Cultivating Social Intelligence: 3 Ways to Understand Others

Cultivating social intelligenceHave you ever noticed how some people can effortlessly talk to anyone they meet, no matter how divergent their backgrounds?

Or have you seen that one person who always offends someone, no matter the topic of conversation?

These two scenarios depict how we can differ in our abilities to interact, get along with, and relate to others around us. In the same way that we vary in traditional academic competencies, we can vary in how socially competent we are. After years of academic research and development, this social competency is now commonly referred to as ‘social intelligence.’

This article will summarize the origins of social intelligence before diving into how it can be measured and improved, its differences from emotional intelligence, and some recommendations for further resources.

Before you continue, you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will not only enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions, but will also give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, children, or employees.

What Is Social Intelligence in Psychology?

Our ability to navigate successfully through our lives relies heavily on our levels of social intelligence. It can affect the relationships we form with our partners and children, the friendship circles that we build, and our ability to progress in our careers and ambitions. It is therefore in our best interest to better understand the concept of social intelligence and develop the skills we need to improve it.

The modern concept of social intelligence was first brought to light by the American psychologist Edward Thorndike in 1920. His classification of intelligence included three fundamental dimensions. These relate to the capacity to understand and manage ideas (abstract intelligence), concrete objects (mechanical intelligence), and people (social intelligence; Kihlstrom & Cantor, 2000).

Thorndike (1920) defined social intelligence as:

“the ability to understand and manage men and women, boys and girls – to act wisely in human relations.”

A more extensive definition was offered by Vernon (1933), who described social intelligence as:

“the ability to get along with people in general, social technique or ease in society, knowledge of social matters, susceptibility to stimuli from other members of a group, as well as insight into the temporary moods or underlying personality traits of strangers.”

Since then, there have been divergent views on whether social intelligence should be regarded as a psychological construct in its own right. For instance, Wechsler (1958) asserted that “social intelligence is just general intelligence applied to social situations.”

However, more recent investigations have given weight to the idea that intelligence is not a singular cognitive ability, but rather it incorporates several types of intelligence, which are all dissociable from one another.

This idea largely stems from Howard Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences in which he proposed eight different kinds of intelligence:

  • Linguistic–verbal
  • Visual–spatial
  • Naturalistic
  • Bodily–kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Logical–mathematical
  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal

Gardner’s theory has been criticized for being too broad and because of a lack of empirical research. However, there is a growing interest in the personal and social facets to his theory, namely intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence.

Today, these are more broadly referred to as emotional and social intelligence, respectively, the latter of which is the focus of this article.

Emotional Intelligence vs Social Intelligence

Social intelligenceHoward Gardner’s (1983) theory of multiple intelligences defines social (interpersonal) and emotional (intrapersonal) intelligence as separate but related entities.

So in what ways do emotional and social intelligence differ?

While social intelligence is the ability to understand other people, how they work, what motivates them, and how to work cooperatively with them, emotional intelligence is more of an inward ability (Gardner, 1983). Emotional intelligence focuses on understanding one’s emotions, learning to master oneself, and using this knowledge to guide one’s behavior.

Indeed, Mayer and Salovey (1997) defined emotional intelligence as:

“the ability to perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth.”

These fundamental differences have been taken forward by Daniel Goleman’s theories of emotional and social intelligence.

Goleman (1995) posits that emotional intelligence is an individual construct that allows us to recognize, understand, and manage our own feelings and to recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others.

Specifically, he has outlined five core components of emotional intelligence:

Social intelligence is a relationship-based construct that centers on the way we understand, interact, and present ourselves to others.

3 emotional intelligence exercises

Download 3 Free Emotional Intelligence Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients understand and use emotions advantageously.

Social Intelligence Theory: The Research

Research has been hindered by a lack of agreement regarding the definition of social intelligence. Even Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (2006), suggested a rethink of previous work on social intelligence. He stated that we need new tools for the assessment of social intelligence, with an added consideration of individual differences.

This view has primarily emerged because of the growth in neuroscientific studies, which according to Goleman, should allow us to map the brain areas involved in social dynamics.

Goleman (2006) set out a working conceptualization of social intelligence that included two main facets. The first is that of social awareness, which refers to a spectrum that runs from immediately sensing another’s inner state, to understanding another’s feelings and thoughts, and being able to ‘get’ complicated social situations.

Social awareness incorporates:

  • Primal empathy: Being able to sense others’ feelings through nonverbal signals
  • Attunement: Listening with full receptivity; ‘tuning in’ with a person
  • Empathic accuracy: Understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions
  • Social cognition: Understanding how the social world works

The second facet is that of social facility, which refers to the ability to have smooth and effective interactions with others.

Social facility includes:

  • Synchrony: Easily interacting with others at the nonverbal level
  • Self-presentation: Presenting ourselves well
  • Influence: Shaping the outcome of social interactions
  • Concern: Caring about others’ needs and acting accordingly

Several empirical studies support Goleman’s (2006) conceptualization of social intelligence, which comprises numerous different elements.

For example, evidence for primal empathy – that gut-level, automatic reaction when you can sense another’s emotion – is apparent from research into mirror neurons. Mirror neurons activate when an individual executes a specific motor action and when they observe the same or similar act performed by another individual (Kilner & Lemon, 2013).

In the same way, mirror neurons activate when we observe the emotional reaction of another, providing the neural basis of empathy. Empathy is the basis of shared emotional experiences we feel as a social collective: shared joy at the birth of a newborn, shared excitement when watching a sporting event, shared grief when somebody dies.

Supporting the idea of influence, research shows that those who can tactfully express themselves are viewed by others as more favorable (Riggio & Friedman, 1986). After all, one has to express oneself in a way that is desirable to others to achieve influence.

Social Intelligence: A Character Strength

Social character strengthIn psychology, we view character strengths as core traits that make up the positive side to our personalities.

In their 2004 book, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman defined 24 character strengths, categorized more broadly into six virtues:

  • Wisdom – Cognitive strengths that involve the acquisition and use of knowledge
  • Courage – Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of adversity
  • Humanity – Interpersonal strengths that involve tending to and befriending others
  • Transcendence – Strengths that forge connections to the universe, providing meaning
  • Justice – Civic attributes that form the foundations of healthy community life
  • Temperance – Strengths that protect against excess

Given the importance of social intelligence in multiple aspects of life, it is not surprising that Peterson & Seligman (2004) classified it as one of the 24 core character strengths under the virtue umbrella of humanity.

If you’d like to assess your top character strengths, you can do so using the VIA Survey. It is a great way for people to identify, understand, and build upon their key strengths in order to thrive.

Social intelligence - Daniel Goleman

2 Real-Life Examples and Skills

Let’s look at social intelligence with practical examples.

Asking the right questions

Have you ever been telling someone a story, only for them to respond with a completely unrelated question or statement? Or have you been that other person, listening to someone’s story only to realize halfway through that you do not know what they’ve been saying? You have an internal panic and try to think of something quick to say as a coverup for your inattention.

Being able to listen actively to others and respond to them with relevant questions and comments are prime examples of high social intelligence. To foster positive relationships, people want to feel listened to and that you are fully engaged with what they’re saying.

Knowledge and understanding of social etiquette

To engage positively with others, it is important to understand social differences. As an example, you would not speak in the same way toward your 70-year-old mother as you would to your 16-year-old daughter.

In our working lives, we come across different social groups including those from different countries, varying age groups, and different religious and cultural identities. Being able to acknowledge and understand people’s different backgrounds is a key way to connect with them.

3 Ways to Improve Social Intelligence

Listen wellDo you want to improve your social intelligence? Here are great ideas with which to get started with.

Listen well and pay attention

Practice active listening so that you can fully engage and communicate with others.

Life is often fast paced, with many distractions both digital and otherwise. It is natural to want to respond to that text message that pops up on your phone immediately, even when you’re in the middle of a face-to-face conversation.

Give people your full attention when speaking with them. People like to feel heard, and it will help you develop worthwhile relationships.

Watch out for body language

Often, people’s body language will tell us a great deal about how they are feeling, even if they aren’t saying so. Try to tune in to what the other person is saying ‘physically.’

In the same way, be aware of your own body language and how you are presenting yourself. If you slouch and appear physically uninterested during a conversation, it may make the speaker lose confidence in what they are saying, resulting in a negative interaction.

Show that you care

If you sense that someone is upset, or if someone tells you they are going through some difficulties, show them you truly care. Displaying empathy for others can help you connect at a more meaningful level.

Fostering Social Intelligence in the Workplace

Having a socially intelligent workforce may be more important than you think. At work, we need to co-exist and cooperate with others with whom we may or may not typically socialize with. For those in management or leadership positions, the ability to connect with and motivate a team can be key to the success of a business or institution.

Drawing again upon social neuroscience, Goleman & Boyatzis (2008) believe that a successful leader–follower dynamic is achieved by leaders whose behavior leverages the system of brain interconnectedness. In other words, effective leadership relies on the ability to inspire others through meaningful connection and the ability to foster positive feelings in the people whose cooperation they need.

In fact, there is a subset of mirror neurons whose sole purpose is the detection of other people’s laughter and smiles (Bastiaansen, Thioux, & Keysers, 2009). This, in turn, prompts your own laughter or smile.

A leader who smiles and uses humor can set these specialized neurons to work, encouraging a relaxed interaction and positive emotions in others. In fact, studies show that top-performing leaders elicit laughter from their subordinates three times more often than mid-performing leaders (Goleman & Boyatzis, 2008).

Assessing Social Intelligence: 2 Scales and Questionnaires

These scales can be used to assess social adaptability.

1. The Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI)

The Emotional and Social Competence Inventory (ESCI), or its university version ESCI-U, which includes two cognitive components (Boyatzis & Goleman 1996; Wolff, 2008; Hay Group, 2011), is a 68-item questionnaire.

The questionnaire assesses 12 social intelligence competencies including emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, achievement orientation, positive outlook, adaptability, empathy, organizational awareness, coach and mentor, inspirational leadership, influence, conflict management, and teamwork.

The ESCI-U also assesses systems thinking and pattern recognition.

2. The TSIS-Tromso Social Intelligence Scale

The TSIS-Tromso Social Intelligence Scale (Silvera, Martinussen, & Dahl, 2001) is a 21-item self-report evaluation measured on a seven-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (‘describes me very poorly’) to 7 (‘describes me very well’).

The scale is divided into three subscales that enable the identification of three factors:

  1. Social Information Processing, e.g., “I can easily understand social situations.”
  2. Social Skills, e.g., “I am often successful in establishing new relationships.”
  3. Social Awareness, e.g., “I am often surprised how other people react to my actions.”

3 Books on the Topic

Great reads with which to further develop your understanding of SI:

1. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships – Daniel Goleman

Social Intelligence

Expanding upon his pioneering work and international bestseller Emotional Intelligence (1995), Daniel Goleman follows with a broad and fascinating insight into the science of social intelligence.

Goleman not only discusses the importance of social intelligence for cultivating better connections with others, he also delves into the darker side of social intelligence, touching upon topics such as narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success – Karl Albrecht

Social Intelligence The New Science of Success

In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Karl Albrecht (2006) outlines the core concepts surrounding social intelligence.

Albrecht provides key ideas on how to improve your social intelligence and explores social intelligence in relation to the world of work, reflecting upon how to develop socially intelligent leaders.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect – Matthew D. Lieberman


As outlined in parts of this article, neuroscience can aid in the understanding of our social brain and the importance of connecting with one another with social intelligence.

If you’re interested in exploring recent discoveries from social cognitive neuroscience, Matthew Lieberman presents the empirical evidence that suggests that as humans, our brains are wired to connect.

Find the book on Amazon.

Inspiring Quotes

What distinguishes leaders in medicine goes far beyond that knowledge, into interpersonal skills like empathy, conflict resolution, and people development.

Daniel Goleman

To reduce the idea of human effectiveness to some simple package of “people skills” seems to discount the richness of understanding and resourcefulness that can make people more effective in their dealings with one another.

Karl Albrecht

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.

Daniel Goleman

World’s Largest Positive Psychology Resource

The Positive Psychology Toolkit© is a groundbreaking practitioner resource containing over 500 science-based exercises, activities, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments created by experts using the latest positive psychology research.

Updated monthly. 100% Science-based.

“The best positive psychology resource out there!”
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3 Relevant Resources

Our free pack of three emotional intelligence exercises contains some of our top science-based exercises from the Positive Psychology Toolkit​​© that can help clients begin to unpack the way they understand, interact, and present themselves to others. With these exercises, you’ll have some science-backed emotional intelligence tools for your next therapy or coaching session:

  • Building Emotional Awareness
    This mindfulness meditation helps clients strengthen emotional awareness by inviting them to tune into the physical sensations underlying their emotions.
  • Decoding Emotions by Analyzing Speech, Body, and Face
    This exercise has clients practice reading the verbal and non-verbal cues of someone telling an emotive story to help strengthen their emotional intelligence in communication.
  • Identifying False Beliefs About Emotions
    This exercise helps clients identify and draw links between their beliefs about emotions and the behavioral consequences of those beliefs that may support or detract from wellbeing.

You can access these tools for free by downloading our Emotional Intelligence Exercises Pack.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, this collection contains 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

A Take-Home Message

Society places a large emphasis on traditional forms of intelligence and academic achievement.

However, the importance of both emotional and social intelligence has recently come to the forefront. The ability to connect with others impacts all facets of our lives. It is not only relevant to our personal interactions but affects our professional lives, influencing our ability to do well in positions of leadership.

The ability to bring people together, manage conflict, and connect on an individual level to the people on your team is perhaps the very key to success in the workplace.

Importantly, we can all improve our social intelligence, and there are many techniques that can help us connect with others meaningfully.

Start by paying full attention during your interactions with others. Reflect on your conversations, and try to understand how you could have responded better. Through the gradual development of socially intelligent skills, you will be well on the way to a more connected and fulfilling life.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

  • Albrecht, K. (2006) Social intelligence: The new science of success. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Bastiaansen, J. A., Thioux, M., & Keysers, C. (2009). Evidence for mirror systems in emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1528), 2391–2404.
  • Boyatzis, R. E., & Goleman, D. (1996), Emotional Competence Inventory. The Hay Group.
  • Gardner, H. (1983). The theory of multiple intelligences. Heinemann.
  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books.
  • Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Bantam Books.
  • Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. Bantam Dell Pub Group.
  • Goleman, D., & Boyatzis, R. (2008). Social intelligence and the biology of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 86(9), 74–81.
  • Hay Group. (2011). Emotional and Social Competence Inventory: A user guide for accredited practitioners. The Hay group.
  • Kihlstrom, J. F., & Cantor, N. (2000). Social intelligence. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of intelligence (pp. 359–379). Cambridge University Press.
  • Kilner, J. M., & Lemon, R. N. (2013). What we know currently about mirror neurons. Current Biology, 23(23), R1057–R1062.
  • Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press.
  • Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. J. Sluyter (Eds.). Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications (pp. 3–34). Basic Books.
  • Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.
  • Riggio, R. E., & Friedman, H. S. (1986). Impression formation: The role of expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(2), 421–427.
  • Silvera, D., Martinussen, M., & Dahl, T. I. (2001). The Tromsø Social Intelligence Scale, a self‐report measure of social intelligence. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 42(4), 313–319.
  • Thorndike, E. L. (1920). Intelligence and its uses. Harper’s Magazine, 140, 227–235.
  • Vernon, P. E. (1933). Some characteristics of the good judge of personality. The Journal of Social Psychology, 4(1), 42–57.
  • Wechsler, D. (1958). The measurement and appraisal of adult intelligence (4th ed.). Williams & Wilkins Co.
  • Wolff, S. B. (2008). Emotional and Social Competence Inventory: Technical manual up-dated ESCI research titles and abstracts. The Hay Group.

What our readers think

  1. Victor

    Such an insightful post

  2. Carl.Thomas

    I Cant wait , I want to know everything about me and emotional Intellect so I can help the generation behind me, To overcome addiction and find out who they really are


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