When people speak about intelligence, they usually mean the “hard” type of skills: problem-solving, verbal skills, use of logic, or cracking numbers. But when it comes to the so-called “soft” skills–such as understanding social roles, reading emotions, comprehending relationships, or effective listening– we rarely see them as part of an intelligence questionnaire.
And while the hard skills are very important, it’s the soft ones that help us maintain friendships, be satisfied at work, or simply find happiness in life. Since these skills, which we also call social intelligence, are so often neglected in schools, despite a huge body of research revealing their undeniable benefits, we’re sharing with you what social intelligence is and how you can reap its benefits.
Social intelligence skills are something anyone can learn. They don’t depend on genes or biology, although some people might be more susceptible to acquiring them than others. The social intelligence theory was first developed by psychologist Edward Thorndike all the way back in 1920.
Today we can say that social intelligence is the ability to read and properly react to social signals, monitor, understand, and manage one’s own emotions, and fit into a variety of social contexts.
Development of Social Intelligence
As adults, most of us develop these skills to some extent. We may have a broad idea of what it means to be socially well-adept, but we differ in our ability to comply with the rules of social life and navigate them.
The first signs of social intelligence in humans are visible as early as the 6th week of life. At 18 months of age, children can comprehend complex social cues and understand others’ intentions. As we grow older, our social environment becomes more complex and demanding, and it requires a sophisticated set of skills and abilities that for the majority of people don’t simply come naturally–they need to be taught.
As adults, we become responsible and capable of acquiring new social skills, and can significantly benefit from doing so. Let’s see how.
The Benefits of Developing Social Intelligence
Many people think that social intelligence is something that just “comes to you”. Since it’s not directly associated with profit and financial progress (although it is indirectly), its importance and benefits easily slip from our attention.
Developing social intelligence has many benefits for our social, emotional, and even physical well-being. Let’s briefly review them.
Adaptability to Changing Social Contexts
Today’s world is changing so quickly: that what was normal in 2020 might become a matter of nostalgia in 2021. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that knowing facts and having skills is important, but what matters the most for survival and mental sanity is the ability to adapt to new circumstances and maintain a positive attitude when going through challenges.
The more you manage to develop your social intelligence, the more skillful you become at managing complex changing social environments, as well as your emotions.
Since social intelligence is much about understanding communication on a sub-level, decoding emotional signals, and understanding our own as well as others’ emotions, it gives us tools for achieving greater levels of personal and emotional well-being.
Research published in 2018 discovered that individuals who possess higher levels of social intelligence-related skills are more optimistic, experience more positive affect, and are more satisfied with their overall lives.
This leads us to our next point–well-being.
Mental and Physical Well-Being
Sccientific research has proven time and time again that people with stronger social connections, and who are more optimistic and positive, tend to suffer less from mental health problems, experience less stress, and consequently have better physical health.
Finally, one of the most common misconceptions about social intelligence is that it doesn’t have anything to do with economic success. Workplace adaptability, emotional self-regulation, understanding other people’s complex emotions, building fruitful relationships, teamwork, along with a variety of skills and traits directly associated with productivity can play a crucial role when it comes to success at work.
More and more employers tend to value social intelligence more than they value the regular IQ score. According to Vicky Wallis, head of HR at Santander company, qualities that have to do with social intelligence–such as teamwork, communication, and social skills–are the most valuable asset a person can bring to a new workplace. This may be more important to a number of employers than decision-making, writing, or even taking initiative.
Signs of Social Intelligence
Here’s a short social intelligence checklist, listing some of the crucial skills that this concept encompasses. Those with highly developed social intelligence can analyze complex social situations, predict other people’s feelings or reactions, have an intuitive feeling on what to say in certain situations, and are self-confident.
- Active listening: Carefully listening to the interlocutor, following a complex set of signals the other person uses to convey a message.
- Verbal fluency and conversational skills: The ability to carry a conversation with anyone, regardless of their age, culture, or educational level. This also involves remembering details about people. This way, active listening is an important precursor to this skill.
- Understanding social roles and rules: Despite the fact that we all have our natural ways of conduct and reacting, social intelligence means understanding how to channel that, as we also need to understand the norms in specific situations.
- Understanding other people’s emotional states: The ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. To be able to do that, we need to understand social roles and rules, listen carefully to other people, and try to visualize ourselves in their position.
- Role Playing: Besides understanding a variety of social roles, it is also important to be able to undertake different roles. This can be particularly important in the work setting, where you need to be able to play both the “mentor” and the “mentee”, the superior and the subordinate. You can also be an easy-going friend in one context and a serious business leader in another.
- Self-efficacy and initiative: The ability to motivate yourself for productivity and in interpersonal relationships, as well as in managing and regulating your emotional states and workflow.
- Impression management: This refers to the ability to manage the impression you leave on other people and it’s closely related to role playing.
How Can I Improve My Social Intelligence?
There are several simple ways to improve your social intelligence skills. We will now list some of those we find the easiest to implement.
Pay Close Attention to the People and Situations Around You
Most of us simply go from one social situation to another on autopilot. We can easily switch off, and be only half present, or follow and rely on our own needs. If you’d like to develop your social intelligence skills further, you need to be present in the moment and observant of other people.
Follow their facial expressions as they speak, and not only to you, you can practice people watching and think about what other people are talking about, who they are, and how they feel based on what you see.
And that’s not all. Now that you know the social intelligence signals, you’ll be able to recognize other socially intelligent people around you. Pay attention to how they conduct themselves in a variety of situations, and think about whether some of that could work for you too.
Follow Your Own Physical and Emotional Cues
Very often, our own body and emotional reactions can be a great resource for understanding different social situations. We rarely stop to think about why we suddenly got a stomach ache, or why we get sleepy every time a meeting with a certain client starts.
If there’s some unusual awkwardness you’re experiencing with some person or a sudden energy boost you have with another, it’s good to stop and think for a couple of minutes about what it is that you’re feeling and understand why.
Respect and Know Other Cultures
Even if you live in a culturally homogenous place, knowledge about other cultures can help you expand your views and perhaps relativize some of your viewpoints or beliefs. Challenging our worldviews and practicing tolerance can significantly stimulate our growth as people.
Furthermore, cultural differences can also refer to differences between people of different backgrounds, political views, sexual orientations, gender, and so on.
Practice Active Listening
It may sound easy, as all you need to do is listen, yet so many of us don’t really practice it. To practice active and mindful listening, you need to be 100% focused on your interlocutor, remember what they’re talking about, ask for clarifications, comment on their words, prevent yourself from interrupting, and pay attention to their facial and bodily cues.
Appreciate the People You Love
We often take the people we love, especially those who love us back, for granted. It’s just that they’re always there.
Socially intelligent people know how to nurture deep interpersonal relationships by truly appreciating the people they love.
You can write a gratitude letter to a dear person who’s made a major impact on your life, or simply focus more on making sure that you’re present in their lives when you’re needed. Sometimes they won’t ask directly, but if you engage all of your senses, you’ll know what’s the right thing to do.
Although we are naturally predisposed to develop social intelligence, as we show the first signs of it when we’re still just little babies, it seems that not only are some people more receptive to social cues than others but that we also need to train these skills.
Human culture is becoming more and more developed, and social functioning requires practice and forethought. Things do come naturally in the end, but in order for them to do so, we need to be exposed to certain social situations, we need to analyze them, and invest effort into learning how to act.