Anyone who's ever had regrets about last night's office party will tell you there's a lot to be gained from knowing how to navigate social situations effectively. You could call it emotional intelligence (EI)—an umbrella term referring to a wide set of skills, and defined by Gerald Clore, professor of psychology at UVA, as "a whole collection of abilities to decode what our own and other people's emotions are." A person with high EI can read his or her own emotions clearly, and understand the emotions of others more broadly—their preferences, desires and feelings. However you define it—street smarts, social intelligence—UVA researchers agree it can be a determining factor in building a fulfilling life.

"Action requires direction," says Clore, who studies the role of emotion in judgments, perceptions, thoughts and memories. "You can only make wise decisions if you know what you want. People who know their own preferences make better choices." In terms of navigating your life, says Clore, "emotional feedback is as important as visual feedback when driving."

Jim Coan is an associate professor of psychology who studies emotion through a coding system whereby he attempts to measure a person's emotional behavior precisely through indicators such as body language and facial expressions. He then uses that system to study how people interact when solving a conflict.

"I think it's extremely important, but not for everything," says Coan about the question of emotional intelligence and how it measures up to IQ. "If you're designing a bridge, you want people with really high IQs; if you're talking about being a success in business, you want both. If you're talking about raising money for a political campaign, you might want more EI."

An area of Coan's research in which he has seen the effects of EI, or the lack thereof, is in marriage. In one study, he brought married couples into the laboratory and goaded them into fighting with each other. "One thing we learned about relationships that is unequivocally true is that people fight—they just fight—and that's not the [main] issue. It's how people behave when they're fighting that's important." He cites contempt as one of the most corrosive elements of a relationship and a strong predictor of divorce, especially when it comes in the form of criticism. "Criticism is different from complaint," he says. "A complaint would be, 'I'm disappointed you didn't take out the trash last night.' A criticism would be, 'You never take out the trash.'"

Gerald Clore
"You can actually measure the physiological response," says Coan, referring to heart rate and blood pressure. "There's more activity due to the criticism version than the complaint version."

Whether it's sensing the right thing to say to stave off a fight, or being in touch enough with your own feelings to know what you want, can this kind of emotional acumen be learned?

Clore thinks it can be. He likens learning emotional intelligence to a friend who got over a speech impediment. "This person had to learn how to do things that come naturally to most of us, and it worked. You wouldn't know she was different from anyone else."

"Some people have a hard time differentiating their feelings," says Coan. "They'll say 'I'm just upset,' but don't know if they're sad or angry. Anyone can work on changing that."

As someone involved with coding emotional behavior and all the subtleties therein, Coan admits that there is such a thing as being overly attuned to other people's emotions. "Sometimes I just want to enjoy my beer at a party," he says, "and not worry about Sally and Tim having their fight all in subtext."

How to Strengthen Your Emotional Intelligence

Pay close attention to your own emotional processes. “Even a good athlete can learn to be much better at what he or she does,” says Clore, “by paying attention to the details, to every muscle movement. Nothing is just random.”

Talk about it. The more you attempt to articulate your feelings, the more refined and therefore knowable they become. “It can be painful, but everyone can get better simply by describing as well as they can what they’re feeling.”

Write about it. An extension of talking, writing about feelings helps to clearly identify them. “The feelings become more specific and more useful,” says Clore.

Study those around you and listen. “The best way to improve EI is not only to talk about what you feel but to listen to others and ask them about what they feel. It’s the same way one learns about anything,” says Clore. “You go to the source and mess around with it.”