What does it mean to be emotionally intelligent?

That's a question I get asked a lot. I've spent years diving deep into the topic of emotional intelligence, and last year I wrote EQ Applied, which takes a practical look at what emotional intelligence means in the real world.

The truth is, much like what we think of as "traditional" intelligence, emotional intelligence is complex, with various facets and skills.

So, how do you know if you have high emotional intelligence?

This five-minute test can point you in the right direction:

Do I take time to get to know myself?

Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness. That's because once you understand how emotions affect you and your behavior, you can begin to manage your emotions effectively--leading to better decision making. You'll also learn how to identify and understand others and their emotions.

People with high emotional intelligence take time to ponder questions like:

  • What are my emotional triggers?
  • When I say or do something I later regret, how could I have handled things differently?
  • How does my present mood affect my words and actions?
  • How do I act differently when I'm in a great mood? How about when I'm in a lousy mood?
  • Am I open to other perspectives? Or am I too easily swayed by others?

These questions are just examples, but they give you an idea of how emotionally intelligent people get to know themselves well.

Do I try to control my thoughts? 

We all have thoughts pop into our head that we don't like--maybe they're negative, self-defeating, or tempting you to do something you know is wrong. It can seem impossible to control those thoughts.

But as the old saying goes: You can't keep a bird from landing on your head, but you can stop it from building a nest.

In other words, those with high emotional intelligence refuse to dwell on the negative. Instead, they work hard to replace unwanted thoughts with positive ones.

Do I think before I speak?

This seems easy, but it's not. We've all been guilty of sending an angry email, or sticking a foot in our mouths because we didn't pause to think before saying something out loud.

But emotionally intelligent people learn from those mistakes. They practice the pause, taking a moment to think things through before offering a response. Sometimes that means a few seconds; sometimes it means counting to 10. And sometimes it means taking a short walk.

But it's all about acting intentionally, and not making permanent decisions based on temporary emotions.

Do I learn from negative feedback?

Nobody enjoys being criticized, but emotionally intelligent people have the ability to control their responses. They recognize that negative feedback is often rooted in truth, so they ask themselves:

  • Putting my personal feelings aside, what can I learn from this feedback?
  • How can I use it to grow?

Emotional intelligence also helps you realize that even when criticism is unfounded, it gives you a window into the perspective of others. Because if one person thinks that way, you can bet there are countless others who do too.

Do I acknowledge others?

With a slight nod of the head, a smile or a simple hello, emotionally intelligent people show respect by acknowledging a person's presence. They acknowledge the point of view of others by thanking them for expressing themselves and asking questions to make sure they understood correctly.

All of this contributes to effective communication and stronger relationships.

Do I have a balanced view of myself? 

Emotionally intelligent people recognize they have strengths and weaknesses.

Because of this, they appreciate a compliment without letting it get to their head. And they strive to balance self-confidence with humility.

Do I listen for the message, and not just the words?

Paying attention to body language, eye movement, and tone of voice helps emotionally intelligent people to distinguish what's going on in others. 

But they also realize they can't always read others accurately--so they use sincere questions and discernment to help them learn. 

Am I authentic?

Those with high emotional intelligence realize they don't have to share everything about themselves with everyone, all of the time. But they do say what they mean, mean what they say, and stick to their values and principles.

They recognize that not everyone will appreciate their thoughts and opinions. But they know the ones who matter will.

Do I show empathy?

Emotionally intelligent people try to understand the thoughts and feelings of others. Instead of judging or labeling them, they work hard to see things through their eyes.

They also realize that to show empathy doesn't always mean to agree. Rather, it's about learning and understanding

Do I praise others?

Everyone needs to feel appreciated. When you commend others for who they are or what they've done, you fill that need--and build trust in your relationship.

Do I give helpful feedback?

If you have high emotional intelligence, you recognize the potential negative feedback has to cause pain to others. 

Instead of criticism, high-EQ individuals reframe criticism as constructive feedback. In this way, they help recipients to see their words as an attempt to help, not harm.

Do I willingly apologize?

They can be two of the hardest words to say: "I'm sorry."

But emotional intelligence helps you see these words are necessary in any healthy relationship. And it helps you to see that apologizing doesn't always mean you're wrong. It just means valuing the other person more than your ego.

Do I forgive and forget?

When you grow your emotional intelligence, you learn that long-term resentment is extremely harmful--to you. It's like leaving a knife inside a wound, never giving yourself the chance to heal.

But when you learn to let go, you don't allow others to hold your emotions hostage. And that lets you move on.

Do I keep my commitments?

Nowadays, people break their word all the time. "Yes" means "possibly," "maybe" means "probably not," and "I'll think about it" means "start looking for someone else."

But those with a high EQ think twice before committing, to avoid under-delivering or letting others down. And when they do commit, they keep their word, in both big and small ways. This makes them dependable and reliable in the eyes of others.

Do I know how to handle negative emotions?

Negative emotions, like anger and sadness, can be useful if managed effectively. For example, they can alert us to changes that we need to make.

Emotionally intelligent people don't ignore these feelings, nor do they let them run wild. Instead, they work to understand them and determine strategies to deal with them in a positive way.

Do I practice self-care?

Emotionally intelligent people know they perform better in all areas of life when they take time to renew themselves. 

That's why they schedule time for themselves, throughout the day, week, month, year.

Do I focus on what I can control?

When emotionally intelligent people face circumstances out of their control, they focus on what they can influence: their priorities, their reactions, their habits.

This contributes to peace of mind and better decision making.

How did you do?

The truth is, all of us possess a degree of emotional intelligence. While few can say an unquestionable yes to all of the questions above, this test can give you an idea of where your strengths and weaknesses are.

Armed with that knowledge, you can determine areas where you need more work. And you can also identify skills where you excel--and use them as leverage to develop weaker areas.

Do this effectively, and you'll truly make emotions work for you, instead of against you.