Put simply, social intelligence is the ability to successfully build relationships and navigate social environments. It develops through connecting and having experiences with people. As you do so, you learn from your successes and failures. Individuals with social intelligence are adept at sensing how other people feel and know intuitively what to say in social situations. You might define this as having good people skills.
Social intelligence is also to do with the quality of your judgement about people. In the workplace, if you are socially intelligent, you are able to make judgements about your key stakeholders and can work out how to influence them.
Today, there is a growing recognition that maintaining and building successful relationships is vital to progression – both personally and professionally. If you are unable to connect to people, you’ll have little chance of persuading them about your views and opinions. Think about that equation over technology and you add a whole another level of complexity into the equation.
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Intelligence and history
Western society has always placed a huge emphasis on IQ – problem-solving, passing exams, and getting qualifications. In the 1990’s psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, rebalanced the equation with his focus on the importance of emotional intelligence (EQ).
The ability to empathise and manage emotions became recognised as a trait just as important to personal and career success, as intellectual smarts. One element of Goleman’s definition of EQ was social skills, explored in depth in Goleman’s 2006 book ‘Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships’*.
In this book, Goleman goes beyond single person psychology, to explore the deep impact of relationships on every aspect of our lives, and how our daily encounters with parents, spouses, managers and strangers shape our brains. It was Goleman who brought attention to the fact that you are designed for sociability and are constantly engaged in a ‘neural ballet’ that connects your brain with the brains of those around you. He talks about how these connections, and the way you react to them, send out hormones that regulate everything from your heart, to your immune system.
Why is social intelligence important?
Here’s a crazy fact for you – having strong relationships with other people in your life improves your immune system and helps you to combat disease and loneliness. Weak relationships are one of the major sources of stress, health problems and depression. As Goleman states “nourishing relationships have a beneficial impact on our health, while toxic ones can act like slow poisons in our bodies” (2006).
If you want to get scientific about it, your brain is built with specific structures to optimise relationships. A spindle cell is the fastest acting neuron in your brain that guides your social decisions. Human brains contain more of these spindle cells than any other species. Your brain also contains mirror neurons. These help you to predict the behaviour of people around you by subconsciously mimicking their movements. That just goes to show how connected your mind and body are. You are literally genetically wired to connect with others. It’s no wonder that humans are described as social beings.
Am I socially intelligent?
All this might have you thinking, ‘Am I socially intelligent? Where do I sit on the scale?’ Ask yourself the following questions:
- Can I usually guess what someone is about to say?
- Am I good at predicting people’s behaviour?
- Am I intuitive?
If you answered yes to these questions, then you might be socially aware. But aside from being able to effectively gauge someone’s emotions, there are a handful of other core traits that people who are socially intelligent display. These traits help you connect to, communicate with, and influence others:
- Effective listening – arguably one of the most important traits that a socially intelligent person possesses is the ability to really listen. Truly good listeners are difficult to come by. They don’t interrupt, and they don’t listen merely to respond with their thoughts and opinions. They really pay attention to what a person is saying. This makes the person feel understood. It also helps build a sense of personal connection.
- Emotional regulation – this is a critical dimension of EQ, but it plays a vital role in social intelligence too. When someone expresses strong negative emotions, those reactions have an equal effect on the person being spoken to. This explains why small disagreements can escalate into much bigger arguments. To manage social relationships, you must understand your impact, and be able to reign in strong reactions appropriately.
- An open mind – making someone else feel bad by arguing and pushing to prove a point is not a trait of a socially intelligent individual. Instead of outrightly rejecting another person’s ideas, they listen to them with an open mind – no matter if they agree or not. By allowing a debate to open, they provide space to solve problems collaboratively.
- Awareness of social roles – a socially intelligent person knows how to play different social roles when necessary. They are well-versed in the informal ‘rules’ that govern social interaction. Typically, at work they would be good at reading a room, assessing mood, power and influence.
- Reputation management – considered one of the most complex elements of social intelligence, managing a reputation requires a careful balance of creating a good impression on someone, whilst still being authentic.
- Persuasion – socially intelligent people find holding engaging discussions very natural. They respond appropriately, using and understanding humour where necessary. They remember details about people that allow the dialogue to be meaningful. By listening and engaging thoughtfully, they tune-in beyond the obvious, understanding underlying agendas and deep-rooted thoughts and feelings. In turn, this allows them to persuade and influence from a better place of knowledge.
How to develop social intelligence
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that your social intelligence could do with some work – and that’s okay. Whilst it may come completely naturally to some people, others may need to work a bit harder at it.
The good news is that there are certain strategies that you can use to help you become more socially intelligent. Here are a few handy tactics to consider:
- Observe those with strong ‘people skills’ – there’s a good chance you can pinpoint someone in your life who seems to glide through social situations with ease, and naturally ‘works the room’. Spend some time observing this person and paying attention to the subtle social cues from those around them.
- Practice listening – and by listening, we mean really listening. Not everyone is a good listener, even if you think you are. That time you spend thinking about the next thing you are going to say or how you can bring your own opinions into the equation is not time spent truly listening to the other person. Yes, there is a time and place for your own input but first, just listen.
- Learn to not interrupt – this goes hand-in-hand with active listening, but it is a skill in its own right. Allowing a person to fully express their opinions (until they have nothing much more to say on the topic) requires extraordinary levels of patience and humility. We live in a world dominated by interruption. Not interrupting takes intense focus.
- When managing stakeholders, respect differences – not everyone will be the same as you. Does that mean you shouldn’t work with them, listen to them or seek them out? No, not at all! Work hard to understand your differences. Think about it in terms of the ways that you work. In terms of your social and political views. In regard to your beliefs, values and customs. A socially intelligent person understands that other people are different, perhaps depending on their upbringing and where they come from.
- Practice holding back – as mentioned, emotional and social intelligence are closely linked. It’s difficult to have one without the other. Emotional intelligence is focused on how you control your own emotions and how you empathise with others. This involves recognising when you are experiencing an emotion (helping you to then recognise this emotion in other people), and regulating this emotion to control it.
Alongside these tactics, it’s also important to spend time reflecting on social situations. Journaling can be a good way to do this. For instance, after a business pitch, a meeting, or a social occasion, set some time aside to make notes on what happened. You might ask yourself:
- What went well?
- What went wrong?
- What would I do differently in hindsight?
- Did I learn something valuable?
Social intelligence and teamwork
It is not surprising that research suggests that social intelligence is essential for helping teams work better together. If you lack social intelligence, you may find it difficult to work in a team trying to achieve a common goal – which is precisely what being at work is all about!
If you want to lead or manage teams, then social intelligence is even more essential. A socially intelligent leader will have:
- A highly tuned emotional radar
- Organisational awareness
- The ability to develop or connect others
- Teamwork skills
Imagine if your line manager or boss lacked these traits? What would be the impact on you or other people in their team or department?
As a leader, you set the tone for the culture of the organisation. Possessing and displaying the above traits will literally affect both your own brain chemistry and that of those around you.
Research has shown that the leader-follower dynamic is not a case of two or more brains reacting consciously or unconsciously together, but instead a case of them fusing together into a single system. In this sense, leadership is less about mastering situations or skill sets, and more about building relationships in the workplace, developing a genuine interest in the people whose cooperation and support you need. This is likely to result in a happier, healthier and engaged team, and you will be a magnet for like-minded future talent who will want to join you.
Positive relationships are the key to a long, happy and healthy life. They nourish your soul, supporting mental and physical health and wellbeing. Just as importantly, when you put time into your social intelligence you are also investing in other people. You’re not just enriching your personal and professional life – you are giving that opportunity to others.
*Goleman, D. (2006) ‘Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships’. Page 5. Arrow Books