A Chat With Daniel Goleman, Author of 'Emotional Intelligence'

In our coverage of emotional intelligence in the digital age, we went straight to the source, Daniel Goleman, to hear his thoughts on the importance of emotional intelligence for student achievement and fulfillment, and how technology can influence the need for and the approach to social-emotional learning. Goleman, author of several books on the subject, has described emotional intelligence (EI) as an ability that is not solely cognitive, but one that integrates thought and feeling. Someone with a high EI is adept at “managing feelings so that they are expressed appropriately and effectively, enabling people to work together smoothly toward their common goals.”

There is no channel for emotions with email.

Amplify: Daniel, in your books “Working with Emotional Intelligence” and “Primal Leadership,” you explain the crucial role a person’s emotional intelligence plays in his or her overall success in the workplace, as well as in any leadership roles he or she might assume. Is EI also crucial to a student’s success in the classroom?

DG: EI is crucial for all life success, including for students in the classroom, because of the basic design of the brain. Our emotions evolved as a tool for survival, and today emotions have a privileged position in the brain. When we are upset, the emotional centers can hijack the thinking centers, rendering us unable to think clearly, focus on the task at hand, perceive in an undistorted manner, and even make it harder to remember what’s relevant to what we’re doing (instead we remember easily anything about what’s upsetting us). So whether in the workplace or the classroom, managing our emotions is the prerequisite to learning and focus.

Amplify: Is EI innate or something that can be learned and improved upon?

DG: A bit of both, like every other behavioral set. But given an intact brain, any child can strengthen EI skills they are weak in, given the right approach to learning. EI, unlike IQ, is learned and learnable.

Amplify: Is it possible to boost students’ EI through teaching them skills in social and emotional learning (SEL), and if so, how are schools today doing this? Or how should they be doing this?

DG: Yes, definitely. SEL teaches the gamut of EI skills. The lessons are, for example, simulations of everyday childhood crises (“He stole my crayon!” “They won’t play with me!”) with kids brainstorming what works and what does not. Or reflecting on their feelings and what caused them. Or, say, remembering to pause and think about consequences before you act when you’re upset.

These curricula are designed to embed seamlessly in standard courses, from gym and English to math, as well as stand-alone weekly modules that might last 15 minutes. A meta-analysis of more than 200 studies comparing kids with and without SEL found antisocial acts plummet, pro-social gain, and academic achievement scores go up 11 percent. When kids learn how to get their emotional and social lives under control, they can pay better attention.

Amplify: At what age can students begin to learn skills that can help them improve their EI?

DG: Children begin to learn these skills from the moment of their first interaction with another human being. The mirror neuron system, which mimics in our own brain what we observe in another person’s movements, emotions and intentions, lets infants map on their own brain what they see others do—they start learning how to be a human being. With language toddlers get another key tool in learning social-emotional skills—and gain the ability to talk to themselves about it. By the time a child enters school, he or she is a master at learning these basic human abilities. But these lessons must be delivered over and over as kids grow, in ways that are developmentally appropriate.

Amplify: In the digital age, students are spending more and more time with technology. In what cases can technology make students less emotionally intelligent, and in what ways can it boost their EI?

DG: To the extent hours are spent alone, relating to tech tools and shrinking the time young people spend in face-to-face interactions, it could lower their EI. The human brain is designed to learn these lessons in daily life, and if there are fewer opportunities, EI skill levels could go down.

On the other hand, intelligently designed tech can embed lessons in EI. I remember talking to [Philip Rosedale], who developed Second Life, who said he liked my book “Social Intelligence,” and was trying to embed some of those lessons in the ground rules for his next virtual world. That’s a model of using tech to enhance EI—making self-regulation, empathy, cooperation, and conflict-resolution lessons ways to win in a game, for example. I saw one game where kids needed to learn to slow down their heart rate—a self-regulation skill—to get points. Those strategies are win-win for tech and EI.

Amplify: You’ve written about the issue of “flaming,” in which a person responds in anger to someone by immediately sending an email or text message, without giving much thought to it. With technology comes the ability to interact with such immediacy; how does this affect the relevancy of SEL?

DG: Flaming is an example of what I call an “emotional hijack,” where we do something impulsively, out of anger, that we regret (or should) later. Technically flaming is called “cyber-disinhibition,” meaning that the brain circuits that should block the impulse fail to do so. The reason is that, unlike in a face-to-face interaction, with email those inhibitory circuits get no direct feedback from the other person—online there is no channel for emotions with email.

So SEL becomes more important in the online world—one of the main lessons is in the self-awareness that lets you notice you are getting mad, and in strengthening the neural circuitry, you can then say no to the resulting impulses to flame.

Amplify: What impact do social networks like Facebook and Twitter have on our emotional intelligence?

DG: The direct impact of such social media may be to increase the number of people’s “weak links”—virtual friends—and decrease the number of “strong links”—close friendships. There is much data in sociology suggesting this trend is widespread already. Young people naturally learn many important social lessons from their friendships. This could mean young people will have fewer such opportunities—an argument for getting SEL into every school, so kids are sure to learn the lessons in cooperation, empathy, and conflict resolution they will need for a successful life.

On the other hand, there might be some unanticipated positive benefits. My mind is open.

Amplify: Are there opportunities in which schools can use technology to help improve their students’ EI?

DG: While these skills are traditionally learned in the thick of life, there is no reason this learning could not be complemented by tech-based lessons, particularly in vivid simulations of learning opportunities (like trying to work out a disagreement, say).

Amplify: What specific tech tools do you think would work best to accomplish this—such as apps, mobile devices, laptops, websites, social networks, and computer games, for example?

DG: I suspect all the above could become media for SEL lessons. I know that some gaming groups are already including lessons in cooperation, empathy, and emotional self-regulation in their games. And neuroscientists like Michael Merzenich are creating games that give systematic training in mental skills like paying attention, a core skill for emotional self-regulation.

Daniel Goleman is author of “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights,” “Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence,” and “Emotional Intelligence.” He lectures frequently to business audiences, professional groups and on college campuses. A psychologist who for many years reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times, Goleman previously was a visiting faculty member at Harvard. He was a co-founder of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning at the Yale University Child Studies Center (now at the University of Illinois at Chicago), with the mission to help schools introduce emotional literacy courses. www.morethansound.net

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.