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What is Social Intelligence?

You might know it as “people skills.” As one of Dr. Howard Gardner’s famous Multiple Intelligences, it combines an astute self-awareness with a conscientious attention to your own perceptions and reactions. Social Intelligence incorporates a knowledge of multiple aspects of social interaction to develop a unified understanding–overarching and governing social dynamics, social awareness, interaction styles, and strategies that can help someone communicate to achieve their main objective.

It’s important to note that social intelligence exists on a spectrum. Dr. Karl Albrecht, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, argues that social intelligence exists between two extremes, the one being “toxic” and the other being “nurturing.” These qualities are defined by how one makes others feel. “Toxic,” behavior incites anger, frustration, guilt, or a sense of inadequacy–not exactly the qualities a leader wants to inspire. By contrast, “nurturing,” behavior makes someone feel valued, respected, competent, and encouraged.

Wired to Connect

Noting the spectrum of SI is important. Generally speaking, no one is entirely without it. Daniel Goleman, internationally acclaimed brain and behavioral scientist and a leading expert on both Social and Emotional Intelligence, would argue that we are “wired to connect.” There are specific structures and processes in the brain developed with socialization in mind. Mirror neurons are perhaps the most recognizable. You may even be flashing back to a Psychology 101 class at this very moment. Mirror neurons allow us to engage in a low-level mimicry almost completely below conscious awareness. It’s the reason that when someone else smiles, you feel compelled to smile as well, or why people with particularly close relationships are often seen sitting in the same way. Neurotransmitters, specific cell types, and the very structure of our brains facilitates social interaction.

Our social interactions act as triggers and modifiers of our biochemistry, priming the brain with emotional responses. The more intimate the interaction, the more powerful the response. Our strongest relationships have the ability to shape our entire biological system through our brain. Some research has even shown evidence that the quality of our relationships can impact our immune systems, with “toxic” relationships impacting the function of specific genes that regulate immunity. This perspective on the relationship between socialization and personal well-being only reinforces the importance of exercising a nurturing Social Intelligence.

Isn’t that the Same Thing as Emotional Intelligence?

This information might be sounding a little familiar. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is another of Dr. Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and it’s often the most cited, especially with reference to leadership and management strategies. And while EQ and SI are very similar, they are better described as complementary skills relating to social behaviors. Emotional Intelligence, while integral to one’s implementation of their Social Intelligence, describes the self-insight required to understand one’s position in a given social situation. It also impacts one’s ability to manage emotional responses. Social Intelligence, on the other hand, focuses on the success of the interactions themselves. Simply put, EQ is intrapersonal, and SI is interpersonal.

How Social Intelligence Makes Great Leaders

Well-developed SI is critical for effective leaders. It is what enables you to inspire positive feelings in others. When your employees feel appreciated, capable, and respected, they are more efficient and enable your company to reap the long-term benefits of dedicated employees who believe in the values of your business. In an article published in the Harvard Business Review authored by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, they outline specific traits that can easily gauge the nurturing effects of your workplace interactions. Notably, they describe behavior that is empathetic and astutely attentive to the thoughts and feelings of others.

A leader has the ability to shape their employees’ feelings with their own emotions and how they choose to act on them. It’s not always what you say, but rather how you say it. In a study conducted by Marie Dasborough, individuals who received positive performance feedback with negative emotional cues (facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc.) reported feeling worse about their performance than those who received negative feedback with positive emotional cues. A leader can still set high expectations, but a nurturing approach can make the experience gratifying rather than horrifying. A positive tone can be set with just a smile and some laughter, and it can dramatically alter a work experience.

Learning Social Intelligence

Reading this may feel discouraging. You may be thinking something along the lines of, “That’s just not who I am.” But Social Intelligence can be learned. It can be challenging because exercising greater SI means adapting behaviors, but at its core, it means finding ways to show people that you are receptive and attentive to their thoughts and feelings. A socially intelligent leader will likely be perceived as empathetic, adaptable, and adept at conflict management. As mentioned before, this perception rests not in what you say, but how you say it. Regular self-reflection can help internally distinguish easily-blurred lines between “just enough,” and “too far.” For example, it can help define the difference between conviction and aggression or constructive critique and criticism. Simply reflecting and then practicing more nurturing behaviors is enough to train the social neural networks so that, over time, what once may have been a challenge can become second nature.

Goleman provides a few methods of self-reflection that can guide you towards a stronger sense of Social Intelligence.

  1. Be aware of emotional triggers. You can ask yourself, “What kind of interactions do I dread,” and “When do I feel that I can’t be myself?” Understanding what triggers a stressful emotional response in you can help with making decisions that affect how we communicate and what kinds of relationships we build.
  2. Prioritize the humanity in your employees. A lack of empathy results in what Goleman calls “Broken Bonds.” We’ve all felt it at some point–it’s when someone is treated as more of an object than a person. It can be something as small as being distracted during a presentation or multitasking during a meeting. Being inattentive to others gives the impression of being cold or insincere, even if that wasn’t the intention. Interact with empathy, or don’t at all.
  3. Smile! Smiling makes you feel good, and it makes people around you feel good. Make an effort to engage with people whose moods you want to catch. Even better, make an effort to be that person for someone else.
  4. Invest in your relationships outside of the office. The impact of positive and healthy relationships will extend beyond your social life and improve your general well-being. A happy, healthy you will be a better you for sustaining a positive work environment.

Photo by Sole Treadmill

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