Emotional Intelligence: Do You Have It?

“We are not necessarily thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” —Antonio Damasio, neuroscientist

Emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions, to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships, and to manage your own and others’ emotions. It consists of the following traits:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation (defined as “a passion for work that goes beyond money and status”)
  • Empathy for others
  • Social skills, such as proficiency in managing relationships and building networks
  • Social perceptiveness

In her new book Dare to Lead, researcher Brene Brown expands and deepens the definition of emotional intelligence based on a seven-year study of one of its pillars, vulnerability, in the context of professional leadership. Below we’ve summarized some of her main findings in an attempt to keep the conversation on emotional intelligence alive.


Brene Brown, whose new book Dare to Lead discusses the critical importance of vulnerability to leadership and personal development, draws the following conclusion from decades of research: To lead requires courage, and you can’t have courage without vulnerability. Her book is mainly about becoming more courageous through vulnerability, so she spends much of it focused on how to be more vulnerable in exchanges with others.

Here are a few takeaways on the topic:

  • The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing; it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.
  • Be vulnerable to be courageous: lean into rather than walk away from the situations that make us feel uncertain, at risk, or emotionally exposed
  • Practice self-awareness and self-love (how you lead results in who you are)
  • She includes a few thoughts for teachers and students as well:

    “As I often tell teachers—some of our most important leaders—we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection. But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.

    “We must be guardians of a space that allows students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. They deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale. And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the directory of their life.”

    Welcoming Joy

    Brown warns us of the dangers of “foreboding joy,” or joy that we dismiss in order to protect ourselves in case the tide suddenly turns:

    “When I’m speaking to big groups, I always ask: ‘When something great happens in your life, how many of you start to celebrate only to find yourself thinking, Don’t get too happy, that’s just inviting disaster?’ Arms fly up…”


    “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we feel,” Brown explains. “And that’s saying something, given that I study fear and shame.”

    She urges us to welcome joy whenever we feel it. Doing so allows us to truly enjoy life but also, ironically, offers us more protection than closing up and wearing armor does:

    “We cannot plan for painful moments—we know this for a fact, because people who have been forced to live through those moments tell us that there is no amount of catastrophizing or planning for disaster that prepares you for them. The collateral damage of this instinct [to wear the armor] is that we squander the joy we need to build up an emotional reserve, the joy that allows us to build up resilience for when tragic things do happen.”

    To celebrate joy, Brown recommends allowing ourselves the pleasure of accomplishment, love, and joy by “conjuring up gratitude for the moment and for the opportunity.”

    “Allow yourself to recognize the shiver of vulnerability—that ‘Oh shit, I have something worth losing now’ feeling—and to just sit with it and be grateful you have something you want, in your hand, that it feels good to hold and recognize.”

    Equally important: Share your joy with others. Some of us may allow ourselves to feel it inside but not allow ourselves to share it with others; some may share it with others but not really feel it inside. We need to practice doing both. As long as it doesn’t come with an agenda tied to social status, and is simply a genuine expression of your feelings, it’s not boasting. People love feeling real joy with others.

    Empathy, Not Sympathy

    Sympathy is feeling for someone; empathy is feeling with someone. The latter drives connection; the former drives disconnection. Most of us would rather hear “I’ve been there” than “I’m sorry.”

    Practicing empathy does not mean comforting someone. It means being able to “stand in discomfort” with someone.

    “Empathy is at the heart of connection,” Brown writes. “To be able to stand in discomfort with people who are processing shame, or hurt, or disappointment, or hardship, and to be able to say to them ‘I see you, and I can hold space for this’ is the epitome of courage.”

    “The most important words you can say to someone or you can hear from someone when you’re in struggle are ‘Me too. You’re not alone.’”

    For practicing empathy with someone you don’t know that well:

    “Engage. Stay curious. Stay connected. Let go of the fear of saying the wrong thing, the need to fix it, and the desire to offer the perfect response that cures everything (that’s not going to happen). You don’t have to do it perfectly. Just do it.”

    Setting Boundaries

    The ability to set boundaries for yourself and others is absolutely essential to emotional intelligence. One of the wisest insights offered in the book is that boundaries lead to more, not less, compassion. Brown herself discloses that learning to set boundaries has made her “less sweet but more loving.” When we are clear about what is and is not okay, we stop resenting others for not reading our minds and stop resenting ourselves for not communicating sooner.

    You can’t have vulnerability without boundaries.

    “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. It might be fear or anxiety. We have to think about why we’re sharing and, equally important, with whom. What are their roles? What is our role? Is this sharing productive and appropriate?”

    According to Brown’s research, participants named vulnerability, resentment, and anxiety as the biggest drivers of numbing, and resentment is almost always related to a lack of boundaries.
    When we know our boundaries and make them clear to others, we can be fully present and compassionate.


    Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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