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What Does Neuroscience Teach Us About Relationships?

3 Ways to Increase Your Social Intelligence and Improve Your Relationships

Have you ever wondered why some people are better at making interpersonal connections than others? They make friends easily, are well-liked everywhere they go, and are often on everyone’s must-invite guest list. They develop nourishing and satisfying relationships. What’s their secret? 

More than 10 years ago, Daniel Goleman (a Harvard-educated psychologist known for his New York Times BestsellerEmotional Intelligence) published Social Intelligence — whereby, he emphasized that “we are wired to connect…Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us impact the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.” 

Goleman pointed out that social intelligence is comprised of two critical ingredients: social awareness (what we sense about others) and social facility (what we choose to do with that awareness). 

Social awareness may include primal empathy (instantaneously and intuitively sensing the other person’s emotions), empathetic accuracy (understanding the person’s feelings and thoughts), and social cognition (astutely assessing complex social situations). 

Social facility includes our ability to interact nonverbally (i.e., synchrony), how we show concern and influence others, as well as how we present ourselves to others.

Intersecting these two domains are both cognitive (“high-road”) and non-cognitive / instinctual (“low-road”) abilities. Goleman highlighted that we need both for social intelligence.  Particularly, an overemphasis on “high-road” talents (i.e., an overly cognitive perspective, such as social knowledge) is limited in developing relationships and rapport. As Psychology Professor Bill von Hippel also pointed out, “[Social knowledge] isn’t enough…being social intelligent involves a variety of capacities — capacities that are seated primarily in the frontal lobes of our brain and [enable] us to endear ourselves to others, to charm ourselves into other people’s hearts rather than to continually put our foot in our mouth.”

The question still remains — how to embrace both high- and low-road aptitudes and have the full spectrum of social intelligence abilities?

1. Getting in synch

Mirror neurons are brain cells that act like “neural WiFi” in our brains, helping us to get attuned to others during social interactions so that our physiology would match others. For example, our bodies and heart rates would be synchronized. Simply put, when someone smiles at us, we naturally smile back. More importantly, our mirror neurons help to reproduce someone else’s emotions that we sense and create a sense of shared experience. The implications are that the tone and emotional signals accompanying a message could be more powerful than the message itself. Research found that someone could come away feeling better if a negative feedback was delivered in a very positive tone; and conversely, they could feel worse but a positive feedback was delivered in a very negative tone. In addition, keep smiling because smiles are highly infectious. When someone smiles at us, it’s difficult not to smile back. We are wired to mirror back others’ facial expressions.

2. Attuned listening and resonance

Spindle cells is a class of neurons that are related to intuition (or our gut feelings). They are four times bigger than other brain cells and have extra-long branch to facilitate attaching to other cells and faster transmission of thoughts and feelings. Scientists call this rapid connection of emotions, beliefs, and judgments as our social guidance system. Our spindle cells could make judgement about how we feel about a person within 1/20 of a second. Our intuition, ability to be attuned to others’ moods, and the mirror neurons allow us to feel rapport (or “resonance”) with others. Much of these feelings occur unconsciously. 

Scientists also found that Oscillators (another class of neurons) may also be involved, and they allow people to move in the same rhythm like two musicians playing the piano together.  

Besides trusting your gut feelings, the implications also mean that we need to give our full attention to others if we want to have “resonance.” It would be difficult to move in synchronization with another person, if our minds are drifted off elsewhere or if we are multi-tasking when interacting with others.

3. Showing empathic concern and respect for others

Research has shown that showing empathy and being attuned to others’ moods affect both own and the other person’s brain chemistry. In certain aspects, it is as though the two individuals’ brains become fused into a single system and create interconnectedness with one another

Lack of empathy often is tied to a sense of obligation — rather than out of a genuine desire or interest. We may feel that we ‘should’ and soon the interaction becomes like a “to-do” list item. When this occurs, it will be helpful to take a step back and understand your feelings? Why do you feel that way? Is it because you are overcommitted or stretched in other domains? Or is it because you find it difficult or unpleasant to interact with this person? What’s the source of the issue and is it something that you could address?

Cultivating social intelligence is critical for developing good interpersonal relationships and also attaining success at work. We work in increasingly complex, matrix business organizations. Research has found that there is a large performance gap between socially intelligent versus socially unintelligent leaders. Ultimately, increasing social intelligence involves observation, feedback, and repeated practice. 

The way to develop your social circuitry [in your brain] is to undertake the hard work of changing your behavior…The training can range from rehearsing better ways of interacting and trying them out at every opportunity, to being shadowed by a coach and then debriefed about the observations, to learning directly from a role model…” 
– Daniel Goleman and Richard E. Boyatzis

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