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Emotional Intelligence Is Wrong. Here's Why!

Ever since Jack Mayer and Peter Salovey introduced the idea of emotional intelligence in 1990, thousands of writers and consultants have touted its benefits. Daniel Goleman, a former NY Times science writer, popularized the idea and created a cottage industry. Since then, consultants, trainers, psychologists, and leadership development specialists (among many others) have pounded the sand hard with the importance of emotional intelligence. Despite 20 years of flogging, very little has changed, and efforts at teaching emotional intelligence have been only marginally successful.

The problem lies in that we have a hard time teaching and learning emotional intelligence. Heck, we all know we are supposed to be emotionally intelligent, but how do we get there?

This is where it has gone wrong. Emotional intelligence cannot be taught or learned, no matter how hard you try. Why? Because emotional intelligence is a measure of specific skills and characteristics. You can't learn a measurement.

Think about the Stanford Binet IQ test or the Watson Glaser critical thinking assessment. You can't improve your IQ or critical thinking skills on those tests. You have to develop other competencies that allow you to score well. The same is true for emotional intelligence. If you want to score well on emotional intelligence assessments, you must develop emotional competency.

Emotional Competency is Important, not Emotional Intelligence.

Mayer and Salovey define emotional intelligence as the ability to

  • accurately perceive emotions,

  • access and generate emotions,

  • understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and

  • reflectively regulate emotions.

All of this provides us with a description, not a how. The secret is developing emotional competency, rather than try to gain emotional intelligence. I have discovered that the quickest way to become emotionally competent is to learn how to listen for and reflect back emotions, a skill called affect labeling.

I discovered affect labeling during an intense #mediation back in 2004. A divorced couple were litigating an $18,000 dispute and had spent over $50,000 in attorney's fees. I stumbled onto the idea of listening to emotions instead of words. To my amazement, when I had them listen to and reflect each other's emotions, they calmed down almost instantly. The argument ended up getting resolved, and the two headed to lunch holding hands. That mediation changed my life forever.

Three years later, Matthew Lieberman of UCLA, through fMRI brain scans, saw that self-affect labeling inhibited strong emotions in brains, and I realized that there was hard science to support my discovery. I used the technique with those dealing with #anger mediations and watched people calm down almost instantly. So, I started teaching the skills to other mediators around the world. They reported the same experience, yet, there was still some skepticism.

We can all practice this method, in just three easy steps.

  1. Ignore the words.

  2. Guess at the emotions

  3. Reflect the emotions with a simple you statement.

Ignoring words seems strange as we are taught from early childhood to pay attention to words. Words convey information; nothing else is important. This reflects a strong cultural bias against emotional competency. Aristotle once said that what separates man from animal is rational thinking. Therefore, to be rational is to be human; to be irrational or emotional is to be subhuman.

Neuroscience has turned this idea on its head. The truth is humans are emotional with just a small bit of rationality. In fact, we cannot be rational without being emotional first. Every decision is emotional, and some decisions are justified by rationality.

Sensibly, we should learn to ignore the words and pay attention to the emotions. Emotionally competent people do this with ease. The second step, guessing at the emotions, is as simple as sitting in silence and letting our brains do the work. We have incredible systems that have evolved over millions of years that allow us to identify other people's emotional states automatically. All we have to do is pay attention.

The third step is counter-intuitive. Instead of reflecting what a person says, the emotionally competent person reflects what a person feels with a simple "you" statement. For example,

"You are angry."

"You are frustrated."

"You are sad."

"You don't feel heard."

These direct statements have the effect of calming the brain's emotional centers down. The speaker then feels deeply validated. As you practice listening to and reflecting emotion, you will naturally develop emotional competency, and you will score well on emotional intelligence assessments.

The focus on emotional intelligence is misguided. We should be focusing instead on developing emotional competencies.


Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA, left a successful career as a trial lawyer to become a #peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning #author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. His fourth book,

De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less, is available in four languages.

To learn more about Douglas E. Noll and his work, visit


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