Developing Social Intelligence

Thorndike, in 1920, divided intelligence into three facets; understanding and managing ideas (abstract intelligence), concrete objects (mechanical intelligence), and people (social intelligence). In his words: “By social intelligence is meant the ability to understand and manage men and women, boys and girls — to act wisely in human relations”.

In 1933, Vernon provided the most wide-ranging definition of social intelligence as the person’s “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”.

When we speak of ‘social’ in this context, we don’t mean simply at parties or other informal gatherings. We are referring to all settings where two or more people interact. The behaviour that they exhibit though is not related to any positional power or other authority – it is consistent regardless of these. This leads to the concept of living ‘authentically’. Authenticity is a technical term in existential psychology, where the conscious self is seen as encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from it. Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite these pressures.

In 2007, Shaun Killian, an Australian educational psychologist provided a useful model identifying five characteristics of socially intelligent leaders:

1. They are confident in social situations.
2. They both have and demonstrate a genuine interest in others.
3. Whether dealing with people they know or strangers, they are adept at reading and responding to others.
4. They are able to express their emotions and feelings in a clear and appropriately assertive fashion.
5. Their understanding of social environments and the dynamics within them is well developed.

Confidence in social situations

These people know that they can be effective in a social situation. They present themselves with conviction and enjoy playing to a social audience.

People who are not socially confident are self-conscious and shy. This prevents them from developing the other traits. Feedback that they receive reinforces their sense of social ineptness making them even more self-conscious and shy.

For anyone who lacks social confidence, developing it is the essential first step in developing social intelligence. We now know that social inhibition is associated with biological differences in the neural transmitter patterns. These neural patterns become strengthened with repeated use, which is why it is hard to change our patterns of behaviour, but there is plenty of evidence that such pathways can be relearned.

Having and demonstrating a genuine interest in others

Socially intelligent people show a genuine interest in others, but this is something that they concern themselves with even when they are alone.

When interacting socially they put aside their own internal mental distractions and externalise the focus of their attention. This is known as being “in the moment” or “fully present” and achieving it in every conversation makes the person very responsive to the other one – less so at the intellectual level but in understanding the other person’s feelings and emotional responses.

People lacking in social confidence, tend to internalise – their attention being on their own thoughts and (usually) discomfort. As a result they miss valuable cues and appear disinterested.

By being fully present, socially intelligent people remember faces, names, eye colour, and other details as well as being able to notice subtle changes or differences in someone such as when they change their hair style.

Showing a genuine interest in others though goes beyond just being fully present as it is an attitude that persists even when they are alone. It involves caring about their well-being. This interest shows itself in both simple and complex behaviours, such as being on time for appointments, maintaining appropriate eye-contact, anticipating people’s needs (such as offering them refreshments or pointing out facilities to those who might need them).

Without this authentic base, the individual is simply seen as being manipulative.

Reading and responding to others

Once someone can be fully present in a conversation, they need to be able to listen attentively to the other person. Attentive people notice facial expressions, body language and tone, and then put these clues together to read how people are feeling and whether or not they are being genuine. The problem is that such interactions happen almost instantaneously and this depends on intuition. While it is possible to teach someone to do this better at the rational level, it is far harder, though not impossible, to develop the intuitive sense.

Expressing emotions and feelings clearly, being appropriately assertive

The assertive expression of ourselves depends heavily on non-verbal communication and tone of voice.

Socially intelligent people express emotions well and they do so in ways that benefits those around them. Emotions are said to be contagious, and if they are expressed clearly and intensely, then other people will catch them. While remaining authentic, socially intelligent people express the emotions and feelings that they want others to catch.

In general, positive emotions improve performance in the workplace, and yet joy, happiness, and excitement are the least expressed emotions in the workplace.

There are times, of course, where other emotions are called for. Sadness improves our ability to learn from failures and setbacks. Fear enhances our ability at anticipatory action learning, through which we can see (and therefore put right) faults in plans before we implement them. Anger drives us to try to put perceived wrongs right.

The socially intelligent express contagious emotions that are appropriate to the context and the task at hand.

At times, we need to show empathy, by expressing emotions on behalf of others. Empathy is not just an awareness of how others feel; it is feeling it with them. It is possible to develop empathy. For example, try to imagine how someone is feeling in a paticular situation, then remind yourself of a time in your past when you felt the same way. Feel the emotion return to you, and then you are more likely to genuinely express it.

Understanding social environments

Finally, a good knowledge about people and the workings of the social world can then be applied to any social situation. Socially intelligent people understand the different personalities of those they work with, whether intuitively or by study. This helps them to motivate and deal with different people in different ways. They understand the, often unwritten, norms and etiquette for varied social situations. Socially intelligent people are also aware of the social connections that exist between staff members and the different forms of power relationships within the group.

Developing social intelligence

While we now believe that genetics does play a role in determining social intelligence because of clear links to personality characteristics such as extraversion, dominance, social presence, affiliation and self acceptance.

However, social intelligence can also be developed. Understanding it is a good first step. Developing social intelligence though means changing the way you act and interact with others, and then turning these changes into new habits. This takes focused attention and practice over time, allowing new neural circuits to form within the basal ganglia of the brain.

Have a look at my guide to emotional literacy for more ideas on how to develop this essential aspect of social literacy.

Best wishes

Helping people achieve things they never dreamt they could
t 07785 222380 |


  1. Great explanation of social intelligence! Where do you think specific help for every one of the five social characteristics can be found?

  2. Hello. Thanks for your kind comments. There are quite a few options – if you’d like to let me know where you are based, I can try to put you in touch with some possible people. Best wishes, Graham.

  3. Thank you for this great post. I was trying to grasp the meaning of social intelligence and how it can help you in life. I have read quite a number of articles today that were all a little too academic to me. This post really explains it to me.
    Thank you for that!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.