Rebuilding Our Social Intelligence
“My teacher is trying to trick us. She never puts assignments online. We’re just supposed to remember.” – Middle school student
“I couldn’t stand the angry, defiant people anymore so although I’m not sure it’s time, we’ve removed our mask mandate for our store.” – Grocery store owner
“I think the doctor messed up my care. I’m supposed to feel better by now.” – Retired professor
As a result of the tough times of the past few years, we all seem to be on guard. Though the teacher intends for her students to write down their assignments as an important lesson in work management and the vast majority of grocery store patrons willingly wore masks without argument when it was required and the doctor actually performed the surgery perfectly but it’s taking time to heal and adjust, these are simple examples of how we may be less inclined to trust others’ intentions or motivations now. Our safety has been challenged one too many times. We’ve found ourselves disagreeing wholeheartedly with others we once viewed as close allies including family and friends. We’ve dealt with mixed information and misinformation about issues related to our well-being. We’ve endured losses of individuals to COVID and stress-related illnesses and perhaps, also sustained losses of relationships because of disagreements or destructive choices. And we’ve been more isolated than perhaps ever in our lives.
This social distance – our keeping away from others – has created an emotional as well as a physical divide. Add to it our daily consumption of social media and we may sit in judgment of others more often than we’d like to admit. Our “othering” tendency may just be at an all-time high.
Some reflections I’ve heard recently reinforce this notion. “You’d think we’d have less stress as COVID restrictions recede but it feels like there’s more!” “Why is it people seem to be so on edge and making more destructive even outlandish choices when we are increasing our freedoms?” Indeed stress is cumulative. The very definition of anxiety involves the world changing around us faster than we are able to adapt. Generally, many have tapped their resilience reserves to cope with the stressors of our times one too many times. For those who haven’t been doubling-down on renewal and care, their reserves may just be empty.
What happens when our patience, our resilience, our self-management reserves are depleted? We react instinctively, defensively, impulsively. We may blame others for our unhappiness and have less of a willingness to accept our own limitations or poor reactions to our emotions. We may react more from our reptilian brain (fight, flight or freeze) which offers us very limited choices. And our children and teens may be reacting in their own uniquely challenging ways. Those actions can resemble more of a reptile’s reactions versus a rational thinking person… hissing, snapping back, even lashing out. Our kids may surprise us or we may even surprise ourselves.
This can become particularly challenging in family life as our lives speed up going to school or to meetings in-person, increasing our travel, and generally spending more time away from home. Additionally, as we begin to engage in relationships beyond our home more in person, we may approach those interactions with great caution, fear or skepticism. And perhaps we are hearing about or experiencing behavior from our kids that is new, different or disturbing.
So it’s time to rebuild our social intelligence – in our kids and in ourselves and fortunately, we can work on both simultaneously. Daniel Goleman, in his book “Social Intelligence; The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships” offers two core components of social intelligence: 1.) social awareness and 2.) social facility. Let’s take a look at how these have specifically been impacted by the pandemic.
a. Empathy = we feel for and with others
b. Nonverbal signals = understanding others through tone of voice, facial expressions. and body language.
c. Attunement = listening fully to another
d. Empathetic accuracy = understanding another’s thoughts, feelings and intentions
e. Social cognition = knowing how social situations and interactions work.
Potential Pandemic Impact:
a. Empathy – There is so much pain right now that if we are feeling it for and with others, it can wear us down. In fact, we/our children may actively work to block others’ feelings because we’re worn with our own emotions. On the plus side, there’s been a greater, wider sensitization to injustices, misinformation campaigns, and other’s suffering as we are keenly tuned into local, national and global news.
b. Nonverbal signals – Masks have covered half of and our faces when out of our homes making it more difficult to read nonverbal cues. This is particularly salient for our children who have been in- person in schools. Though most schools have dropped the mask mandate now, most of the year has been spent missing some of the social cues offered and straining to figure them out. For professionals, we’ve spent our days on Zoom with a limited view of the face and shoulders of the other person missing the rest of the body’s nonverbal cues.
c. Attunement – Masks may challenge us to fully listen to another person particularly when there’s ambient sound like noisy hallways.
d. Empathetic accuracy – We have a heightened sense now of stranger danger – and not just strangers! – family and friends too. Do you recall when the news first told us to assume everyone we come into contact with has COVID? This lack of safety can skew our perceptions of others. We may assess ill intent where none exists.
e. Social cognition – We are simply out of practice!
This is just scratching the surface of social intelligence. Here’s the second half involving social facility.
a. Synchrony = smooth interactions through nonverbals.
b. Self-presentation = presenting ourselves effectively.
c. Influence = Shaping the outcome of social interactions.
d. Concern = Caring about others needs and making choices that reflect care.
Potential Pandemic Impact:
a. Synchrony – It’s difficult to achieve synchrony if we struggle to see nonverbals behind a mask or with a limited view on Zoom.
b. Self-presentation – For kids, they may have felt safe hiding from social pressures behind their mask and may now struggle as masks come off.
c. Influence – We may experience increased discomfort and even a lack of agency as we have to literally face individuals we’ve disagreed with or know they’ve voiced very different views.
d. Concern – This is compassion at its finest. This involves our moral compass and consequential thinking. But we can find it challenging to make decisions that care for others when we ourselves feel depleted.
There’s much we can do to help rebuild our social intelligence! First, acknowledging what we are going through is key. Our raised awareness will be an important first step toward accepting our circumstances and offering family members more grace as they deal with their own stressors. Easing back into social situations in moderation can help with making adjustments too. Here are some additional steps we can take to ensure our children and ourselves are rebuilding our social intelligence.
Replenish the Empty Well with Daily Mindfulness and Gratitude
Our families will continue to struggle until we become committed to refilling the empty well. Since anxiety is contagious, we inadvertently share it with one another. So taking care involves the entire family. Here are some key questions about potential daily practices that can nourish your soul and allow the water to flow back into your life-spring!
- Do you have a daily deep breathing ritual? Nothing replenishes your body, mind and spirit at once quite like deep breathing can.
- Do you reflect on or voice gratitude with your family at least once per day? Families that do experience greater well-being. Consider that you and your children get plenty of doses of negativity through social media and news. How will you balance those sources so that you see the good in your life?
- How do you take in fresh air and get into nature? Forest bathing is not the only way to experience nature. Just a walk around the block can be replenishing.
- How do you limit your screen time – your children’s and your own? Too much screen time can reduce quantity and quality of sleep at night and make you feel lethargic not to mention the content that is often negative or destructive. Limiting screen time matters.
- How do you reflect and reframe? Do you journal or write down your thoughts and feelings? It’s not enough just to reflect. Reflection alone can turn into rumination, or a churning of the same thoughts over and over. Instead, how can you read wisdom in books, podcasts and through your best sage sources to help reframe your thinking (we hope this is one place you can do that!)?
Accept and Validate Even the Most Challenging Feelings
There are a huge range of feelings we just don’t want to show to the outside world. Yet, they are a part of being human. If we hide them or shove them down, not only will they come out stronger (and produce reactions we may later regret) but also, we’ll model hiding and shoving for our children. Instead we offer our children strength when we name the mix-up of feelings we hold – hurt, anger, shame, jealousy, disgust – and validate that ours and their own feelings are normal.
Initiate the Pause Principle.
When our self-control has been depleted, we run a much greater risk of hurting someone we love — at any age. It’s as simple as that. So get into the habit as a family of pausing when emotions run high. Take some beats to breathe. This super simple step allows for impulse to turn to feeling to turn to thought. It happens within seconds but those are precious seconds that help us consider the impact of our words and actions on others.
Discuss the Impact of Choices.
Have a difficult decision to make? COVID has offered a million opportunities for them. Talk as a family about challenging decisions to gather thoughts and feelings. Include your children and teens in these valuable discussions. Consider the impact today on yourself and others? Is there the potential for harm to anyone with a particular course of action? What about next week? How will the potential decisions impact yourself and others in a month or a year? Now play out making the debated choice. Imagine telling the story of your decision later to someone you admire greatly. Did you demonstrate moral courage? Will you be proud of your choice?
Repair Harm After A Poor Choice.
Though you may need to wait to let emotions cool, don’t wait too long if your child or you makes a poor choice. Often one poor choice can spiral downward into more to cope with the first. There’s always a next opportunity to make it right. Guide your child (or model for yourself) to take responsibility for your role in the problem (even if others made poor choices too). You might ask your child: how do you feel? And how can you repair the relationship? What can you do to make him feel better or safer or trust you more? Children may require your hand-holding through the process of repairing harm. And that’s okay! In fact, adults struggle to do this effectively. So support your child as needed when they apologize to a friend or mend a toy for a sibling. They will learn a critical life lesson as you support them through the courageous act of taking responsibility for their choices.
Also, check out our Fighting Fairly Family Pledge which lists specific ways of fighting to avoid because they destroy trust and ways in which we can build up trust and come through disagreements stronger and more connected.
We have been facing perhaps the biggest tests of our relationships in recent history throughout this pandemic and its many ripple effects. If we didn’t quite fathom our interconnectedness before, we have evidence of how we are inextricably linked locally, nationally and globally. As we reenter the world, we begin to realize that our ability to care for ourselves and our family has ripple effects for each person with whom we come into contact physically, socially and emotionally. It will take time, mistakes, and many rehearsals to rebuild or for young children to build their social intelligence. But we know the steps we need to take. If we become intentional about this process, we will meet the times and more importantly each other with a sense of gratitude; grateful for the freedom, meaning and life-giving enrichment of being with one another and growing together.