Intended for healthcare professionals

Student Careers

Emotional intelligence

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 01 February 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:030218
  1. Brian McMullen, portfolio doctor and specialist in holistic medical education1
  1. 12 Burnside, Kinloss, Moray IV36 3XL

In the second article in his series on intelligence, Brian McMullen explores how doctors can get in touch with their feelings and why this is important.

Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, book 3

A few years ago, when I worked as a full time general practitioner, I did not like certain groups of patients. Angry people were a particular problem. Thankfully, I did not meet too many, but I would often feel paralysed and helpless after an encounter. Anger would simmer inside me for ages. I never considered that part of the anger might belong to me or that all of it might belong to the patient or that I had a choice about the feeling: I was a clever doctor with a low emotional intelligence (EQ).

What is emotional intelligence?

Aristotle was writing about emotional intelligence in 350 bc, long before the term became fashionable. Daniel Goldman, a journalist, is responsible for the current popularity of the subject, because of his international bestseller.1 In 1990, two colleagues from Yale University, Peter Salovey and John Mayer first proposed a concept of emotional intelligence (see box).2

  • Self awareness--knowing your emotions

  • Managing your emotions

  • Self motivation, emotional self control, and getting into the flow state

  • Empathy--recognising emotions in others

  • Handling relationships--interpersonal effectiveness


Academic or cognitive intelligence on its own is poor preparation for the emotional challenges that you will meet during your medical career. Emotional intelligence is a term for the other factors that can lead you to healthy relationships and the ability to respond to the trials of your life and career in a positive manner.

Your EQ measures your ability to manage emotions rather than the opposite way around. It is linked to IQ (a measure of intellectual intelligence)3; the two systems support each other. Evidence to support this link comes …

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