Few things contribute to our success in the world or to happiness in our personal lives as our degree of ‘people smarts’ – the ability to relate well with others.
Our connection with others enriches our lives with meaning and knits society together. It lets us see beyond our differences to the things that we share in common.
Learning how to develop your people smarts – to increase your social intelligence – is one of the best ways to increase your satisfaction with life. And happily, your brain is wired for connection. It takes little more than attention to start refining your people skills.
What is Social Intelligence?
Karl Albrecht, executive management consultant and author Social Intelligence: the New Science of Success says that our behavior toward others falls somewhere on a spectrum between having a “toxic” or a “nourishing” effect.
Toxic behavior makes people feel devalued, angry, frustrated, guilty or otherwise inadequate. Nourishing behavior makes people feel valued, respected, affirmed, encouraged or competent. A continued pattern of toxic behavior indicates a low level of social intelligence – the inability to connect with people and influence them effectively. A continued pattern of nourishing behavior tends to make a person much more effective in dealing with others; nourishing behaviors are the indicators of high social intelligence.
The VIA Strengths Survey says this about people who rank high in social intelligence: “You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.”
And it really is as simple as that. You develop social grace first, by thinking about how others are feeling and about what values are driving them, and secondly, by doing your best to put them at ease.
Of course what’s simple isn’t necessarily automatic. To be bluntly honest, we’re often focused a whole lot more on our own feelings than on the other guy’s, and we react a lot more strongly to our own unease than on his. To shift our attention, and our caring, from us to them takes a little practice. Luckily, practice brings such positive and immediate payoffs that focusing on the other guy can quickly become a way of life.
So, How Do You Develop People Smarts?
A good place to start is with what I call the AAA formula for vitality in relating to others:
- Appreciation, and
Think about for a minute. Isn’t that what you want? To have somebody give you her attention? To have her appreciate your point of view? To be liked? Or at least to be met with good will?
Listen, the essence of people smarts is the Golden Rule: Treat people the way you want to be treated.
Focus your attention on the other person. Work on your listening skills. Remember the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. And listen with your heart as well as with your head. What do you think he’s feeling? What does he need? Practice separating what he’s feeling from your own feelings. You want to imagine how the situation looks through his eyes.
If you’re not sure that you understand what he wants, try repeating his words back to him. Say, “what I understood you to say is such and such. Is that right?” Give him a chance to reword or clarify things.
If it’s hard for you to figure out what people are feeling, watch some videos on body language over at youtube. You’ll get some good clues about the things that someone’s posture and gestures and facial expressions can tell you. And you’ll learn how to use your own body language to communicate your openness and willingness to hear what the other person is saying, too.
In his article, “Life Lessons – How to Get Along with People Even if You Don’t Like Them,” leadership development expert Brian Smith suggests a 3-R formula for creating positive relationships:
Think of someone you are having difficulty with – for whatever reason you two aren’t getting along. (This could be someone at work or at home) I want you to take on this challenge and turn that situation around. I want you to apply a 3-step process known as the 3R’s – I promise you’ll be amazed at how effective it is in establishing those all-important relationships.
Step One: Rapport: Find out something about the other person other than the work they do. What are their hobbies? – Are they married? – Do they have children? – What do they like to do in their spare time? The easiest way to establish rapport with someone is to get them talking about themselves. Ask questions – get interested in them and then they will be interested in you.
Step Two: Relationship: You can’t have a relationship with anyone that you haven’t first established a rapport with. The more that you can carrying on a conversation with them on subjects that they are interested in – the more likely you are building a relationship with them. You are beginning to break down the barriers between you and the other person. You are starting to like each other.
Step Three: Respect: You won’t respect anyone that you haven’t developed a relationship with first. Respect is reciprocal. You have to give it to get it. The more that you treat someone the way you’d like to be treated the more likely it is that they will respond in kind. You get back – what you send out.
There’s that Golden Rule again. It truly is the key to social grace. Putting Smith’s 3 R’s to work lets you bring my remaining two A’s into play, too. As you build rapport, you begin to appreciate the other person – to see them as a full, rich human being. And even if their beliefs and values differ from your own, once you begin to see them more wholly, with respect, you’ll tap into your willingness to offer affection in the form of good will and perhaps even a genuine liking.
Putting Others at Ease
By paying attention and showing genuine interest in another person, you demonstrate the first half of the definition of social intelligence. The other half is to practice putting the other person at ease.
That means, essentially, offering them your consideration – being kind. It means being honest and authentic with them. And it means using effective communication skills.
Most friction between people comes from unclear communication. We make assumptions about other people, and we think that they can somehow read our minds. (If you want to learn a superb way to keep communication crystal clear, learn the techniques of non-violent communication. You’ll find some excellent articles about its power and nuances here.) Take time to be sure you really “got” what the other person is saying. And listen to her responses to see if she understood you correctly, too.
Even if you need to discuss something unpleasant with someone, you can learn to do it tactfully. Therapist Mark Tyrrel proposes these guidelines for giving constructive criticism when it’s necessary:
Constructive criticism can also be described as ‘complaint’, which in fact is a clearer way of putting it. The word criticism implies something personal, complaining is more about behavior. Here’s how to do it well…
- Have a gentle start up to your complaint. The ‘you’ word at the start can immediately switch people into the defensive. Rather start with phrases like: ‘I’ve noticed recently….’
- Be specific in your feedback. Talk only about the problem with their behaviour / performance you wish to address.
- Keep it time limited: ‘Recently I’ve noticed that….’, and ‘I want to talk about the incident last week…’ Not: ‘You always/never blah blah blah (because that is all they will hear!)
- Don’t make comments about their personality, appearance and don’t make wild statements about how everyone else perceives them. This can be unfounded and crushing. Remember some things you say may be irreparable later on so stick to the point! Keep emotions out of it as far as possible.
Being respectful and fair doesn’t mean being scared to deliver the message. It is much more skillful to deliver a difficult message well than to bulldozer someone. Learning to do this well means keeping open lines of communication and maintaining relationships, which of course is most important if you have to work with them in future or they are your romantic partner.
The Dalai Lama said, “When we feel love and kindness toward others, it not only makes others feel loved and cared for, but it helps us also to develop inner happiness and peace.” That’s the real reason to develop your people smarts—because it brings inner happiness and peace. It builds connections. It makes us whole.
If you found this article helpful, please pass it along to your network–because it’s the people smart thing to do.
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