Categorizing the Skills of Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is divided into different categories. Within each category are several competencies or skills that influence a person’s ability to cope with life’s pressures and demands. Reuven Bar-On, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and world-renowned EI expert, developed a model that demonstrates how four categories of EI—intrapersonal, interpersonal, adaptability, and stress management—directly affect general mood and lead to effective performance.

Let’s take a closer look at the specific skills and competencies within the categories that Bar-On has identified as the pieces that make up a person’s emotional intelligence.2 It’s something like a jigsaw puzzle, and when you have put all the pieces together, you will begin to see yourself and others more clearly.

Intrapersonal Skills

The first category, intrapersonal skills, relates to how well you know and like yourself as well as how effectively you can do the things you need to do to stay happy. This category is made up of five specific competencies:

  1. Emotional self-awareness. Knowing how and why you feel the way you do.

  2. Assertiveness. Standing up for yourself when you need to without being too aggressive.

  3. Independence. Making important decisions on your own without having to get everyone’s opinion.

  4. Self-regard. Liking yourself despite your flaws (and we all have them).

  5. Self-actualization. Being satisfied and comfortable with what you have achieved in school, work, and your personal life.

Understanding yourself and why you think and act as you do is the glue that holds all the EI competencies together. Knowledge of self is strongly connected to respect for others and their way of life. If you don’t understand yourself and why you do the things you do, it can be difficult for you to understand others. What’s more, if you don’t like yourself, you can hardly expect others to like you.

Interpersonal Skills

Recent studies have shown that people with extensive support networks are generally happier and tend to enjoy longer, healthier lives than those without such networks. Forging relationships and getting along with other people depend on three competencies that form the basis for the second category, interpersonal skills:

  1. Empathy. Making an effort to understand another person’s situation or point of view.

  2. Social responsibility. Establishing a personal link with a group or community and cooperating with other members in working toward shared goals.

  3. Interpersonal relationships. Seeking out healthy and mutually beneficial relationships—such as friendships, professional networks, family connections, mentoring, and romantic partnerships—and making a persistent effort to maintain them.


Things change. Adaptability, the ability to adjust your thinking and behavior when faced with new or unexpected situations, helps you cope and ensures that you’ll do well in life, no matter what the challenges. This third category includes three key competencies:

  1. Reality testing. Ensuring that your feelings are appropriate by checking them against external, objective criteria.

  2. Flexibility. Adapting and adjusting your emotions, viewpoints, and actions as situations change.

  3. Problem solving. Approaching challenges step-by-step and not giving up in the face of obstacles.

Stress Management

In college, at work, and at home, now and in the future, you’ll be faced with what can seem like never-ending pressures and demands. Stress management, the fourth category of the Bar-On Model, depends on two skills:

  1. Stress tolerance. Recognizing the causes of stress and responding in appropriate ways; staying strong under pressure.

  2. Impulse control. Thinking carefully about potential consequences before you act and delaying gratification for the sake of achieving long-term goals.

General Mood and Effective Performance

It might sound sappy, but having a positive attitude really does improve your chances of doing well. Bar-On emphasizes the importance of two emotions in particular:

  1. Optimism. Looking for the “bright side” of any problem or difficulty and being confident that things will work out for the best.

  2. Happiness. Being satisfied with yourself, with others, and with your situation in general.

It makes sense: If you feel good about yourself and manage your emotions, you can expect to get along with others and enjoy a happy, successful life.

How Emotions Affect Success

Emotions are strongly tied to physical and psychological well-being. For example, some studies have suggested that cancer patients who have strong EI live longer than those with weak EI. People who are aware of the needs of others tend to be happier than people who are not. A large study done at the University of Pennsylvania found that the best athletes do well in part because they’re extremely optimistic. Even if they face tremendous obstacles or have the odds stacked against them, emotionally intelligent people nonetheless go on to succeed.

Emotional Intelligence and College Success

A number of studies link strong EI skills to college success in particular. Here are a few highlights:

  • Emotionally intelligent students get higher grades. Researchers looked at students’ grade point averages at the end of the first year of college. Students who had tested high for intrapersonal skills, stress tolerance, and adaptability when they entered in the fall did better academically than those who had lower overall EI test scores.

  • Students who can’t manage their emotions struggle academically. Some students have experienced full-blown panic attacks before tests, others who are depressed can’t concentrate on coursework, and far too many turn to risky behaviors (drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and worse) in an effort to cope. Dr. Richard Kadison, chief of Mental Health Services at Harvard University, notes that “the emotional well-being of students goes hand-in-hand with their academic development. If they’re not doing well emotionally, they are not going to reach their academic potential.”3 Even students who manage to succeed academically despite emotional difficulties can be at risk if unhealthy behavior patterns follow them after college.

  • Students who can delay gratification tend to do better overall. Impulse control leads to achievement. In the famous marshmallow study performed at Stanford University, researchers examined the long-term behaviors of individuals who, as four-year-olds, did or did not practice delayed gratification. The children were given one marshmallow and told that if they didn’t eat it right away, they could have another. Fourteen years later, the children who ate their marshmallow immediately were more likely to experience significant stress, irritability, and inability to focus on goals than the children who waited. Those children scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT; had better confidence, concentration, and reliability; held better-paying jobs; and reported being more satisfied with life than those who did not wait.

  • EI skills can be enhanced in a first-year seminar. In two separate studies, one conducted in Australia and another conducted in the United States, researchers found that college students enrolled in a first-year seminar who demonstrated good EI skills were more likely to do better in college than students who did not exhibit those behaviors. A follow-up study indicated that the students who had good EI skills also raised their scores on a measure of EI.

Without strong EI in college, it’s possible to simply get by. You might, however, miss out on the full range and depth of competencies and skills that can help you succeed in your chosen field.