Psychologist Emphasizes the Power of Emotional Intelligence

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Yale professor Marc Brackett gave the inaugural Dialogue Project lecture.

Marc Brackett giving a presentation
Marc Brackett says we tend to overrate the power of cognitive intelligence to get us through home and work life while underestimating the power of emotional intelligence.  (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

The researcher and author Marc Brackett, the founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is used to people approaching him after a talk to congratulate him on his success. 

 Speaking at Dartmouth on Friday on “Emotional Intelligence: Pathway to Well-Being, Productive Relationships, and Professional Success” to more than 100 people in Filene Auditorium, Brackett said he often adds this caveat: “I feel blessed to be where I am in life but you know, it was a journey, and I’m still on the journey.” 

Brackett was at Dartmouth as the inaugural speaker for the Dialogue Project, an initiative to train faculty, students, and staff in the skills necessary to speak openly, collaboratively, and respectfully with each other.

The project is part of Dartmouth Dialogues, which was launched earlier this month by President Sian Leah Beilock to promote programming across campus that facilitates conversations and skills bridging political and personal divides.

Brackett defines emotional intelligence as the ability to demonstrate self-awareness and self-regulation, show empathy, and cultivate the kind of social skills that help people navigate sometimes awkward or difficult issues.

A reason why we often seem to talk past each other is that we have lost or never had the ability to pick up on the clues that we send each other, Brackett said. We tend to overrate the power of cognitive intelligence to get us through home and work life, while underestimating the power of emotional intelligence, he added. 

“Emotions influence the choices we make, but it happens outside our consciousness. Emotion systems can bias how we see the world,” Brackett said. 

 Emotions are not only feelings, they are signals from the brain. “They provide information. They’re data for us,” he said.

Marc Brackett and Elizabeth Smith
Dean of the Faculty Elizabeth F. Smith, the co-director of the Dialogue Project, helped bring Marc Brackett to Dartmouth. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

In her introduction, Elizabeth F. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Dialogue Project, said, “I came across Marc’s work at a time when I was looking for tools for the faculty. I was trying to understand why dialogue breaks down, and what I could do to provide the faculty with the tools to engage in dialogue both in the classroom with their students and with each other.” 

The Dialogue Project comprises four central initiatives: a special topic series, the first of which is Middle East Dialogues, focusing on issues in the region and how to talk productively about them; a partnership with the nonprofit StoryCorps’ One Small Step program, which brings people with different perspectives together, two at a time, to record a conversation about their lives; workshops where faculty, staff, and students practice constructive dialogue; and guest speakers on campus, such as Brackett, who model and specialize in dialogue-related skills..

In addition to his role as director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, Brackett is the lead developer of RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning that has been adopted by more than 4,500 schools in the U.S. and overseas. His 2020 book Permission to Feel: The Power of Emotional Intelligence to Achieve Well-Being and Success has been translated into 25 languages. 

He has gotten pushback from some of the people with whom he consults. “I get a lot of resistance in my work from people who ... call emotional intelligence a ‘soft skill.’ I don’t know where it came from and I think it’s a ridiculous term,” he said.

Brackett pointed to a Yale study of 14,000 people across the workforce that found workers were most satisfied when working for supervisors who were high in emotional intelligence versus those who were low in emotional intelligence.

The former were “most likely to have the opportunity to earn new skills, significantly less likely to want to leave their job, had significantly higher job satisfaction and lower burnout, higher engagement, less afraid of speaking up when there was a problem and we found they were more ethical,” he said.

That carries across to our home lives. Other Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence studies have found that people who grew up with what Brackett calls a “feelings mentor,” someone who is empathic and listens and encourages without judgment, tend to be better at “adaptive healthy regulation.” They are happier with their lives, have greater purpose in life, better mental and physical health, and sleep better, Brackett said. 

They also tend to be more resilient in navigating life’s inevitable setbacks. His research consistently shows that people “on their path to being highly creative recognize that there’s a lot of failure and disappointment, but that doesn’t mean, ‘I’m a failure.’”

Acknowledging the role that emotions play in our lives also means acknowledging our biases. It is critical to know “how and when to express emotions with different people across culture and context” because “not everyone has equal permission to express their feelings,” Brackett said. 

Marc Brackett hosting a workshop
Marc Brackett conducted a workshop for house communities on Saturday. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Brackett gave examples from his own life. The voyage into adulthood, he said, included difficult familial relationships, severe bullying at school, sexual abuse by a babysitter, and subsequent feelings of profound anxiety and self-abnegation. It was only through the intervention of a beloved uncle who saw that Brackett was in terrible pain that Brackett began to get the help he needed.

Bias also plays a role in emotional intelligence, or the lack thereof. When he and his husband, who is Latino, moved into an apartment building, some people asked Brackett’s husband whose dog he was there to walk. “No one would ever ask me that question,” Brackett said. “That creates emotional labor. You start becoming a little less comfortable being your true self when you’re constantly bombarded by people perceiving you a certain way.”

It shouldn’t be the job of an individual to ask society for permission to show emotion or be their own self. “It’s the job of society to ensure that everyone has that permission—in families, schools, universities and communities,” Brackett said.

One step forward is to act as a “feelings mentor,” to listen with compassion, and without judgment. Brackett challenged his audience to “think about the people in your dorms or the 600 people you supervise or support: How many of them have gotten the emotional education that they need?”

“By no means is this a magic pill, but maybe it’s a good place to start,” Brackett said.

Kathryn Munro, the executive director of recognition and stewardship in Advancement, attended Brackett’s presentation. She has not only read Brackett’s book but also listens to his podcasts. “It’s so important to be able to name our emotions, though it’s not easy. It takes practice,” she said.

Zhuoya Zhang, a PhD student in quantitative biomedical sciences who is researching the well-being of young adults, said Brackett’s talk made her wonder how she could be “a feelings mentor to myself and my students. He was a great storyteller.” 

During his campus visit, Brackett also led a brunch workshop with students in residential house communities and met with Dartmouth’s senior leadership team.

Brackett was an ideal person to introduce the Dialogue Project, said Kristi Clemens, the project’s director of student and staff initiatives.

“We were thrilled to host Marc on campus and give our students and Student Affairs staff a chance to work with him directly on practical emotional intelligence skills. This is exactly the sort of hands-on skill-building opportunity the Dialogue Project will center at Dartmouth,” Clemens said.

The Dialogue Project’s public programming continues in February with three webinars featuring experts and former officials discussing various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Additional programming includes a monthly discussion group for faculty led by the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning on managing difficult conversations in the classroom.

Watch a video of Marc Brackett’s Dialogue Project speech.

Nicola Smith