5 Ways to Increase Your Social Intelligence

How smart are you?

We usually answer this question by referring to IQ, test scores and our grades in school.

True intelligence is about both book smarts and street smarts.

Social Intelligence

For our Science of People book club I chose the book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships by Dr. Daniel Goleman.

Social Intelligence (SI) is the ability to successfully build relationships and navigate social environments.

Our society puts a huge emphasis on book smarts and IQ, but our relationships effect a much bigger part of our lives. In this post, I want to argue that your social smarts are far more important than your book smarts. And building strong social relationships is worth the effort, according to the book:

  • Strong relationships improve our immune systemand help combat disease.
  • Loneliness and weak relationships are one of the major sources of stress, health problems and depression.
  • Our relationships affect every area of our lives-from colleagues to spouses to friends to kids.


How High is Your SI?

Before we get too far into how to improve your social intelligence let's see where you are right now. How are your social smarts? Do you have high SI? Take our people skills quiz to get an idea of where you fall.

Your Social Brain

We are wired to connect. Goleman argues that we have specific structures in our brain built to optimize relationships:

  • A spindle cell is the fastest acting neuron in our brain that guides our social decisions. Human brains contain more of these spindle cells than any other species.
  • Mirror neurons help us predict the behavior of people around us by subconsciously mimicking their movements. This helps us feel as they feel, move as they move.
  • When a man gets a look from a woman he finds attractive, his brain secretes dopamine-a chemical that makes us feel pleasure.

Here are 5 ways that Dr. Goleman argues you can improve your social intelligence.

#1: The Protoconversation

There is so much going on behind our words. As we speak, our brains are taking in microexpressions, voice intonations, gestures and pheromones. People who have high SI have a greater awareness of their protoconversations. Goleman identifies two aspects:

Social Awareness: How you respond to others

  • Primal Empathy: Sensing other people's feelings
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity
  • Empathic Accuracy: Understanding others' thoughts and intentions
  • Social Cognition: Understanding the social world and the working of a web of relationships

Social Facility: Knowing how to have smooth, effective interactions

  • Synchrony: Interacting smoothly
  • Self-presentation: Knowing how you come across
  • Influence: Shaping the outcome of social interactions
  • Concern: Caring about others' needs

#2: Your Social Triggers

Let's start with your social awareness. People and places trigger different emotions and this affects our ability to connect. Think about a time you felt excited and energized by an interaction. Now think of a time when you felt drained and defeated after an interaction. Goleman presents a theory on how our brain processes social interactions:

The Low Road is our instinctual, emotion-based way we process interactions. It's how we read body-language, facial expressions and then formulate gut feelings about people.

The High Road is our logical, critical thinking part of an interaction. We use the high road to communicate, tell stories and make connections.

Why are these important? The Low Road guides our gut feelings and instincts. For example, if people didn't come to your birthday parties as a kid, you might feel a pang of anxiety when thinking about your own birthday as an adult-even if you have plenty of friends who would attend. Your High Road tells you that you are a grown up and things have changed, but your Low Road still gives you social anxiety. I call these social triggers. You should be aware of your unconscious social triggers to help you make relationship decisions. Knowing your Low Road social triggers helps your High Road function. Here's how you can identify yours:

  • What kinds of social interactions do you dread?
  • Who do you feel anxious hanging out with?
  • When do you feel you can't be yourself?

#3: Your Secure Base

Whether you are a cheerful extrovert or a quiet introvert, everyone needs space and a place to recharge. Goleman suggests a "secure base." This is a place, ritual or activity that helps us process emotions and occurrences. A secure base is helpful for two main reasons. First, it gives us a place to recharge before interactions so we don't get burnt out. Second, it helps us process and learn from each social encounter.

You can improve your Social Intelligence, you just need to prioritize it.

In my courses, I sometimes refer to this as a post-mortem. After a business pitch, coffee meeting, party or date do you set aside time to reflect and review what went right and wrong?

Here are some questions I ask during my post-mortem:

  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What would I have done differently?
  • What did I learn from this interaction?

Possible secure base ideas on where you can do your post-mortem:

  • In the car driving home
  • Journal before bed
  • Business workbook for ideas
  • Brainstorming with a partner
  • Re-hash with a friend

#4: Broken Bonds

One of the biggest pitfalls in social intelligence is a lack of empathy. Goleman calls these Broken Bonds. Philosopher Martin Buber coined the idea of the "I-It" connection which happens when one person treats another like an object as opposed to a human being.

Imagine you have just lost a family member. You get a phone call from a friend offering condolences. Immediately you sense the obligation of the caller. They are distracted, you can hear the typing of keys in the background. Their wishes are cold, memorized and insincere. The call makes you feel worse not better.

This interaction makes you feel like an 'it' -a to do list item, a 'should,' an obligation. Another word for this would be coldhearted. I had a friend who emailed me every 60 days to grab lunch. Her emails were so similar that I realized I was a calendar alert that she had set-up! I was merely an item on her to do list-she felt she 'should' do lunch to keep in touch and our lunches were perfunctory, predictable and boring. I stopped saying yes.

  • Don't interact because you feel that you 'should.'
  • Say no to obligations if you can.
  • Interact with empathy or don't interact at all.

#5: Positively Infectious

When someone smiles at us, it's hard not to smile back. The same goes for other facial expressions. When our friend is sad and begins to tear up, our own eyes will often get moist. Why? These are our mirror neurons in action-part of our Low Road response to people. This is why Debbie Downers bring us down with them-the scowl and our brain unconsciously copies it making us feel depressed along with Debbie.

Hang out with people whose moods you want to catch.

If moods are catching, gravitate towards people who will infect you with the good ones!

For more tips on social intelligence, visit ScienceofPeople.com.