The Third Pillar of Emotional Intelligence: Social Awareness

In earlier posts, I summarized the first two pillars of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), following Daniel Goleman’s model: self-awareness and self-management. Now we’re at the third pillar of strong EQ: social awareness. Having a high degree of social awareness contributes to your own success and well being, as well as that of those around you. For you, social awareness helps you navigate your world successfully by being able to “read the room” and take the emotional temperature of a group interaction. For the people who work with you, your social awareness skills increase the likelihood that they will be heard and that their contributions and concerns will be noted. Being attuned to the social environment of your work and family life increases your trustworthiness and other people’s willingness to work with you.

Social awareness is made up of three key components. The first one, and the bedrock of EQ in my estimation, is empathy. Briefly, empathy is the ability to perceive the (often unspoken) emotions of other people and grasp them. Developing and practicing profound empathy with ourselves and others — warts and all — frees up our mental and emotional energy to find common ground, communicate effectively, get curious about possibilities, and determine proper action.

Or, in a definition from Steven Stein and Howard Book describes empathy,

“It is the ability to non-judgmentally put into words your understanding of the other person’s perspective on the world, even if you do not agree with it, or even if you find that perspective ridiculous. Being empathic shifts an adversarial relationship to a collaborative relationship. Empathy has nothing to do with being ‘nice’ to others. Empathy is simply a skill that allows you to see and experience the world from another person’s perspective.” (The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, 134)

Cultivating empathy for others, however, starts with cultivating empathy for ourselves. Working with empathetic responses to our own failures, the failures of others, and of situations we find ourselves in provides us a critical opportunity to shift from a reactive and constraining perspective to one that is open, cooperative, compassionate, and curious.

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Woman in profile looking at a Zoom screen with three female participants, one who is gesturing with her hands.

The second component of social awareness is organizational awareness. A person with high social awareness understands the political environment of an organization and the power structures (overt and covert) in play. They also can sense the values and unspoken rules that operate among people in an organization. Organizational awareness is the ability to sense what is going on in your environment and recognize currents of emotions in others and in groups. As an astute organizational person, you want to exercise this organizational awareness to help you time your initiatives, discover your allies and conversation partners, and anticipate obstacles along your path or along the path of change.

The final component of social awareness is that of service. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that their organization is in service of something or someone and that they, as leaders, are, in part, in service to their employees. They make themselves available within the organization and they encourage a service mentality in others. This service orientation within EQ does not necessarily equate to customer service, however. Rather, it encompasses the idea of our organizational lives being in service of our own and others personal and professional development. When leaders strengthen this element of their EQ, they tap into the values they bring to their work and find it easier to inspire others.

Social awareness speaks to our ability to tune into our environment (at work and at home) and become aware of how our own internal emotional state is or is not shared by the people around us. Growing your social awareness indicates your understanding that your work — regardless of your field or area of responsibility — is in part a group endeavour. Cultivating your awareness of emotional weather phenomena outside of yourself and your own world view and prepares you for working with the final pillar of EQ: relationship management.

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