At the age of 54 my client, Doug, has no job, a stilted romantic relationship, and no friends. He fears he’s going to end up alone and homeless if things don’t change soon. The core of his problem, as he defines it, is the way he was raised: “My family was a war zone. From my infancy, my mother despised me and instigated attacks from siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Nothing I ever tried pleased her. By the age of three, I learned the best way to survive was to be quiet, play the role of ‘the good little boy,’ and never look anyone in the eye.”
With a lifetime of that behavior, it’s no wonder Doug is completely dissatisfied with himself and seeking relief from ongoing anxiety and social agony.
Doug is not alone. Even without a toxic family, 10 to 15% of babies are born “inhibited.” Nearly one in eight teens may have a social phobia. Between 40 and 60% of adults report feeling shy. But as Daniel Goleman points out in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, “New thinking holds that our sociability has been the primary survival strategy of primate species, including our own.”
If the ability to be social is critical to survival, then learning ways to increase your social intelligence becomes critical for adults seeking professional and personal success, and also for those in charge of teaching children how to make it in the world. While the theories of social intelligence are grounded in hard-core science, anyone can practice daily habits that deepen and expand the ability to connect socially.
Daily practices to increase your social intelligence
Being social requires us to make interpersonal connections that are conscious and intentional. For Doug, these qualifications pose a central problem. “I expect everyone to hate me and want to hurt me,” he explains. “I don’t want to be vulnerable to attack, so it’s better to shield myself and keep my distance.” Learning ways to increase social intelligence first required Doug to acknowledge and process specific fears that would reduce his anxiety. Now he’s working through three simple daily practices to help him develop the basics of safe social interaction.
1. Empathize. Creating a sense of connection can begin as a private, personal quest. Simply being aware of another’s emotional state activates social intelligence processes. We are hard-wired to read cues of voice, facial expression, and body language. Observing these elements of a person (without interacting with him) allows you to make a private connection on your own terms.
When this feels comfortable, build on that by tuning in to his/her current emotional experience. Is this person happy, sad, frightened, etc.? Recognize what you know from your own experiences about that feeling. Then look for a small communicative action that allows you to acknowledge the other person’s state, either by extending a good mood or offering compassion to elevate a bad one.
2. Smile. Launching a more immediately personal social connection begins without words. An ever so slight upward tilt of the lips is a universal signal of friendliness. While it requires no further action, a smile simultaneously makes an introduction and invites an opportunity to engage in a social exchange.
The benefits here are on both sides of the social equation: The moment you smile, your brain releases feel-good hormones that shift your body into a more relaxed, receptive state. Simultaneously, this act of friendliness signals the absence of threat and, in motivating a smile in response, activates similar feel-good hormones in the recipient. Now you’re connected and have the choice to deepen or release the bond.
3. Pay attention. In more personal interactions, an extremely effective way to increase your social intelligence develops from a process of “mirroring.” People feel most comfortable with those who seem similar to themselves. This can mean alike in thought as well as verbal and physical expression. Leading from a genuine desire to authentically connect:
(a) Listen and use mirroring language. For example, if someone says, “Do you see what I mean?” Respond that you do see the point rather than saying, “I hear you,” which is a communication mismatch.
(b) Watch body language and arrange your own in a similar way.
(c) Notice what someone finds interesting. Share or explore your interest in the topic by steering the conversation toward a deeper discussion.
The benefits of a personal social intelligence quest
For a long time, Doug struggled with social awkwardness while living in a major American city. The onslaught of situations demanding social engagement, tainted by the slightly aggressive attitude of urban life, became overwhelming. Today Doug lives in a small southern town where life happens more slowly and the etiquette of social interaction follows more genteel patterns. At his own pace, Doug is learning to unfreeze his social responses, to trust in brief interactions, and to rewire his beliefs about what it means to be safe in making social connections.
Recently he observed, “Tuning in to others’ emotional states takes the focus off my own, which is a welcome relief. It also allows me to develop a system for choosing who, how, and when I want to connect, which makes me feel more empowered in social settings.”
Sociability is a key survival mechanism because it allows you to connect with and be part of a tribe, a core evolutionary necessity handed down by your cavemen ancestors. Doug’s story, too, illustrates how learning ways to increase your social intelligence increases survival by helping you determine which social connections are safe—and which aren’t—so that you open yourself up or keep yourself closed depending on what individual situations require.