those people who think they cannot control their emotions, I hope you changed your mind. In Daniel Goleman’s book: “Emotional Intelligence” you will find useful information that will help you to reduce stress, to reduce impulses and to create more self-awareness.

It is your turn to dedicate some time of your day to nurture the intellectual side of your brain. The most important takeaway from this article is that “you can choose.” Don’t get me wrong, not all emotions are bad! It is amazing to experience positive emotions such as love, compassion, and joy.

On the other hand, if you let yourself get swept by negative emotions such as hatred, envy, and anger you are limiting your life.

In today’s world where social media are intended to make us look perfect and happy, people post beautiful pictures, funny moments, and exotic trips.

It seems almost like unhappiness does not exist. If you dig deeper, you see how things are. Repeat yourself this mantra “I am not alone. I am not different; I am like any other human being, I am facing the same problems other people are facing or that others are already faced”. Once you recite this mantra, your perspective will shift.

You will no longer see yourself as the “victim, ” and suddenly a new world will open to your eyes. Therefore, to be successful in life and business:

Stop personalizing, victimizing and blaming yourself or others. Take charge for your life now:

Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” Seneca.


Published by

Gennaro Cuofano

Creator of | Head of Business Development at | International MBA

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