9 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.


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 successfullybuildrelationships 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:

·         Strong relationships improve our immune system and 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.


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 9 ways that Dr. Goleman argues you can improve your social intelligence.


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


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?


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


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.


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!


Our Low Road automatically mirrors the people around us. This is how empathy works. Our brain copies the people around us so we feel as they feel. This in turn helps us understand them, where they are coming from and even be better at predicting their reactions.

“Many paths of the low road run through mirror neurons. The neurons activate in a person based on something that is experienced by another person in the same way is experienced by the person himself. Whether pain (or pleasure) is anticipated or seen in another, the same neuron is activated.” -Goleman, 41

Here’s my big idea: Don’t fight it!

Sometimes our High Road gets in the way. For example, if our partner is angry at something we try to stay calm. Then we try to calm them down. Usually this makes it worse. The upset person feels you ‘don’t really understand’ or you ‘don’t get them.’ Why? Because you are fighting your instinct to mirror their upset. Sometimes you should let yourself adopt their emotions. Put yourself exactly where they are. This might give you a new glimpse into their perspective and helps them see that you are on the same page as them.


Goleman identifies the dark triad of people as the narcissistic personality, the Machiavellian personality and the psychopath or antisocial personality.

·         The narcissistic personality is when someone has an inflated view of themselves, a huge ego and a sense of entitlement.

·         The Machiavellian personality is when someone is manipulative and consistently exploits the people around them.

·         The psychopath personality is someone who is impulsive, remorselessness and extremely selfish.

Goleman summarizes the dark triad motto as:

Others exist to adore me.


Can you usually guess what someone is about to say? Are you good at predicting people’s behavior? Do you think you are intuitive? If you answered yes to these questions you probably have high mindsight–and high social awareness. If you answered no to these questions you might fall on the “mindblind” side of the spectrum. Mindblind is the inability to sense what is happening in the mind of someone else. The key to mindsight is compassion.

“In short, self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.” – Goleman, 54

Goleman argues that we are wired for altruism. We are inherently good. However, sometimes we forget how good it makes us feel to be good.

Dr. Baron-Cohen devised something called the Empathy Quotient. This is a quiz to test your empathy levels. He devised the test for adults on the Aspergers or Autism Spectrum, but I find this quiz very helpful. Scroll to page 171 of his study to take it yourself.


“The most striking finding on relationships and physical health is that socially integrated people, those who are married, have close family and friends, belong to social and religious groups, and participate widely in these networks, recover more quickly from disease and live longer. Roughly eighteen studies show a strong connection between social connectivity and mortality.” – Goleman, 247

‘’Friends make you healthy.’’

Goleman’s prescription for a long, healthy happy life is positive relationships. Our partner, our friends, our colleagues our kids, they support our soul as well as our immune system. Goleman shares studies that have found that kinds words, physical touch, a song from childhood improve the vital signs of the sick and even fatally ill.

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