Social Intelligence: Fostering and maintaining key relationships

What is Social Intelligence? And why has it become the new buzz word in neuroscience and communication training?

Professor Michael W. Austin describes Social Intelligence as “the knowledge, cognitive abilities, and affections (e.g. empathy) which enable us to successfully navigate the social world.” Put simply, Social Intelligence implies recognising your own emotions; recognising the emotions of others; and successfully navigating social interactions by adequately responding to those emotions.

Social neuroscience involves the study of how the brain reacts anatomically in interpersonal interactions. The most fundamental revelation of this new discipline is that we are wired to connect. Neuroscience has discovered that the brain’s very design makes it sociable. Due to the discovery of mirror neurons, spindle cells and oscillators, research has proven that our social interactions influence the neural circuitry of everyone involved in the interaction. Therefore, leaders can influence their teams constructively and positively by acting socially intelligent.

Goleman and Boyatzis publicised that Social Intelligence is “a set of interpersonal competencies built on specific neural circuits (and related endocrine systems) that inspire others to be effective.” Scientists have established that the mirror neurons in our brains reproduce the emotions that we detect (intentionally or unintentionally) in others. Primarily these emotions are detected through non-verbal communication and mimicked similarly. But, what does this mean? It means that our emotions are contagious and we need to manage how we influence others and how they influence us.

Understanding Social Intelligence gives us a platform from which we can manage our interactions and improve our communicative fluency. Consider Thandi**. Thandi* was a promising senior manager at a prominent financial institution. Her technical expertise was unmatched and her ability to thrive under pressure made her a client’s dream to have on the team. Tasks were done and they were done right. However, Peter Drucker has said that “managers do things right; leaders do the right things.”

The executive committee earmarked Thandi* to fast-track her career and initiated an interview process with her colleagues. It was during these discussions that it became clear that Thandi* operated in isolation. The feedback the executives received was predominantly negative, because Thandi* had built up a reputation of being commanding, controlling, secretive and unapproachable. One colleague actually used the term, “slave-driver”.

Because of her technical expertise, the executives believed that she should be given a chance and sent her to personal coaching at the IE Group. She explored the Social Intelligence competencies with a team of personal coaches to remediate the fluency of her interpersonal interactions. These Social Intelligence Competencies (SIC) are divided into two main categories namely Social Awareness and Social Cognition.

Social Awareness refers to a spectrum of points of reference that spans from the instantaneous sensing of others’ inner state, understanding others’ thoughts and feelings to expression in complex social situations. Social Awareness includes Primal Empathy, Attunement, Empathic Accuracy and Social Cognition and is heavily reliant on one’s emotional intelligence.

Primal Empathy is the ability to read, interpret and understand non-verbal communication and attitudes. It is the ability to feel with others and sense their emotional signals. Peter F. Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Attunement is listening with full receptivity and attuning to the other person. It speaks about being present and focusing on the interaction with full attention. It enables you to hear the sent message and understand the other person’s frame of reference.

When you are able to combine Primal Empathy and Attunement, you will be able to understand another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions. This attribute is referred to as Empathic Accuracy and is supported by Social cognition which refers to knowing how the social world works and acting and reacting in a socially appropriate manner.

Social facility builds on social awareness and enables interaction that is effective and obstacle-free. It can be summarised as the communicative arm of Social Intelligence and the outward application of the Social Awareness, inward, competencies. Social Facility includes behavioural expressers that, when applied effectively, can enhance interpersonal interactions.

One of such competencies is Synchrony and relates to interacting smoothly at the non-verbal level. This competency enables the communicator to establish rapport with the listener and to manage the tone of the interaction.

Another competency worth mentioning is Self-presentation. The late Professor Michael Shea said, “You may be brilliant at what you do, but unless you are recognised as such, you may well be ignored.” Self-presentation aims at presenting ourselves effectively to manage the perceptions that others may form of us.

The last two competencies are Influence and Concern. When you combine emotional intelligence with a sincere attempt to communicate effectively and to understand before being understood, then you may be able to shape the outcome of social interactions through positive influence and by caring about others’ needs and acting accordingly through showing concern. Theodore Roosevelt said it best when he said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

These theories and skills were explored in depth with Thandi* and practical application meant that Thandi* could practise them in a safe environment before applying them to her daily interactions. With an increased self-awareness, a suitcase full of new techniques and ambition to fulfil her purpose, Thandi* showed remarkable behavioural change whilst staying true to herself.

Thandi* was able to recognise her role in creating a positive working climate and through the coaching was able to establish and maintain important relationships by constructively shaping the outcome of an interaction, using tact and self-control.

Thandi* was promoted.

By Saskia Snyders

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