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The 5 Key Traits of Socially Intelligent People


I asked Kristina Howard, managing director at Tusk Ventures, for her best piece of career advice.

“No matter how book smart you are, if you don’t learn how to play well with others, you will hit a ceiling,” replied Kristina. She went on to add, “The difference between a good career and a great career comes down to how socially intelligent you choose to become.”

Kristina isn’t alone in her views. Countless studies have shown our social intelligence — simply defined as our ability to build successful relationships and navigate social environments — plays a key role in mapping out a successful career.

Not only that, but according to a Harvard study on happiness, it isn’t riches or fame that determine our quality of life, but rather our social ties.

So what traits and behaviors allow socially intelligent people to consistently thrive in both their professional careers and personal lives?”

Dr. Karl Albrecht, in his book, “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success,” lays out the 5 key traits socially intelligent people possess, which come together to form the acronym S.P.A.C.E.

In addition to Albrecht’s observations, sprinkled below are a few exercises I’ve found useful on my own journey from a shy kid with social anxiety to now working with people to better navigate their careers and relationships.

“S” = “Situational Awareness”

A big part of playing well with others comes down to our situational awareness or “social radar.” Prior to engaging with people, socially intelligent people take the time to read the room to gauge other people’s emotional states, possible intentions, or simply to see if they look like interacting or not.

Observing the behaviors and moods of the people around us before approaching them is a good place to start. You don’t want to talk about your great day when the person in front of you clearing doesn’t look like celebrating.

Albrecht, however, takes it one step further by encouraging we reserve time for focused “people-watching.” Through their verbal and non-verbal communication, we can begin to get an idea of people’s personalities and the social dynamics at play regarding those around us.

  • What’s the vibe the people around you are giving off? Do they look easily approachable? Or does their body language appear closed?
  • What do their facial gestures reflect? Do they appear relaxed and positive? Or are they tense, serious, or even sad?
  • What about their tone? Do they sound rushed or even cold? Or do their voices show affection and a genuine interest in the people around them?

If you too want to raise your social intelligence, follow Albrecht’s lead. The more we study the people around us the faster we can begin to make real connections with them.

“P” = “Presence”

Regarding our productivity at work, distractions are most people’s number one enemy. The same goes for having productive interactions with the people around us.

People with high social intelligence understand time isn’t their greatest asset; it’s their presence.

Physically being there for people isn’t enough. We must also be present mentally and emotionally. Connecting with people becomes seriously challenging if we aren’t paying attention to people.

Being present isn’t easy. In addition to all the external distractions around us, we also have to learn how to quiet the internal dialogue we have going on in our heads in order to focus on the person in front of us. Like author Stephen Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Each interaction we have is an opportunity to improve being more present.

  • Put your agenda on hold by reminding yourself to adopt the mindset of a learner in your daily conversations.
  • Prioritize a notebook instead of your phone while challenging yourself to take note of the items that are clearly important to the people you meet.
  • When your mind begins to wander, use it as a sign-post to re-establish eye-contact with the person you are speaking with to draw yourself back into the conversation.

Arguably the best thing you can do to be more present is to practice mindfulness meditation. Studies have shown that it helps us to regulate our emotions, increase our focus and working memory while reducing stress; all of which contribute to creating higher-quality conversations with others.

“A” = “Authenticity”

Albrecht breaks authenticity down to three parts: having respect for ourselves, having faith in our personal values and beliefs, and being straight with others. When you get this trifecta right, others perceive you as authentic.

The backbone of being authentic, however, is found in our self-awareness in which having a deep understanding of our values plays a key role. We’ll never be the person we want to be if we don’t know what that person looks like.

In order to get clear on your values, Albrecht suggests writing a personal mission statement. This can sound like a daunting task, but don’t make it harder than it has to be. Use Oprah Winfrey’s personal mission statement a guide: “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.”

This may sound basic but found inside these two short sentences are values like community, growth, responsibility, kindness, and influence. When observing Oprah, it is obvious she walks her talk.

When writing out your personal mission statement, Christopher D. Connors, the author of “The Value of You,” recommends getting clear on your five key values then creating a statement of no more than 50 words to serve as your North-star. Follow Chris’s advice and ask yourself:

  • What are my natural gifts and talents?
  • What lights me up and motivates me?
  • What have I learned from my experiences and how have they made me a better person?
  • How can my gifts best serve my community?

According to Chris, not only will these questions give you clarity on your values and raise your self-awareness. It will also improve your decision-making process. It’s hard to be straight with people if you aren’t clear on what you should say yes and no to.

“C” = “Clarity”

When it comes to communication, clarity is key. Socially intelligent people consistently work to express their thoughts and feelings in an easy to digest manner.

One exercise Albrecht recommends is practicing our elevator pitch. Taking the time to write out a personal mission statement will help tremendously with this. Start by imagining you had one minute to pitch your company or yourself to someone who has the ability to change your stars.

What would you say?

As someone who grew up with a severe speech impediment, from my experience, few exercises will improve your communication skills faster than writing this out, then recording yourself giving your pitch over and over again until you get it right.

Like the other aspects of social intelligence, however, there are numerous ways to practice communicating with more clarity.

The ability to simplify complex ideas down to light-weight, yet compelling language, is a skill that is only growing in importance in our fast-paced world.

“E” = “Empathy”

Empathy is the bridge that brings people together and creates bonds. It’s arguably the most important aspect of socially intelligent people. As John Steinbeck wrote,

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

Being empathetic, however, isn’t only about being able to identify with other people to create a sense of connectedness and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. When it comes to social intelligence, according to Albrecht, it’s also about inspiring people to cooperate.

In addition to demonstrating nurturing behaviors that allow people to feel valued and respected like attentiveness and appreciation. Albrecht also recommends making a conscious effort to keep our toxic behaviors in check. It’s hard to make connections with people if you are criticizing, playing mind games, or speaking poorly of them.

  • Am I giving people room to express themselves and listening more than I’m speaking?
  • Am I stepping back in order to see different perspectives and thought-processes?
  • Am I being open-minded and keeping my preconceived notions and beliefs in check to better understand the thoughts and feelings of the people around me?

Socially intelligent people ask themselves these questions to not only empathize with people at the moment but to also move forward together in the future.

The beauty of improving our social intelligence is the 5 traits and behaviors above aren’t only reserved for a select few.

Every day we all have countless opportunities to learn from not only our own successes and failures when navigating our social interactions, but also from those of the people around us.

Steal a line from Kristina Howard and choose to make improving your social intelligence a priority. A life hack doesn’t exist that is more effective than learning how to build strong relationships.


Situational awareness — Presence — Authenticity — Clarity — Empathy

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