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. 

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