The future for emotional intelligence

The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was popularised by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 best seller of the same name. The book examined how knowing and managing one’s emotions, motivating oneself, recognising emotions in others and handling relationships skilfully are central to happy and successful lives. Whilst Goleman may have popularised emotional intelligence he did not invent it. Instead, building on a concept that was the subject of a landmark article by psychologists Mayer and Salovey in the 1990s, he found an effective way of describing the age-old human ability to connect and interact.

It is important to recognise that emotional intelligence (EI) or Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) can be used for good or ill. Teachers with strong EI can inspire, calm or re-focus pupils. It is often said that good teachers have a sixth sense which allows them to detect a student’s state of mind; this ‘sixth sense’ is a mixture of experience and EI. Equally, people with a high level of EI have the ability to manipulate and use others to their advantage – this can be tempting for some. EI encompasses self-awareness and self-regulation, empathy, concern and care, but equally cunning and guile.

Good use of emotional intelligence is thus underpinned by positive values, and a wish to share and shape emotions to make things better.

Helping students develop the EI they will need to gain insights into themselves and others, and the moral compass to use it well, helps them develop strong friendships, co-operate effectively, and influence others. Its importance for life should not be underestimated, and there is growing evidence of its importance in education. Goleman reports that a meta analysis of more than 600 studies found ‘social and emotional learning’ programmes in school not only improved student behaviour but also led to a “strong benefit in academic achievement”.

A renewed focus on EI may be necessary in a world where some children have reduced levels of social contact, and therefore less opportunity to develop it. Research suggests that through social contact children observe the emotions of others by picking up on facial expression, physical posture and tone of voice. The more social contact, the more observation that takes place, and the more opportunities there are for the nuances of EI to be acquired.

Concerns about safety and security mean fewer children are playing together in the street, park or fields and the digital revolution has resulted in a greater number of children spending more time in virtual rather than actual environments. Playing computer games tends to be a solitary activity that limits opportunities for the development of EI. Even when children are texting or posting on social media networks, or gaming against known or unknown opponents in a virtual environment, the communication taking place lacks the emotional nuances of face-to-face conversation. This is why children can get it wrong in social media exchanges – they do not see the impact of their ill-judged words on the faces or in the voices of those they affect. Without well-developed EI, future generations may be lacking in the essential human qualities of empathy, concern and care.

What can we do about this? Parents and teachers can help ensure children get plenty of time to interact offline with others, as well as enjoying the very many benefits of digital activities. They can help children spot the nonverbal clues that reveal how others feel, to understand and manage their own emotions and to learn how to motivate themselves. They can also help children stay ‘in the now’, guarding for example against the risk of distraction by mobiles in face-to-face conversations. Ofcom reports that 12-15 year olds send an average of 193 texts every week – more than double the figure of 12 months ago. Semi-detached existences with one eye on real world conversations and one eye waiting for the next text to arrive are not conducive to a rich life experience.

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