Daniel Goleman

Emotional Intelligence

“A view of human-nature that ignores the power of emotion is sadly short-sighted.”

The phrase “emotional intelligence” is so commonly used it is hard to believe it was only popularized two decades ago.

In Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Goleman (born March 7, 1946) gives us the biological and psychological implications of our cognitive circuitry and expands the model for what it means to be intelligent.

In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels. These two fundamentally different ways of knowing interact to construct our mental life.

One is the rational mind, the mode of comprehension we are typically conscious of: more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect. But alongside that there is another system of knowing, the impulsive, powerful, if sometimes illogical emotional mind.

emotional intelligence
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Goleman has spent a career writing about practical applications of neurological and psychological scientific discovery. Well before everyone else was doing it, he sought to harness the meaning of mindfulness, empathy, kindness, even “destructive emotions” like anger and fear.

Emotional Intelligence, published in 1995, was one of Goleman’s early works. It establishes his reoccurring premise: balancing and discerning insights from our rational and emotional systems is the key to enhancing our knowledge and awareness. Especially our empathy towards others, what the Thai call kreng jai.

People’s emotions are rarely put into words; far more often they are expressed through other cues. The key to intuiting another’s feelings is in the ability to read nonverbal channels: tone of voice, gesture, facial expressions and the like.

Not only do we need to process our emotions, we also need to communicate them (a task often thwarted by their complexity).

Our ability to create language, wrote novelist Marilynne Robinson, is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. (Of course, what we cannot fit between the bounds of words we try to put into art, suggested sculptor Barbara Hepworth).

One thing I appreciate about Emotional Intelligence is that Goleman never sentimentalizes the emotional element, and he steers far from suggesting any superficial “X” factor.1 Emotions, like our rational minds, is a factor of brain circuitry.

Our brains, these tireless gadgets, figure out most of the nuances of emotional and rational responses for our conscious selves. We only need to listen and interpret.

The connections between the amygdala […] and the neocortex are the hub of the battles or cooperative treaties struck between head and heart, thought and feeling. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought, both in making wise decisions and in simply allowing us to think clearly.

This dance between the hippocampus and the amygdala (“the former remembers the dry facts; the latter retains the emotional flavor that goes with those facts”) are but one of many complicated processes that our body undergoes to ascertain intelligence.

And yet, in Emotional Intelligence Goleman argues cogently that we often ignore the output, training, testing, and improving intelligence solely on intellectual aptitude. Our unfeasible focus on this sole source of intelligence delivers us a “sadly short-sighted” understanding of human nature.2

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
“What’s the greatest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy. “Help,” said the horse. Courtesy of Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse.

Goleman’s passion in Emotional Intelligence and in his later writings is to guide us to understand how to recognize and use emotional intelligence in everyday life. I’d like to recommend a few reads that abound with levels of emotional intelligence—and not just that but a subsequent compassion for others based on that intelligence. The most striking is the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grantmilitary leader, President, heavy drinker, and, as one discovers in this book, a man with astute understanding and care for others, even combatants.

Additionally, one finds similar intelligence in Rupi Kaur’s poetry and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, one of the first poets to capture the humanity of war rather than its glory, in Andy Warhol’s art as a mirror to the world, and certainly in the eye-opening memoirs of nurse Christie Watson.

And, of course, Maya Angelou. A person whose heart and soul and shining gifts to others were so firmly rooted in her deep empathy. That Angelou happened to be an extremely talented singer, dancer, poet, and leader is one of the 20th century’s greatest blessings. Read more from her in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Letter to My Daughter.