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What Does Emotional Intelligence Mean in Social Work?

June 16, 2020

Emotional intelligence is a phrase that’s often thrown around, particularly in the business community. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this concept is equally important for social workers to understand.

Today, many recognize the five components of emotional intelligence as defined by Daniel Goleman. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, popularized the concept and emphasized its importance for successful leaders. The New York Times bestseller argued that, unlike general intelligence or IQ, emotional intelligence is not only developed but can be strengthened1

In many fields, emotional intelligence is actually considered to be more important than IQ. Those with a firm grasp of it are better at communicating, managing emotions, forming strong relationships and collaborating with others. Emotional intelligence isn’t just about identifying behaviors in yourself. It’s about understanding why someone may be reacting a certain way and responding to them appropriately.

This is why it is important to understand what are the five components of emotional intelligence as a social worker. Emotional intelligence, unlike IQ, can be developed and improved, almost like a muscle. Some people might find that they’re stronger at managing their own behavior but struggle with reacting appropriately to others’ actions. In addition, certain mental illnesses can have a significant impact on “EQ,” including depression, substance abuse and borderline personality disorder.

Some researchers theorize that emotional intelligence is important for social workers to possess and develop, both for both professional reasons and to help prevent burnout. For social workers themselves, each of the components below can offer insights into themselves, but they can also be used to help their clients find their own insights.

What are the five components of emotional intelligence?

Self Awareness

Self awareness means knowing what drives your behaviors, including how you respond to certain situations or to others’ actions. Understanding your personal goals and recognizing your feelings is an important part of this. While this seems straightforward, self awareness is also about identifying the unconscious decisions you make on a daily basis, such as how much time you spend on your phone. When you check social media, do you recognize what you gain from scrolling through your feed? When you check your work email late at night, have you questioned how you might be distracting yourself from feelings like boredom or anxiety?


Many call this emotional control, but regardless of the name, keeping negative emotions in check doesn’t mean just pretending they don’t exist. It means finding healthy outlets for them and recognizing the impact of your behaviors on others. Strengthening these skills requires adapting and changing how you behave to make smarter decisions, possibly through techniques like mediation and anger management.

Internal Motivation

Also, referred to as self motivation, this component is about drive. Driving yourself to meet goals and accomplish tasks. This does not apply to finding financial gain or immediate gratification. Instead, internal motivation requires perseverance and facing setbacks. These are the long-term goals focused on seeing the big picture and recognizing what needs to be done to achieve them.


If you asked someone, “What does emotional intelligence mean?” Many will answer with, “empathy.” This piece means better understanding others’ feelings and how that drives their actions. It requires understanding that those around you are just as complicated and struggle with similar (or very different) problems. Like you, they have strengths and weaknesses. Being able to understand that is essential and something a social worker can help clients better understand.

Social Skills

Handling relationships is just as important as understanding your behavior and others’. In many ways, social skills are a matter of acting on and implementing the other components of emotional intelligence. This can be critical in professional contexts when you need to collaborate with colleagues to meet a shared goal, and in a personal context as you begin to build strong friendships and relationships.

The Impact of a Social Worker

As clients develop emotional intelligence, many report an improvement in their mental health and stronger personal and professional relationships. A social worker can be an important person to guide them on that path.

For many clients, the simple act of just talking through their feelings is enough to gain a better understanding of what they struggle with. A social worker can teach them meditation and thoughtfulness practices to help them take time to reflect on the decisions and judgements they regularly make.

With new understandings of how they feel and better techniques to adjust how they behave, clients are able to make smarter and more insightful decisions. Often many find that working through these challenges also gives them more energy to focus on other things in their lives.2

At Yeshiva University, our online MSW students gain the one-on-one skills to help their clients address concerns they recognize and the ones they might not yet notice. Through coursework and their field work, students learn how to work alongside different populations to address their needs. In addition, our virtual learning environment, The Heights gives students the opportunity to practice in environments as diverse as rural, urban and suburban areas.

Learn more about the coursework in YU’s online curriculum and how students gain the expertise to be an impactful social worker.

1 Retrieved on June 9, 2020 from penguinrandomhouse.com/books/69105/emotional-intelligence-by-daniel-goleman/9780553804911/readers-guide/
2 Retrieved on June 9, 2020, from urbanbalance.com/5-impressive-ways-therapy-increases-emotional-intelligence/