Emotional Intelligence: Is It Inherited Or Learnt?

Emotional intelligence is sometimes held up as the ‘x-factor’ in success; the special ingredient that defines the people who stand out in life; it’s what separates the leaders from the followers.

But is our level of emotional intelligence all mapped out for us when we’re born?
It is often said that we are born with our intelligence (IQ) level and I’ve heard the same applied to emotional intelligence.

The good news for those of you who may be struggling with emotional intelligence is that, from my own observations AND from the available evidence to back it up, the people who claim that it is inherited are wrong. Emotional intelligence can most definitely be learnt!

Far from having a fixed emotional intelligence ‘quota’, EQ is something that you can work on, improve, and learn to be more adept at; and, in doing so, you can increase the likelihood of success in business, relationships, and in life in general.

IQ vs. EQ
Your level of intelligence (IQ) changes little between the ages of 18 and 60. This is because it is mainly inherited, according to most insight on the matter; though childhood development and one’s environment are also thought to have some influence.

Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is made up of a large set of skills that can be learnt and attributes that can be developed.

Any skill can be improved – from riding a bicycle to listening to people. This means that each of us can become more emotionally intelligent over time, if we choose to be. The key is that we must choose to change ourselves.

However, as you will see below, there is some complexity to this…it’s not as simple as it may seem at first.

Openness and readiness to change
Part of emotional intelligence is something we call personal agility.

This is the ability to anticipate and respond rapidly to changing conditions, take a proactive approach to change, and to anticipate challenges and opportunities. It involves a willingness to rethink past assumptions, and to willingly adapt to change.

Choosing to become more emotionally intelligent requires some emotional intelligence in the first place – specifically in the area of being open and willing to change oneself!

One of the complexities of emotional intelligence is that there are so many attributes that contribute to it. In fact, it has been broken down into 26 separate attributes that span across self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationships.

Most of us will possess more of some of these attributes and less of the others. But it would seem that people with more personal agility in particular will be more likely to improve other aspects of their emotional intelligence than those who are less welcoming of change.

If you have a ‘stubborn’ personality that is set in its ways, the door to raising emotional intelligence through personal change may be less likely to open.

Connecting the emotional with the rational
Anyone who is able to smile and stay calm in a crisis is doing a good job of modifying their behaviour and connecting the emotional brain with the rational brain.

People who are emotionally intelligent are able to strike a good balance between the emotional and rational parts of the brain. They have an element of control over this connection that those who struggle with EQ don’t have.

But neuroscience tells us that the brain is able to constantly develop, creating new neural pathways throughout our lives as we develop new skills; so the brain we have at 18 is not necessarily the same as the one we have at 60.

When we take information in through our primary senses, it first passes through the limbic system of the brain. This is the more primitive part, where emotions are generated; this is why our first reaction is often an emotional (and potentially ill-judged) one. We have not yet subjected the information to the ‘filter’ of our rational mind.

The more emotionally intelligent amongst us are able to create better control and communication between the rational and emotional centres of the brain.

But the neuroscience mentioned above means that we can all learn this skill, create new neural pathways between these centres and improve communication and control: in other words, we can learn emotionally intelligent skills and turn them into habits with repetition.

Studies on learning emotional intelligence
While comment and conjecture on emotional intelligence has been widespread in the past two decades, studies are few and far between.

One study led by cognitive scientist Delphine Nelis and published in Personality and Individual Differences examined the effects of four emotional intelligence training sessions over a four-week period on 20 college students; this group was compared with another group of 20 who received no EQ training.

The group who received the training demonstrated better ability to understand, analyse, express, and regulate their emotions and to understand the feelings of others. These improvements were not only observable immediately after the training – but six months later.

While the study group was very small and more research is required, it starts to back up what we have observed about the ability to learn emotional intelligence.

Improving your emotional intelligence has the power to improve outcomes in both your professional and personal life. It can lead to better results in academic and occupational pursuits, as well as helping you control stress and improve relationships.

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Ush Dhanak

Ush Dhanak is an Australian Emotional Intelligence and HR Expert, and is Senior Associate trainer and coach at People Builders.