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Understanding Emotional Intelligence

By Stephanie Catella, PsyD, coauthor of The Emotional Intelligence Skills Workbook

Have you ever noticed that when you’re consumed by an intense emotion, it can be hard to think, listen, or problem solve? In those moments, you’ve been hijacked by your feelings. Emotional hijacking is a natural reaction that occurs when your emotions have taken over and they’re calling the shots. When your emotions are consuming, they can cloud your judgment and lead you to say things you regret, jump to conclusions, use a tone of voice that’s problematic, storm off in anger, or do a variety of other things that can strain your relationships or make it difficult to create new ones. When we’re emotionally hijacked, we’re stuck in a loud emotion. It’s like having the volume set too high on your headphones and you can’t turn it down; it’s all you can hear, and it distracts from other things going on within and around you. This is especially common during a challenging conversation, particularly with someone or about something you deeply care about.

It’s natural to feel strong emotions in the conversations that matter most to us. Having strong emotions is actually not the problem. To the contrary, emotions can provide vital messages about our values, needs, and interests. Yet if we allow feelings to overpower us, they can stand in the way of what we want or need, and our relationships with other people and ourselves can suffer. Living a meaningful life requires the willingness to have some hard conversations and feel the emotions that come along with them.

The Challenge: Emotional Hijacking

Your body is equipped with a natural response to intense emotions and stressors called fight, flight, or freeze. In the face of high levels of distress, such as an argument with your spouse, feeling misunderstood by your boss, or a hurtful remark from a friend, your nervous system turns on this fight-flight-or-freeze mode, attempting to protect you from the stressor.

In fight mode, your body will prepare you to defend yourself, verbally or physically, which can sometimes look like lashing out at others or getting defensive. In flight mode, your body might send you rapid signals to quickly remove yourself from the stressful situation. This can show up as quickly leaving the room, hanging up the phone abruptly, or canceling something you’d planned to attend at the last minute. In freeze mode, you might feel frozen and immobilized, unsure of what to say or unable to move, as your body’s signals send messages of system overload. Freezing can also look like shutting down, taking in very little information during an interaction, and having difficulty finding the words to respond. These are automatic, natural responses that are outside of your control, at least initially.

Although this natural nervous system mechanism was originally designed to protect you, it can sometimes fire too often, turn on its sirens too loudly, or misinterpret the reality of the stressor and turn on when you don’t actually need it. Those are times when you’ve been emotionally hijacked.

The Solution: Emotional Intelligence

As you surely know, emotional hijacking is an intense experience. It can be hard to imagine a conversation going well when you’re concerned you’ll be in the grip of strong feelings. But another way is possible. Once you’re aware of your fight-flight-or-freeze reactions, you can then learn how to respond to them effectively. The key is emotional intelligence.

But what is emotional intelligence? And how do you build it? Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability to experience and accept emotions as they are in the moment, while interacting with others skillfully. With emotional intelligence, you can effectively manage your emotions, notice others’ emotions, and have a meaningful and thoughtful conversation, and you do those things simultaneously, even if that conversation is difficult. Put simply, EI involves managing emotional discomfort while communicating skillfully and adjusting your communication approach to suit the context. This may sound complicated, but rest assured, EI is a skill you can learn. You can get better at it, even in a short period of time, and you can measure it to track your progress over time (Mattingly and Kraiger 2019).

Built on the pioneering work of David Sluyter and Peter Salovey (1997) and Daniel Goleman (1995), emotional intelligence is distinct from intellectual abilities, what we commonly term intelligence quotient, or IQ for short. Western cultures often overemphasize intellectual abilities or IQ while failing to teach emotional intelligence. This can leave us lacking some crucial skills for life, especially as a social species. Daniel Goleman explains the problem well: “As we all know from experience, when it comes to shaping our decisions and our actions, feeling counts every bit as much—and often more—than thought. We have gone too far in emphasizing the value and import of the purely rational—of what IQ measures—in human life. For better or worse, intelligence can come to nothing when the emotions hold sway” (Goleman 1995). Intellect is insufficient when navigating strong emotions and the complexities of life; that is where EI is needed.

How Emotional Intelligence Will Help You

Emotional intelligence has been a buzzword since the 1990s, and for good reason. It serves as a glue that bonds our social species together—it helps us collaborate, communicate, coexist, and learn from each other, as well as grow as individuals. We need it to thrive in life, no matter our occupation, social status, personality, or interests.

Let’s nerd out for a bit and look at what decades of EI research shows. EI is associated with better physical and emotional health (Schutte et al. 2007; Martins, Ramalho, and Morin 2010), and it serves as a buffer against mental health difficulties and thus physical health conditions as well (Mao, Huang, and Chen 2021). Indeed, EI training improves resilience and decreases stress levels. Those with higher EI skills have more social support and are more satisfied with the social support they receive than those with lower EI (Ciarocchi, Chan, and Bajgar 2001).

Research has shown time and again that emotional intelligence is an important and invaluable skill for many reasons. Do you want strong social support? Emotional intelligence is for you. Do you want less stress at work? Emotional intelligence can help with that. Are you prone to avoiding conflict but want to stand up for yourself? Do you want to learn how to navigate differences successfully? That’s right, emotional intelligence has what you need. Emotional intelligence is certainly not a cure-all or the answer for everything, but it is a foundational skill that you can learn and greatly benefit from.

This blog post is an excerpt from The Emotional Intelligence Skills Workbook (2024).


Mattingly, V., and K. Kraiger. 2019. “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Trained? A Meta-Analytical Investigation.” Human Resource Management Review 29(2): 140–155.

Sluyter, D. J., and P. Salovey, eds. 1997. Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Educational Implications. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. 1995. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Schutte, N. S., J. M. Malouff, E. B. Thorsteinsson, N. Bhullar, and S. E. Rooke. 2007. “A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Health.” Personality and Individual Differences 42(6): 921–933

Mao, L., L. Huang, and Q. Chen. 2021. “Promoting Resilience and Lower Stress in Nurses and Improving Inpatient Experience Through Emotional Intelligence Training in China: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Nurse Education Today 107: 105–130.

Ciarocchi, J., A. Y. C. Chan, and J. Bajgar. 2001. “Measuring Emotional Intelligence in Adolescents.” Personality and Individual Differences 31(7): 1105–1119.

Stephanie Catella, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist with expertise in transdiagnostic cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for trauma, anxiety, and building emotional intelligence. After completing fellowships at the San Francisco VA and the University of California, San Francisco; she codirected the Berkeley Cognitive Behavioral Therapy clinic with Matthew McKay. In addition to her private practice, she authored an FDA-cleared prescription digital therapeutic for fibromyalgia, and serves as an advisor to HealthTech companies.

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