Is Emotional Intelligence Innate or Learned? Can Empathy Be Deliberately Developed?

Can our politicians learn empathy? It’s a question being raised in current Australian media. The short answer? If they think it matters, if they choose to invest in deliberate practice, apply, be self-reflective, then absolutely. Empathy can be learned. A similar question came up this week from Latrobe University post-graduate students. I was providing a presentation about Emotional Intelligence and Leadership in Public HealthA recurring question was this: Is EI a natural ability that we all have, or can it be developed in people?

Emotional Intelligence, as a psychological theory, was developed by Peter Salovey and John Mayer. The popular writing of Daniel Goleman, science journalist, brought Emotional Intelligence into public awareness. Goleman defines EI as: “The capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”   (Goleman, 1995)

Think of EI/EQ as two sorts of intelligence that are intertwined.
One is Intrapersonal Intelligence – the ability to be aware of and manage ourselves. The other is Interpersonal Intelligence – the ability to effectively relate to others; to manage ourselves within relationships.

It’s like an infinity symbol.
Practicing Emotional Intelligence encompasses toggling our attention back and forth between our inner state, our chosen way of being, and the other or others. Unless we take full responsibility for our internal state, our team will spend much of their emotional focus managing our emotions. This often means wasted energy and costly error.

Is EI/ EQ learnable? 
Far from having a fixed emotional intelligence ‘quota’, EI is something that we can deliberately practice. We can get better at it. In doing so, we increase the likelihood of success in work, relationships, and in life in general. The choice is ours to make.

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