Can Emotional Intelligence Be Trained?
In this article, I want to answer the question: Can emotional intelligence be trained? It’s a big question because there is a lot of money being spent on emotional intelligence training.
Emotional Intelligence is Not Formally Trained In School
Emotional intelligence, of course, refers to the measurement of emotional competency. Emotional competency includes emotional self-awareness, emotional self-regulation, and empathy. These skills are not taught as part of any standard curriculum in formal education at any level, either K -8, high school, undergraduate, or even in graduate schools. Emotions are beyond the scope of the myth of rationality that formal education is based upon.
Too Much Hype, Not Enough Data
However, since Goleman’s 1995 book, there has been an over-exuberant belief about the benefits of emotional intelligence. The reality is that most emotional intelligence training is untested and unverified.
No Basis In Science
Emotional intelligence training has no basis in science. We have no idea what the best practices are, what topics should be covered, or what skills are practical. We don’t know what makes for a good curriculum. We don’t know what attributes good trainers should demonstrate. However, people have jumped onto emotional intelligence training as the next big thing. If you do a Google search, you will find that over 200 online vendors provide emotional intelligence training.
Organizations seem willing to spend even though there’s not much science to support whether emotional intelligence training works. Essentially, the research has yet to establish whether we can successfully train adults to be more emotionally intelligent.
I happen to think that emotional competency training will raise emotional intelligence. Still, I don’t think emotional intelligence training works in the way most vendors are teaching it right now. A generic, psychologically-based emotional intelligence training program probably will not be very useful.
Here’s what I mean. The search results for “emotional intelligence training” brings up 8 first-page ads and 9 organic pages. All of them are offering one form of training or another.
The top 8 listings included an executive coach, a psychologist with no specified training in neuroscience or modern cognitive and emotional psychology, and 6 companies who did not list their trainers’ credentials or a detailed curriculum.
None of the offered trainings described a basic set of skills that could lead to emotional competency. Instead, they described their offerings in broad terms.
This led me to wondering if there was any empirical study on the efficacy of emotional intelligence training, regardless of trainer credentials.
Only Modest Improvements Achieved
I found a study that was a meta analysis of 50 different studies. The studies were conducted between 2000 and 2016. They examined the effectiveness of specific emotional intelligence training. The meta-analysis made five interesting findings.
Emotional Intelligence Training Had A Modest Effect on Improving Emotional Intelligence
There was only a modest improvement in emotional intelligence after training. As the authors point out, the studies did not describe the specific curriculums. Thus, comparing efficacy from curriculum to curriculum was imipossible.
Lectures Don’t Work To Improve Emotional Intelligence
Lecturing does not work to improve emotional intelligence. The studies did describe the broad teaching method. Some were 1 day workshops. Some were multi-day workshops. Some were lectures. Some involved multiple forms of learning, including lecture, practice, and coaching.
Practice And Feedback With Coaching Is Effective.
Emotional intelligence training requires that skills be learned, practiced and coached. Thus, there is some question whether an online course that does not provide practice and coaching will be effective. The meta-analysis was able to show that practice and coaching were effective teaching methods.
Training Over A Course Of Time Is Much, Much Better Than A One-Off Workshop.
If you try to do a one-off workshop and teach your people emotional intelligence, you are probably wasting your money. Learning new habits takes time, discipline, and effort.
There Is No Moderating Effect On Gender
Both men and women experienced a modest improvement in emotional intelligence training in these studies.
So what does all this tell us?
1-There Is No Empirically-Tested Method For Teaching Emotional Intelligence
No studies have compared emotional intelligence curriculums or training methods. People seeking emotional intelligence training have no way to compare curriculums and content. And, there is no objective way to measure the effectiveness of one curriculum over another.
2-There Is No Standardized Credentialing of Emotional Intelligence Trainers/Instructors
Training sites offer “certification” of trainers. However, there is no uniformity or consistency. Usually, certification means the trainer completed a train-the-trainer course. Certification is usually just an acknowledgement of completion of a course. Trainers do not have to demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence themselves.
3-There Is No Academic Agreement On What Constitutes Emotional Intelligence
Is emotional intelligence trait-based, which means that it cannot really be taught? Or, is it skills-based, which means that it can be taught? The academic literature is full of diagreements over what constitutes emotional intelligence.
4-The Commercial Training Business Is Not Based On Science
The commercial training business of emotional intelligence does not seem to be based on science. Very few, if any, of the emotional intelligence courses even teach the difference between affect and emotion or the neuroscience of emotion, self-awareness, and empathy. Furthermore, most of the commercial training teaches “what to do” but not “how to do it.”
As an example, Goleman (1998) asserts that “the most effective leaders are alike in one crucial way: they all have a high degree of what has come to be known as emotional intelligence. …emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership”. In contrast, Mayer (1999) cautions “the popular literature’s implication—that highly emotionally intelligent people possess an unqualified advantage in life—appears overly enthusiastic at present and unsubstantiated by reasonable scientific standards.”
5-Media Hype Has Fooled People About Emotional Intelligence Training
The media hyperbole around emotional intelligence derives from journalists and bloggers who themselves do not demonstrate high emotional intelligence. When you read a blog from Inc. or Medium, look at the author’s byline. The fact that the author is an entrepreneur or blogger with no specialized training will tell you much.
What Should Be Included In Emotional Intelligence Training?
At a minimum, any credible emotional intelligence training should contain the following elements:
- Definitions of Emotion and Affect
- Descriptions of the Neural Substrates of Affect, Emotion, Self-Awareness, and Empathy
- Description of the Polyvagal System
- Foundational Emotional Regulation Skills, Such As Self and Third Person Affect Labeling
- Reflective Listening Skills Using “You” Statements and Not “I” Statements
- Understanding and Uncovering One’s Emotional Triggers
- Coaching, preferably in small groups on a regular basis over at least 10 weeks
- Trainers who themselves demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence
- Self-Assesments to Track Growth
It tells us there is still a lot unknown about the effectiveness of emotional intelligence training. If you are considering emotional intelligence training for your organization or for your team, you want to be very careful about how you go about selecting your trainer and curriculum. The phrase caveat emptor applies. I hope this is helpful to you. Please check out my other articles here, subscribe to my list and give me your comment below.