Can Emotional Competence be Learned?

According to a new study, emotional competence (EC), the ability to understand, manage, express and use emotions, is a skill that can be learned. There are three levels of EC that affect every area of one’s life, knowledge, focus and ability. Knowledge is how much an individual understands about their own emotions. Focus is how well someone is able to manage their emotions and emotional responses. And Ability refers to how a person uses their emotional knowledge to cope with a specific situation in order to achieve a desired outcome. “At a psychological level, higher trait EC is associated with greater well-being and higher self-esteem as well as a lower risk to develop psychological disorders,” said Delphine Nelis of the Department of Psychology at the University of Liege in Belgium, and lead author of the study. “Socially, higher ability–trait EC is related to better social and marital relationships and, all things being equal, to a greater likelihood of being chosen as a romantic partner. Workwise, higher trait EC is associated with greater academic achievement and higher ability–trait EC is associated with higher job performance,” said Nelis. “Ability–Trait EC is also linked to the likelihood of adopting unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, and reckless driving.”

Because of the deleterious consequences poor EC can have, Nelis wanted to know if adults could improve their EC, and if so, what implications that would have on their lives. “To this end, we designed an 18-hour intervention that focused on teaching theoretical knowledge about emotions and on training participants to apply specific emotional skills in their everyday lives,” said Nelis. “Sessions were centered on the four core emotional competencies: identification, understanding, regulation, and utilization.” Nelis found that the participants saw significant long-term improvement in EC as a result of the sessions. “Six months after the intervention, participants in the training group were more extroverted, more agreeable, and less neurotic. We also showed that the development of EC paired with positive changes in psychological well-being, subjective health, quality of social relationship, and work success.” Nelis added, “These findings bring hope to people who have not had the opportunity to develop their EC as children. With motivation, effort, and guidance, such individuals can still improve their EC later in life, and thereby enhance their adjustment in many domains of life.”

Nelis, Delphine, Ilios Kotsou, Jordi Quoidbach, Michel Hansenne, Fanny Weytens, Pauline Dupuis, and Moira Mikolajczak. “Increasing Emotional Competence Improves Psychological and Physical Well-being, Social Relationships, and Employability.”Emotion 11.2 (2011): 354-66. Print.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jayden


    November 25th, 2011 at 5:00 PM

    Of course it can be learned. EC is just like anything else in life. There are some of us who are great artists or musicians, some of us are good at putting things together, whatever. But no matter your initial level of competence, you can learn a new skill. That is kind of what separates us from the rest of the gang here on earth. For some it might take a little more practice and focus than it does for others, but it is definitely doable.

  • Jerry


    November 25th, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    Can emotional competence be improved? Yes,but it would become harder and harder as we age. Let me explain-The longer time you spend with your natural EC,the more you get adapted to it. And emotional competence and dealing with emotions is my something that can be developed overnight. It takes a lot of time and it becomes tougher and tougher as we age. I even think there could be a certain age for every individual beyond which he cannot just improve his EC.

  • chad g

    chad g

    November 26th, 2011 at 7:48 AM

    In my experience I have found, and I firmly believe this, that there are some people who you will find who are emotionally competent and there are some who aren’t. That’s just the way it is. Oh sure they can study and try to become something that they aren’t, but I think that we have all seen that in motion and know that most of the time that doesn’t work out. I don’t nevessarily think that this is a lost cause, because most of the time these people surround themselves with those who can help to prop them up with what they are lacking. But gain this for themselves? Nope that doesn’t happen.

  • James


    November 26th, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    Does this really matter all that much anyway? People who are going to be a success are going to be a success no matter how well they realte to others on an emotional level. They might end up having more friends, but who cares if they make millions and are a success? And who is to say that all the successful people in the world have a high level of emotional competence? As a matter of fact I would be willing to be that most of them have very little emotional connection or competence with others. Look at so many of them- do they look like they are surrounded by friends or cronies?

  • F.Gray


    November 27th, 2011 at 5:33 AM

    Sounds like trying to change and manipulate yourself into somebody else because you think its going to help you.If you handle your emotions in a certain way then so be it.I dont think there is any need to change it to suit others.

  • Hannah


    November 27th, 2011 at 6:24 AM

    If you give someone the knowledge that they need to know themselves, then you give them the competence to really need to deal with things on an emotional level and to have a better understanding of others too.

    Yes I think that some of this has to come to them naturally, but there are always ways to improve and to grow, and I definitely think that this is somewhere where we can all improve and expand our personal boundaries.

  • Logan


    November 27th, 2011 at 1:52 PM

    What business owners should do to increase the productivity of their employees is to offer training in EC development for them either free of charge or at a substantially reduced rate than what the employee would find if they went out on their own to seek this sort of development. Not only would training like this be beneficial to the company but to the employees as well. Could help out all involved parties not only immediately, but also further down the road too.

  • arnold


    November 27th, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    @logan:sure,all that we now care about is businesses and profits.even when we are talking about emotions and feelings,isnt it?if any one of our traits is not beneficial to our employer then it is of no use,isnt it?

    pleasing your boss is not everything people.why cant we realize that doing what you like and not just being another one in the herd of sheep is a better option?I know a job pays your monthly bills but all these kind of comments really make me feel like we are turning into robots.

  • grame k

    grame k

    November 28th, 2011 at 12:03 PM

    its really a great way to enhance your understanding of the self.sounds promising.just hope it works as advertised in the real world.

  • Logan


    November 28th, 2011 at 4:06 PM

    @arnold: no that is not what I meant at all but thanks so much for putting words in my mouth.
    What I meant, thanks for asking, is that this is something that everyone could get involved in, and that actually it would be more beneficial to the employees because they would have someone corporate footing the bill for them! Now what they choose to do with that training is up to them. If they choose to our that energy into moving up the ladder at work, if that is what is important to them then why should you begrudge that? On the other hand maybe they take this and find other things that they are interested in and make a difference in that way. It is not always all about the money, but sometimes it is and why does that have to necessarily be a bad thing?

  • Marcus.T


    November 28th, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    Often have trouble expressing my emotions be it happiness or sadness.I feel everybody around me is better at expressing their emotions but when it comes to me I just freeze and people sometimes call me a robot for this. But it’s not my fault..
    I just hope there is something I can do to fix this. And the article is a welcome news indeed..

  • rita


    November 29th, 2011 at 10:32 AM

    some ppl are just better at handling their emotions than others,its as simple as that.and although you may be able to train me to beter handle my emotions it will never reach the levels of someone who is automatically ‘programmed’ to do so!

  • shaynee


    February 11th, 2012 at 7:46 PM

    I’ve worked in education with refugee teenagers and children from financially struggling backgrounds, I have run kids holiday camps for 10 years , it seems that there is very little correlation between the socio economic and cultural backgrounds children come from and their emotional intelligence levels. I know that my observations are purely anecdotal, but I firmly believe that spoilt undisciplined children grow into into spoilt selfish adults, who lack emotional intelligence. I would like to believe that it’s never too late to develop EC, but I think that the older the person is the more difficult it is to change, unless they are really motivated and can see the benefits of changing. I do believe that a well developed sense emotional intelligence is extremely important and leads to a more satisfying and successful life.

  • emotional competence seeker

    emotional competence seeker

    August 28th, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    I believe that emotional competence can be learned and improved throughout your life. And I definitely think that it is related to work success and family happiness. Services offered by HR companies like Coaching or EQ (Emotional Intelligence) Training can be very effective if done professionally.

  • Madeleine Y

    Madeleine Y

    January 27th, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    Am I understanding that EI and EC are the same? If not, what are the significant differences?

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