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EQ: The Swiss Army Knife of Life-Part 4/Social Awareness

In the last editions of this Emotional Intelligence (EQ) series, we looked at the two components of Personal Competencies: Self-Awareness and Self-Management. This week we move into the first of the two Social Competencies, referred to as social awareness.

A quick summary of social awareness is the ability to rapidly and accurately recognize the emotions and perspectives of others and apply that understanding to your interactions with them. To do this, we rely on our ability to empathize, allowing us to relate to all the various people we encounter, regardless of our differences. To use a radio metaphor, our skills in this area enable us to become a high-powered stereo receiver capable of picking up the frequency of whatever someone is broadcasting, no matter how faint the signal may be. Whether this comes naturally to us or not, there are techniques that we can all use that build our skills and intuition, allowing us to get a read on people and calibrate our dealings accordingly.

  • Become an active observer (and listener) – Active listening often falls into the common sense but not common practice category. Think about one of your recent conversations and try to be as objective as possible in answering this: were you focused on what the other person was saying, or were you concentrating more on what you would say next? If you have a hard time remembering, experiment with yourself in one of your next conversations and be mindful of how much listening you’re doing versus how much you’re thinking about what you’re planning on saying next. The good news is that even thinking about whether you are actively listening will bring your attention back to the fact that you should be! Rest assured; this mind-wandering is a natural tendency of our incredible human brain that wants to ‘reload’ in anticipation of our turn to talk. The downside is that doing so detracts from our ability to be fully present and attentive to who we’re talking with, and we lose the chance to fully absorb what’s being said, both verbally and non-verbally. It’s worth mentioning that most communication occurs without the use of words. According to renowned behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian, non-verbal cues such as micro-expressions, body language, posture, and eye movement are estimated to make up 70-90% of communicated messages. To receive the full signals being broadcast, we need to have our antennae ready and unobstructed. Rarely do we learn anything new when we’re the ones doing the talking! Mindful breathing is a highly effective technique for staying focused and preventing our attention from drifting inward. Simply and subtly, switching your focus to inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth will keep you zeroed in on the conversation. The person you’re speaking with will have no idea you’re using this secret weapon of a technique.

  • Stay curious with a ‘beginner’s mind’- Most times, especially in new situations and interactions, we do not know what we do not know. However, that does not stop us from making assumptions. Our brain likes to create efficiencies, and that “if this, then this” program is always running, which means we are subconsciously referencing previous experiences to sort and classify the new, current ones. A downside of this brain tendency is that it can cause us to look at new experiences through the lens of assumptions, biases, and limited or inaccurate information. ‘Beginners Mind’ is a Zen Buddhism concept that involves the practice of actively shedding preconceptions while studying a new topic, even if we believe we have advanced knowledge of the area. We intuitively know the value of this approach as we sometimes ask someone for their opinion as a ‘fresh set of eyes,’ knowing we can lose objectivity over time. This approach of beginners mind helps ensure we are going into situations calling for unbiased perspective with the advantage of being our own fresh eyes.

  • Situational Size-Up (aka reading the room)- The advantages of clearing your mind of preconceptions are outlined in the above example. Now we can look at the other side of the coin of how our previous experiences can be used. Every waking moment we rely heavily on our five senses but often overlook the enormous firepower of our sixth sense: intuition. Essentially, this is our ‘Spidey-sense’ that allows us to have knowledge without consciously going through a reasoning and analytical process. Intuition is part of our’ factory equipment’ as an evolutionary survival tool that rapidly translates unconscious emotions and input into triggers for action. These bodily cues (referred to as ‘somatic markers’), which include heart rate and endocrine activity, utilize vast amounts of information, including our previous experiences, to provide an instant feeling about a situation. This internal GPS is designed to help us navigate any situation and is a powerful tool if we train ourselves to listen to it. It doesn’t take much research to find that some of the most influential leaders and innovators in history, ranging from Albert Einstein to Steven Spielberg, credit intuition as their go-to ‘secret weapon’. Steve Jobs can have the final word on the subject as he summed it up with his quote, “Don’t let the noise of others drown your inner voice.”

Next week we will move into the last of the four EQ components: Relationship Management.


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