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Becoming Socially Intelligent - Ramya Maheswari home
Ramya Maheswari Mrs. Ramya Maheswari Assistant Professor and Head Department of Psychology Ethiraj College For Women, Chennai.

Man as a social animal is "wired to connect", affirms the emerging field of social neuroscience. This means that whenever we engage with another person there is a brain to brain link up happening irrespective of whether it is a routine encounter or an emotionally charged interpersonal interaction. What makes this science interesting is that it offers explanations for questions about the nature of human interactions that plague our minds from time to time.

Consider the following questions. Why do we get instantly drawn to certain people and repelled by certain others? What makes certain relationships so toxic that it threatens physical and psychological health? Why are certain people so manipulative and do we have the ability to pick such manipulative tendencies intuitively? Why do certain relationships fail despite genuine attempts to keep together? Why is it that we sometimes feel so miserable , that we find it hard to keep our inner peace? While social neuroscience talks of brain circuitry responsible for such experiences, it is also possible to approach these questions, from psychological and socio-cultural view -points. Though subscribing to one particular approach would only give us a bird's eye view, trying to understand human need for social connectedness and barriers to healthy interaction from various perspectives is truly beyond the scope of this article. In this article, however I attempt to bring together some interesting insights on need and nature of human interaction that may serve as sparks to make sense of our experiences as well as few barriers and facilitators to healthy human interaction.

Despite social corrosion brought on by technological advancement, humans' hunger for attention and recognition has not diminished. Since being recognised and acknowledged by self and others is the first step towards achieving self -esteem, (s)he tries to meet this need by participating in the interpersonal economy involving a certain amount of give and take. Any verbal or non - verbal expression, whether positive or negative such as a compliment, a smile, a hug, a wink or even frown or insult has no technical replacements as they mean that an individual's existence is acknowledged. Thus every human interaction can be seen as an emotionally charged transaction between individuals that results in transfer of feelings. What is more important is that every transaction however fleeting it may be leaves a mood that stays long after the initial encounter ends , which Goleman calls as an emotional afterglow. He further adds that gains and losses we experience with each conversation and each person results in a net balance of feelings which determines what kind of a day we have had. This is largely determined by the quality and intensity of the transaction that varies from person to person and one situation to another.

This phenomenon possibly explains why certain transactions appear meaningful or rather why we are drawn more readily to certain people. Any transaction that feels pleasant, and smooth and make's one feel light, valued, understood, cherished and respected builds rapport and facilitates interaction. However the downside of this emotional contagion is that when we act like sponges to people and situations around us, for example, by simply being around with people who suppress or feign emotions, we can become unwitting victims of their toxic state too. Words, in addition to facial expression also add to emotional contagion. According to Newberg and Walden (2016), while positive words increase cognitive reasoning, negative words send alarm signals that partially shut down the logical and reasoning centres of the brain. Seeing and listening a list of negative words can make a person feel anxious and depressed. The more they ruminate on them they disrupt not just physical health but interferes with their ability to experience long term happiness and satisfaction.

It is note –worthy to mention here that this key mechanism for "catching" someone else's feeling is more reflexive, in the sense that the emotional aspect of a transaction is processed subliminally, beneath the reach of conscious awareness and such information is processed at a faster speed than information that requires us to make sense of the experience. In addition, emotionally charged events amplify brains responses. In effect we not only "catch" someone's emotion but we also tend to mimic disturbances in others without much thought. One study revealed that when married couples argued, each partner mimicked the other and as the conflict progressed they drove each other into escalating states of anger, hurt and sadness.

If humans can "catch" someone's expressed feelings, what do they do when someone tries to suppress their true feelings. Research shows that forthrightness is the brain's default response and anyone trying to suppress an emotion require conscious effort and this is easily detected by another individual interacting with him. . However some people master the art of lying such that their true emotions are not detected easily by the other person's emotional radar. It is also important to note that people differ in their sensitivity to pick up this contagion. While some stay very vulnerable, some may sail through even the most toxic encounter. To put it all in a nut shell, we can evoke a certain emotion in another person and alter his or her mood state. We catch other's emotions and mimic them, and these emotions have consequences either for the worse or better depending on the individual and the situation he is in. Therefore the first step towards becoming socially intelligent is to become socially aware. According to Goleman, it involves knowledge on how the social world works and the ability to tune into other people's thoughts and feelings.

Though humans are interdependent on each other for fruitful transactions that can fuel their self - esteem, in reality, the need for recognition is not easily met for a host of reasons listed below. In an attempt to achieve equity in relationships, we want to ensure we take as much as we give and fear that giving alone will deplete us of the needed resources. In other instances we wait for moments or circumstances when giving and receiving seem appropriate for given social standards. Therefore timely recognition is not given. This testifies why unexpressed love between couples or delayed feedback to an employee can draw the life out of relationships.

We also care less about what would really make the other person happy and hence assume that what would make us happy ,will make the other person happy as well. For example if giving a listening ear makes us happy, we tend to think it could make others happy as well. This assumption can be erroneous and reduces the quality of completed transactions. Moreover individuals differ in their capacity to experience happiness. Neglected and rejected individuals require consistent praise and acknowledgements as fear and self- doubt plague them due to their traumatic emotional experiences.

Sometimes in a relationship, one partner tries to exercise more power and influence over the other, deciding the conditions under which his/her partner will be acknowledged or recognised. As a result, the relationship seems skewed, favouring and fulfilling the needs of one partner against the other. In addition, the developing narcissistic culture promotes self against others. We are uncomfortable to praise or encourage others, and even if we do so, we do it superficially. Such plastic smiles and acts keep relationships superficial and prevents true intimacy. We also feel shy to receive compliments and doubt the sincerity with which it is given to us. Above all we are hypercritical of our own self that we hardly are able to give ourselves a pat on the own shoulder for our achievements. In addition to the above barriers, paradoxically, we also tend to discount and devalue appreciations and other acts of love from certain people who are either familiar to us like a family member or whom we do not hold in respect such as our employees. When we come to think of it, it becomes obvious that social awareness is necessary but may not be sufficient for smooth interaction. Strangely we seem to hold back what we so eagerly look for.

This brings us to the question "To what extent should we depend on others for meeting our need for recognition and how can we enhance our transactions to make interactions healthy"? Though being acknowledged, praised and recognised is a basic human need, constantly expecting others to do so may be a sign of emotional immaturity and poor self- esteem. It is important to realise that receiving recognition is out of our own control. The key to happiness lies inside and can be harnessed by increasing effort and efficiency. Paying more attention than what is necessary can promote clinginess and dependency that can turn transactions rancid.

Though social neuroscience makes it appear that we are a product of genetic, neurological and biochemical influences, we as humans have also had experiences that defy it. Haven't we been truly interested in a friend or a family member who because of a mental disorder ends up screaming at us every time we try to get close to him/her? Haven't we been concerned about war victims, survivors of natural disasters whom we have never met? While biological, biochemical, neurological and endocrinological explanations validate the experiences of human interactions, the key ingredients to healthy human interaction can be nurtured. Becoming socially intelligent is to be able to use the social awareness and build upon it. Given below are a few ways in which we can develop and strengthen social connections.

1. It is important to remember that change always begins with the self. The earlier we become aware of the nuances of social interaction both at the verbal and non – verbal level, the savvier we become at shaping the outcomes of our interaction.

2. Children should be taught to develop empathy which helps them to transact from "me" to "we" with less effort, which is at the root of social interactions. Teaching children emotional self – management strategies to deal with minor upsets and failures can promote resilience in the face of stress.

3. Understanding that in the grip of emotions we often act reflexively, just taking time to think before reacting will help individuals consider consequences of their different responses. This can result in fewer conflicts and enhanced interaction. Preventing the limbic system hijack, would mean the brain's higher centres would help us decide if the person we are interacting with is worthy of attachment and if so to what extent.

4. Intense emotional arousal hampers with the executive centres of the brain, hampering reasoning and judgement. Hence, care should be taken to achieve an optimal emotional atmosphere, be it home or workplace. Since we, to a certain extent inadvertently "catch" people's emotions we need to be careful about whom we draw into our emotional orbits. Hence it becomes necessary to surround ourselves with people who possess positive thoughts and behaviours.

5. "Genuine, well deserved appreciations affirming one's positive personality traits and accomplishments add to self - esteem which in turn leads to effective and smooth interaction. This helps us to strike a meaningful emotional bond and makes one come across as a trustworthy and reliable person.

6. Appropriate self - disclosure deepens trust and liking. Being non- judgemental of self and others, ability to care and share, ability to exercise self – control and ability to assert oneself creates a desired impression on others, thus maximising one's ability to increase their circle of influence.

7. The use of positive affirmations for self is a powerful tool for meeting our need for recognition in the absence of significant positive transaction.

In conclusion, Intuition and logic has to go hand in hand for one to be socially intelligent. In the words of Mindy Hall "Every action has an impact ;Choose wisely the impact you want to have" Act wisely to connect happily. Happy Connecting.

 
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