How To Improve Your Social Intelligence

I need to get better at talking to other people. I never know the right thing to say, and I just think I come across as weird and awkward. Can social intelligence be learned? If so, how can I get better at this skill? – Jordan.

Social intelligence is one of the most important types of intelligence you can cultivate. Even if you struggle in this area, it’s still possible to strengthen your skills and improve your interactions with others.

Can You Improve Your Social Skills?

Yes. Building social skills is similar to building any other skill. It requires continuous commitment, practice, effort, and exposure to social interaction.[3]

While some people may naturally be socially smart, that isn’t the case for everyone. You can learn how to improve how you connect with others. See our guide on how to improve your people skills.

Let’s get into what you can do!

Learn to Accept Criticism

People with a high social IQ can accept and, at times, even embrace criticism. The inability to take criticism often comes from a place of low self-esteem and self-worth.

For example, let’s say you feel bad about yourself. As a result, when someone tells you that you did something wrong, their feedback confirms your core belief. You might fall apart and feel rejected.

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If you want to work on handling criticism, it’s best to think about your approach beforehand. Consider asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this person trying to help me?
  2. How can I take this feedback to better myself?

Of course, it’s impossible to fully know whether others want to help you. That said, most people aren’t out trying to ruin your life. If you can commit to believing that people want to support you, you will feel more open to accepting their feedback.

The next step entails action. What can you do with their feedback? On the one hand, you don’t have to do anything. But, if you agree with their feedback and recognize the issue as something you want to work on, think about developing an action-based strategy for doing so. This strategy may include several steps, including:

  • Listing all the reasons why you want to make the change.
  • Creating a list of all the things you like about yourself (to help boost your self-esteem).
  • Practicing a mantra if someone gives you feedback (i.e., Their opinion doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It is just an opinion.)

For more on accepting criticism, check out this guide by Harvard Business Review.

Practice Active Listening

Many people assume that learning how to master talking is the key to social intelligence. Instead, the art of active listening often harnesses deeper connection and social awareness. By learning how to truly listen to other people, you can build your communication skills.

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Active listening means paying full attention when the other person speaks. This means you try to listen as closely as possible. You also avoid engaging in any distractions during the conversation.

Active listening entails a few essential components. Let’s review them.

Eye contact: Anxiety can make eye contact challenging. However, it’s crucial to work on this skill. Good eye contact is a significant ingredient in positive social interactions. Consider these following tips for improving eye contact:

  • Make eye contact before you start the conversation.
  • Think about the 40/60 rule. Try to practice maintaining eye contact 40% of the time when you speak, and at least 60% of the time when you listen. Of course, it’s impossible to quantify your eye contact during every interaction. To make it easier, you should think about shifting eye contact every 5-15 seconds.
  • Focus on the side (rather than down): When we feel nervous, we tend to avert our gaze down. However, this nonverbal cue represents insecurity. Instead, try to shift your contact to the other person’s cheeks, temples, or hair.
  • Look in between the eyes. If direct eye contact feels too uncomfortable, aim to focus on the bridge of the nose.

Avoid interrupting: Interrupting is rarely malicious. Most of the time, we feel excited and want to contribute our thoughts to the conversation. However, it can be invalidating and frustrating for the talker.

Ask clarifying questions: Clarifying questions can be an important part of active listening, especially if you don’t understand everything the other person is saying. Some good examples of clarifying questions include:

  • “Wait, can you explain a little more? I’m not sure I totally understand.”
  • “Just to clarify, did you mean that ______?”
  • “I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything. Can you give me an example?”

Make reflective statements: Reflective statements repeat certain details of the person’s story. These demonstrate that you’re paying attention to what the other person is saying. They also can convey validation and empathy. Reflective statements include:

  • I’m hearing that you felt _____.”
  • So, you thought that you were supposed to ______.”
  • Wow, so you had to ____.”

Validate their experiences: People want to feel safe and supported during their interactions. They don’t want to share an entire story with you- only to worry that they’re being judged! Validation can include statements like:

  • “That must have been so hard!”
  • “I can only imagine how frustrated you felt!”
  • “I’m really proud of you.”
  • “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
  • “I appreciate how you ______”
  • “You’re so strong for doing that!”

Focus on Being Positive

Negative energy can be soul-sucking for anyone- if you’re a pessimistic person, people may not want to be around you. Positivity is a mindset that requires you to consciously focus on the good parts of life.

To be more positive, consider these tips.

  • Practice more positive self-talk: People who struggle with social intelligence tend to be overly critical of themselves and others. Practice challenging those negative thoughts when they arise. Instead of saying, I’m so dumb, consider saying, I made a mistake, but it’s going to be okay.
  • Write down three things that went well each day: Research shows that people who acknowledge their gratitude tend to be happier and healthier. They also enjoy better interpersonal relationships[2]. Each night, write down the best things that happened. This consistent practice can solidify the importance of identifying the positive moments in life.
  • Learn how to meditate: Often, we become negative when we focus too much on either the past or future. Meditation is a skill that can help you become more comfortable with the present moment. As a result, it can reduce feelings of stress, irritation, and depression- all of which can contribute to a negative mindset. To learn how to meditate, check out this guide by The New York Times.

Don’t Use Drugs or Alcohol to Socialize

Some people use mood-altering substances as a social lubricant. For example, it’s common for people to believe they need a drink to feel comfortable at parties or other social events. They might feel incomplete without a drink in their hands.

It isn’t a secret that alcohol and drugs can mask your discomfort and reduce your inhibitions. However, they don’t address the root issues associated with your social skills. Likewise, they only work if you continue to remain under the influence. Over time, this habit can become a crutch, and it can also evolve into a full-blown addiction.

Read more in our guide on how to be more social.

Build Empathy

Empathy allows you to understand other people. It also helps you to become more tolerant and compassionate of people who might be different from you.

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Empathy isn’t the same as sympathy, which is feeling sorry for another person. Empathy refers to the notion of stepping into someone else’s shoes and imagining how they might think or feel. This skill allows us to understand people, work through differences, and build meaningful relationships.

  • Learn about different cultures and ways of living: While this isn’t a direct socialization skill, it can inadvertently boost how you connect with others. You need to be curious about what other people can offer. Read books or watch movies about different cultures. Travel to different parts of the world.
  • Always think about the other person’s point-of-view: When you find yourself feeling extremely opinionated about one position, always reflect on what another person thinks. For example, if you’re an adamant vegan, consider the lifestyle of someone who enjoys meat. If you believe in God, think about how an atheist may feel. Get in the habit of shifting away from being judgmental to being more curious.
  • Call yourself out when you’re being judgmental: We judge other people, often without realizing it. These judgments can block our ability to be empathic towards others. When you notice yourself becoming judgmental, stop. Reflect. Tell yourself, I’m being judgmental right now.

Here’s Berkeley University’s guide to empathy.

Know When Others Are Uncomfortable

It’s crucial that you take the time to understand body language. Most of our conversation is rooted in nonverbal cues. Our guide shows a definitive ranking and review of different books on this topic. Here are a few guidelines to consider.

  • They flinch: When someone flinches, they contract their torso or head away from you. It’s like they’re saying “ouch” without actually saying it. If you notice someone flinching, think about the last thing you said. Was it harsh or offensive or controversial? If you think it was, consider improving the situation with a quick segue like, “Anyway, let’s switch gears.”
  • They pull back: If someone feels trapped in a conversation with you, their body might start pulling away. They’ll cross their arms or legs or shield themselves with objects like their phone or glass. If this happens, consider giving them a safe out by going to the restroom or pausing to check at your phone. This can give them time to decide if they want to leave.
  • Their voice perks up: If someone feels nervous, they may speak in a squeakier, louder voice. Keep in mind this doesn’t necessarily mean that you made them uncomfortable- it could also indicate that they just feel anxious.
  • They won’t make eye contact: A lack of eye contact usually means someone is feeling uncomfortable. Pay attention if they’re looking at their phone, the time, or the door- these could all be signs they want an out. If so, it’s worth pausing what you’re saying and seeing if they decide to leave.
  • They respond with one-word answers: This could mean a couple things. First, they may be shy or anxious. However, if they are normally a skilled conversationalist, the mundane answers could be a sign of feeling uncomfortable.
  • Their ears or face redden: This often means they feel embarrassed. It may have nothing to do with you. However, you can try to smooth over the conversation by validating or praising the last thing they said. “That sounds super hard! Good for you for figuring it out!”

Remember That Conversations Are Not Competitions

Socially intelligent people converse with others to connect- they don’t converse to showcase their successes or talents. Try to avoid the following offenders when talking to people:

  • Monopolizing the group: Don’t talk the entire time. If you tend to talk too much when you feel nervous, practice literally biting your tongue or visualizing a large STOP sign when you feel the urge to speak. Focus back on your active listening skills.
  • One-upping others: One-upping can be done either positively or negatively.

Example: A friend tells you they only got four hours of sleep last night. You respond by saying, “Oh, you think that’s bad? That’s nothing! I only got two!” Instead, it’s better to say, “That sounds rough. I hate when I don’t get enough sleep!”

Example: A classmate tells you that they got a B on their test. You respond by saying, “Really? I got an A! I thought it was easy. Instead, consider saying, “Good job! Are you happy with your score?”

  • Correcting people in front of others: If a friend provides the wrong information to others, you might be quick to jump in and correct them. Even if your intentions are good, this kind of behavior can be embarrassing and irritating. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid correcting people in front of a group. If they’re spewing dangerous information, you might want to talk to them alone at a later time.
  • Pushing people to talk about uncomfortable subjects: If someone expresses they want to drop the subject, drop it. Don’t ask why. Don’t press for more information. Simply apologize and let them steer the conversation into another topic.
  • Answering someone else’s question: Don’t assume how other people think or feel. Even if you know the answer, speaking on behalf of other people can make others feel annoyed or frustrated.

For example, let’s say your coworker, John, asks Katie, “What did Sam say back to you after the meeting?” If you jump in and say, “Oh, he was so pissed! He didn’t even say anything to her,” you didn’t allow Katie the opportunity to express herself. Instead, let her speak and then contribute your thoughts afterward.

Learn How to Be Funny

People like to be around people who can make them laugh. Humor is subjective, which means what works for one person may not work for someone else. That said, if you can cultivate this skill, it’s a great way to build your social intelligence.

See our guide on how to be funny.

Understand the Benefits of Small Talk

Many people dismiss small talk as being insignificant or disingenuous. However, this isn’t necessarily true. People with social intelligence understand that small talk is a viable way to build a connection with others.

When done effectively, small talk can bond two people together- temporarily- with a shared experience. It can also provide ample experience for learning nonverbal communication.

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To improve your small talk skills, consider the following strategies:

  • Start with a genuine compliment about the other person: This is one of the easiest (and safest) ways to initiate a conversation. To keep the dialogue moving, be sure to follow-up with a question. For example,

– ”I love your shoes. Where did you get them?”

– ”Your dog is so cute. What’s her name?”

– ”I like your car. How does it drive?”

  • Make it a goal to practice small talk with at least one person each day: It can be anyone. The person standing next to you in line at the grocery store. A barista at the coffee shop. Your neighbor. The more you practice this skill, the more effortless it will become.

See our guide on how to start a conversation.

Don’t Try to Get Everyone’s Approval

No matter how socially intelligent you are, you can’t please everyone. This is part of life, and it’s an important fact to remember. When you depend on other people to validate you, you may come across as more desperate and insecure. These traits can, paradoxically, make it harder for people to want to validate you!

Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t concern yourself with what other people think about you. To some extent, we should all strive to be kind and likable. That said, it’s important to have enough self-esteem to like yourself- regardless of someone else’s opinion.

To work on your self-esteem, see our guide on how to be less self-conscious.

What’s Different Between Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence?

Both types of intelligence are vital for successful interpersonal interactions. Let’s break down the key differences.

Socially intelligence refers to the intelligence developed from experience interacting with other people. These individuals are typically:

  • Known as “good listeners”
  • Appear to “read” other people well
  • Can engage in meaningful conversations with a variety of people
  • Appear to adapt quickly into different social roles
  • Enjoy talking and listening to many people

Emotional intelligence means having awareness of both your emotions and the emotions of other people. These individuals:

  • Have good insight into their feelings and what may trigger them
  • Can use their emotions to help with problem-solving
  • Empathize with other people’s emotions

Both types of intelligence are important. Social intelligence is more focused on the future. Humans need to connect with other people to survive — therefore, this intelligence is rooted in survival. Emotional intelligence, on the other hand, is more focused in the present moment, as it relates to understanding and attuning to your emotions.[1]

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Nicole Arzt, M.S., L.M.F.T. is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She provides therapeutic services for individuals, couples, and families. Nicole received her master’s of science degree from California State University, Long Beach in 2014.

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