The Kenyan Nomad

The Kenyan Nomad

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

On Social Intelligence


I first read Daniel Goleman’s ‘Social Intelligence’ in December 2015, on a year-end trip with my parents. I enjoyed it then, and have intended to revisit it since. 

I’m not quite sure what took me so long—I finally picked it up a few weeks ago and finished it this weekend—but I’m glad I read it at this point, as it was incredibly timely. This is not only because COVID has changed social interactions and connections in an interesting way, but because over the past year or so, I’ve been thinking about connection and trying to be more deliberate about this. 

If I was to sum up the central theme of this book, it would be this:

Our social intelligence, which Goleman organises into two categories (social awareness, what we sense about others, and social facility, what we do with this awareness), is something that is shaped by our backgrounds, our cultures, and our pasts, but it can also be worked on through our lives. This does require a degree of deliberation, but its payoffs can be huge. Working on and applying social intelligence can have lots of benefits to us and those around us; on the flipside, neglecting it can have detrimental effects. 

It's important enough to share, so I won’t paraphrase. Here is how Goleman breaks down the components of social intelligence: 

Social awareness

Social awareness refers to a spectrum that runs from instantaneously sensing another’s inner state, to sensing her feelings and thoughts, to “getting” complicated social situations. It includes:

  • Primal empathy: Feeling with other; sensing nonverbal emotional signals.
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person. 
  • Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions. 
  • Social cognition: Knowing how the social world works.

Social facility

Simply sensing how another feels, or knowing what they think or intend, does not guarantee fruitful interactions. Social facility builds on social awareness to allow smooth, effective interactions. The spectrum of social facility includes:

  • Synchrony: Interacting smoothly at the nonverbal level. 
  • Self-presentation: Presenting ourselves effectively. 
  • Influence: Shaping the outcome of social interactions. 
  • Concern: Caring about others’ needs and acting accordingly. 

 The following is a (by no means comprehensive) list of my reflections inspired by this book, and built on by thinking about the content and speaking to others: 

  1. Empathy is undervalued but incredibly important. Lack of empathy can change an I-You relationship into an I-It relationship. This makes it easy to ‘other’ people, which can lead to Us vs. Them walls. There are things we can do to build empathy—I’m not going to be comprehensive here due to numerous resources available elsewhere—but there’s something to be said about listening to those around us and ensuring we expose ourselves to diversity. 

  2. Emotions are contagious. We all know this on some level. Everyone has emotions, and those emotions can be contagious—more so depending on our relationship with the person in question. This brings up another recurring theme for me this year, that of boundaries. This point calls on us to be more deliberate about our boundaries, both in terms of what we allow into our space, but also in terms of how we express our own emotions and put them on others. 

  3. Our relationships shape us. What’s that saying, something about you become the five people you spend the most time with? Well, it’s true! And when I say shape us, these relationships shape us on a biological level, to the point of influencing how various genes are expressed. It again brings up the point of deliberation. When we’re younger, we do not have as much control over the people we spend time with. However, as we become older, we can be thoughtful and intentional about the relationships around us, and how we cultivate connection in these relationships. This intentionality must also extend to thinking about how we show up for those we have relationships with. 

  4. Humans are wired to connect—connection has a wide range of benefits and can even serve to make us happier (no surprise) and healthier. Another word that’s come up a lot this year: interconnectedness. We seek, crave, NEED connection with others, yet often feel ashamed of this. Not only should this need not be a source of shame, but it should be something we act on, something that we use to understand we actively need to cultivate connections with those around us. Just like buying a plant and not watering it is a sure way to kill it, being in a relationship, any relationship, and not working on it is a similar death sentence. Work can look like many things here, but it’s important to consider conversation (distance and time don’t kill relationships, silence does), vulnerability, and shared experiences (at varying degrees of complexity). 

  5. Friendships are even more important than we thought. There’s a prevalent underlying belief that friendships are less important than family and romantic relationships. However, studies have shown that this is not the case—for example, a study quoted in this book showed that people often reported being happiest when they were with friends. Again, this points back to the need to be deliberate, and to cultivate. 

  6. We all need a secure base. Every relationship ideally should provide a secure base, but I think that this is even more important in some cases. For example, parent-child (this relationship lays the foundation for our attachment style when we’re older), therapist-patient, partner-partner, supervisor-employee. I’m not saying this is not important in other relationships like teacher-student and friend-friend, but in these cases, there are often more options for people who can provide that secure base. 

  7. Care and deliberation are required as we raise the next generation—all the way from small family units to bigger communities. These don’t just include providing a secure base and cultivating social intelligence from a young age, but also providing a space to learn and fail and recuperate, and taking extra care with young people in juvenile correctional facilities. Towards the end of Goleman’s book, I was struck by the sections where he spoke about youth who had committed crimes and been placed in these facilities, but whose integration back into society was handled with care and empathy, vs. youth who were not given that same level of care, and for whom staying out of trouble became much harder. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Lessons from 2020


If you’re here, I’ll assume you’re already aware that 2020 has been quite a shit-show. It seems as though every day, one wakes up to crazier and crazier news, till the temptation to bury one’s head in the sand and hibernate is almost irresistible. I won’t debate how much of the craziness is due to unavoidable circumstance, but it’s definitely true that a lot of it is due to human beings’ inability to be kind, courteous, and unselfish (y’all know who I’m talking about). 

Before I delve in, a caveat. The ability to take 2020 and learn something from it is definitely due to the privileges I’ve been afforded so far, and some of these lessons will not resonate with others for the same reason. 

Here’s what I know so far: 

1. Life refuses prediction. How many of us, when asked what we thought our 2020s would hold, would have been able to accurately predict the future? This craziness aside, I look back at my life and see a pattern where some of the best things that happened to me (best either at the time, or due to what they taught me) were things I couldn’t have planned for. And for someone who loves planning and being control, this isn’t easy to accept! 

2. When people show you who they are… listen. I’ve found that I tend to hold on to an idealistic sense of who the people in my life are, based on who they used to be, who I want them to be, or sometimes, even my own projections. However, I’m not the only one! I’ve seen my best friend do this recently too, and it’s easier to look in a mirror when you have external examples to reference. 2020 has been a perfect way to do a people test, if you will – sort of like if you’re on a first date at a restaurant, how does the other party treat the staff?  

This year, human rights issues have been at the forefront. We’ve watched as the rights many take for granted – to live, to love, to exist, to be, to have control over our lives and our bodies – have been curtailed or infringed upon, either due to COVID-19, related responses, and worst of all, people believing they have the right to decide for others. Pay very close attention to how those around you have interacted with, talked about, and responded to these issues. Pay very close attention to those around you who HAVEN’T interacted with, talked about, and responded to these issues. Let go of your ideas of these people and see them without a biased lens. 

3. Trust your instincts. This has shown up weirdly for me this year, in terms of the people I’ve chosen to spend time with and the opportunities I’ve chosen to pursue. I won’t – or can’t – give much more detail on this one, but there’s something I was exploring earlier this year. Around the time when I had the choice to dig deeper or pull away, my instincts FLARED up and I decided to pull away. I was still in two minds, though, until others reached out weeks after to confirm what I’d felt. I now look back and realise that the instincts I’ve had in the past, that I’ve sometimes felt guilty about, probably weren’t leading me the right way… and I should have just listened rather than try to rationalise. 

4. Be kind. I’m not sure I had fully appreciated the value of kindness till this year. It was something that existed, that was missed when I didn’t see it, but maybe not something I dwelled on as much. However, this year, I’ve seen the value in kindness to self, to others, to the world we live in. I’ve been inspired by tales of kindness from various places, and I’ve come to prioritise this value as a filter for people and situations I choose to spend time and energy on. 

5. As long as you’ve done your best, there’s power in surrendering to the outcome and the unknown. There are some of you who’re reading this who’re probably cheering at this right now, but it’s a lesson that’s taken a while for me to absorb (and I won’t say I’m 100% there)! This probably goes back to my first point, but I’ve realised that a need for control paradoxically erases control – as soon as you’re in an unfamiliar situation, you flounder and feel more out of control than you ever did. If you learn to ride the flow and embrace the unknown – you’ll never truly be out of control. There’s a lot this year that’s happened that I didn’t necessarily plan for, but that I’ve accepted, and found myself happier/ more at peace because of it. 

There’s definitely more but this felt like a good stopping point for now. I’d love to hear from you – what has growth and learning looked like in 2020?

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