Career Advice

What Is Emotional Intelligence, and Why Everyone Needs It

Women having conversation together in business office

Recently, I was asked what exactly emotional intelligence is, and why it’s necessary. There are a number of definitions and lists, if you will, that try to define emotional intelligence, or EQ as it’s known. The two researchers who created the term were Peter Salavoy and John Mayer, and it is generally defined as follows:

To be able to…

Recognize, understand and manage our own emotions,” as well as “recognize, understand and influence the emotions of others.” While that seems simple, there are a number of advanced skills and competencies that must be learned in order to become emotionally intelligent.

While EQ is key to becoming a successful manager,  it doesn’t just apply to managers and leaders. It applies to all of us, in all aspects of our lives and relationships… with ourselves, at home, at work, and in life.

So, what the heck is it then?

In my work, I’ve identified five key skills or competencies those that best define EQ for work, for relationships, and for life. This is not an all-inclusive list, but in my experience, if one masters each of the following and stays mindful of them daily, you are well on your way to being highly EQ skilled.

Today, we’re going to talk about the first key skill: self-awareness.


At the most basic level, we are a highly social animal. To support the development and maintenance of those social relationships, which are essential for our surviving — and thriving — we’ve developed the ability to process the world not only through our thinking, but also through our emotions and feelings.

Our feelings/emotions tell us how the events of our lives are impacting us, and how we, in turn, are shaping our perception of the world through those feelings we have in reaction to those events at work, at home, and in life. It’s a circle, if you will.

I experience ‘events’ in my life, I use my emotional constructs to tell me what that event means to me and how it’s impacting me, and those emotions, in turn, greatly influence my thinking and understanding of the event as well as my next choices and actions as I engage others. That next engagement creates more events for me. And ‘round and ‘round she goes…

That impact, information, and understanding of our own emotions is the beginning of taking full ownership of the creation of our lives and our realities, in work and in life. When we finally understand that, other than at a pure survival and trauma-induced flight or fight response, we are entirely responsible and accountable for the emotions we create as we try to understand the world around us and make sense of it.

That, then, is self-awareness. Self-awareness is about being conscious of our emotional states at all times. The emotions we create in reaction to the world can ‘shape’ what choices and behaviors we choose as we next engage the world.

Self-awareness questions for work, family and life might include: What feelings am I having right now? What feelings are trying to get my attention? What feelings am I deliberately not feeling? What are these feelings telling me about how I’m interpreting the events of my life? Is that interpretation accurate? Is it reality based? Is it an old ‘story’ from my past? Are these feelings from my present or from my past? If I changed how I ‘thought’ about a situation and what it means to me, what feelings would I have then? What feelings would I like to have around this situation? Does my feeling level and intensity feel appropriate for what the event is? Am I feeling too much? Too little?  Am I using some feelings to hide other feelings that make me feel more vulnerable? Am I overusing certain feelings? Am I underutilizing certain feelings? What am I not feeling that probably makes sense given the situation/event? What did I learn in that family I grew up in about feelings?  What didn’t I learn?

Unfortunately for many, if not most of us, the homes and neighborhoods we grew up in, and the cultures and families that impacted us when we were young, did not provide a great education on what adult level emotional health looks like. Many of us never developed a healthy relationship with our own emotional selves, and still haven’t. We pay a price for that in our lives and relationships, with ourselves and others. We may not have learned how to feel our feelings, how to decipher and name them, and how to understand what our feelings are trying to tell us about our lives.

Based on how the adults around us showed up in their feelings when we were children, we may have learned an immature, incomplete, or imbalanced view of feelings/emotions and what to do with them.

Full ownership of our lives starts with owning our emotions as ours, and then using them, along with our clear, conscious thinking, to make the decisions that lead to a meaningful and fruitful life, work and home. And we must make decisions that lead to deep and meaningful connection to others.

I’m all about making this ‘stuff’ of growth, learning, transformation, agency, and personal power simple and easy to use in our lives. If you Google ‘emotions’ you can find charts, wheels, lists of dozens if not hundreds of feeling/emotion words. While all are useful, in my own life and work the last 25 years, I’ve discovered you really don’t need hundreds of feeling words.  It’s also much easier to talk about my feelings with those that matter to me if it’s more simple. I’ve found that if I pay attention to what I call the Big Six, I can have a deep, informative, and useful understanding of what my current or recent emotional state is/was. And if I know my current emotional state, I’m much more informed about what my next choices and actions should be.

The Big Six:


I have to have some words to tell myself and others that this is the good part of my life, that I like how events are impacting me. That I feel more alive, uplifted, positive about things in my life. Joy/happiness, glad, excited, hopeful, passionate are all ways to communicate that life is working well. There can be less intense forms such as glad, content, or satisfied, as well as more intense forms such as bliss, ecstatic, or elated. But all tell me that I like this stuff in my life.

Think: What are you happy about right now in your life?


Sadness and pain help me understand the losses in my life, be they ‘lost’ people (moved away or passed away), lost opportunity or lost stuff. Sadness, then, is that feeling that tells me I’m losing or have lost something that matter to me. Sadness seems to travel with pain as a companion a lot of the time. Pain is that sensation that says ‘life hurts’ right now… it feels heavy, dark, constricted. Sadness and pain can be anywhere from a mild form of sadness like melancholy or bleakness to heavier forms of sadness/pain like anguish, misery, despair, heartbreak. I have to have a way to tell myself and others that I’m experiencing loss. or think I am, or that life hurts right now.

A quick note here: After becoming proficient with my own EQ skills, I started to wonder how can we even know what brings us joy and happiness if we won’t allow ourselves to be devastated by sadness, pain and grief? Just a thought.

Think: What are you sad about right now in your life?


Fear is that sensation that goes through our body when we think something is challenging or overwhelming to us. Whether it’s a noise outside our tent in the middle of the night, a driver not paying attention on the freeway, or not reaching our numbers at work, fear tells us this situation is challenging to me, maybe even overwhelming, then fear charges the body with lots of energy so you can engage in the actions to get out of the challenge. Fear can be everything from mild forms of fear like anxious, nervous, doubt, or concern to heavier forms like despair, panic or terror.

Think: What are you afraid of right now in your life?


Anger is that sensation that’s telling us that whatever the situation or event is that has our attention, it doesn’t work for us. We need it to be different. That’s all anger is trying to tell you — that you need that situation to be different. I’m not talking about acting angry, which is an act of poor self-management. I’m talking about the feeling anger which is trying to tell us something about a situation. Think about every time you’ve been angry. The only thing going on is this: You just got something you don’t want, or you’re not getting something you do want. In either case, you need it to be different. Whether it’s that your kid came home smelling of alcohol for the first time or someone took something off your desk without your permission to you didn’t get the raise you really, really needed, that sensation, that anger is just telling you that you need that situation to be different. Anger, like fear, charges your body with a boatload of energy so you can make the situation ‘different’ and make it work better for you. Anger at a fundamental level is ‘difference making’ energy.

Think: What are you angry about right now in your life?


Guilt is that sensation we have when we have thoughts or judgments that our behaviors or actions should have been different than what they were. A little bit of guilt can be useful to help remind us of the behaviors that are more consistent with our vision of ourselves and our lives. A lot of guilt can be quite toxic… so don’t go there!

Think: Where do you feel a bit guilty right now in your life? Where do you think you should have said or done something differently?


Shame is that sensation that goes through our bodies when we have judgments and negative thoughts about ourselves at a fundamental level. Shame goes to the core of our being. Let’s say your workmate arrives really late for a really important meeting. You, super busy today, are sitting there getting angrier and angrier. (That doesn’t work for you. You need that to be different). When they arrive, you make a really sharp, sarcastic comment about them in front of their peers. “Well I guess that last meeting was waaaayyy more important than this one, so we’re just sitting here wasting time waiting for you!” Later, you might feel guilty about what you said, but feel shame about who you are… as a leader, a peer to that person, a member of the team.

A little healthy shame can be good to remember we are human and do very human stuff, some of which we may not be proud of. A lot of shame is toxic. Again, don’t go there.

Think: Where do you feel a bit ashamed in your life right now? Where you are not proud of you?

While I use words like gratitude, proud, compassion, and more, when asked about how I’m feeling about almost anything from any of my journeys in work or life, I am most likely to respond with some combination of those Big Six as the most accurate emotional description of the events of my life. I might add in another feeling word or two, but I’ll start with the Big Six.

‘Jim, how are you feeling about work right now?’

‘Well, I feel, happy, fear, sadness and gratitude’

And then I might tell you, or not, a bit about what’s driving each of those feelings in my life. There will be very intimate and build trust, connection and relationship dept.

Why those Six? I find these Six are some of the biggest impact players in how we ‘process’ the world and try and make sense of it. At some level, it will most likely be “It’s working for me, I’m losing stuff that matters, I’m challenged, I need something to be different and work better for me, I’m thinking my behaviors haven’t represented me well, I’m thinking I haven’t represented myself well.”

The Big Six give me an instant, accurate assessment of how my life, choices, actions, and relationships are impacting me. They cut to the bone, no bullshit, no guessing, no confusion. They let me truly understand me. So, through sharing sometimes, I can help others truly understand me.

A fundamental adult-level emotional skill is to know what I’m feeling, why and to be able to feel it, identify it, name it and talk about it with myself and others.  When I can have that level of clarity 24/7 about my relationship with my own feelings and emotions, then I’m truly being Self-Aware.

Jim Mitchell is a native Arizonan and recognized personal and corporate leadership development specialist and leadership consultant. He facilitates vulnerability-based leadership, emotional intelligence-based leadership, deep personal leadership, advanced communication skills, conflict resolution, personal vision, mission and purpose, culture change and performance acceleration and improvement workshops for a variety of individuals and clients around the globe.