Social Awareness

Social awareness will help you know what others think about you. But research tells me we're not very good at this anymore. Discover how understanding others will help you succeed by following the advice on this page.

Understanding other people's feelings is central to emotional intelligence. Get this wrong and you'll be seen as uncaring and insensitive. Getting it right is essential for success.

Social Awareness meets Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence consists of four basic capabilities, or domains. These are:

This page focuses on social awareness - the ability to understand and respond to the needs of others. This is the third of the domains of emotional intelligence proposed by Daniel Goleman. Use the links above to find out about the other domains or get an overview of emotional intelligence here.

Social Awareness

The waiter who suggests a better dish, the salesperson who goes the extra mile, the supportive team leader, and the executive that remembers your name - each of these have one thing in common. They excel in social awareness.

According to Daniel Goleman the competencies associated with being socially aware are:

  • Empathy: understanding the other person’s emotions, needs and concerns.
  • Organisational Awareness: the ability to understand the politics within an organization and how these affect the people working in them.
  • Service: the ability to understand and meet the needs of clients and customers.

Essentially awareness of social situations is about carefully considering what people want, and planning to communicate with them in a way that is intended to meet that need.

Is this the same as manipulation? I'm not sure. Great leaders and public speakers are skilled in this ability and it helps them build support.

I don't believe social awareness is intended to be quite as calculated as manipulation. At best being socially aware is a natural response to people, taking their situation and needs into account as much as possible.

Caring 2.0

Recent research, reported by Time Magazine, finds that college students have less empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of others — than students of previous generations.

Digital communication, social networking, video conferencing and other forms of new media are being blamed for this loss of empathy.

After all, it's much easier to say negative things about others if you don't have to say it to their face. And if I don't feel like engaging in your problems, I can simply log off, or even 'unfriend' you. It's an easy option.

The trouble is that when there is no empathy, when we don't work to understand the needs of others, there is also a significant loss of trust.

Because I don't really know what you're thinking and feeling I trust you less, and isolate myself more. This can have major implications for business where trust is essential for successful leadership and partnerships.

More importantly though, when you respond to the needs and feelings of other people, you gain their trust.

Others will be labelled uncaring and insensitive, but you are trusted when you're able to understand and respond to the needs and values of individuals, and the group.

This is true whether you're a salesperson dealing with the public, or a leader in an organisation.


Leaders in organisations have traditionally viewed empathy with suspicion, thinking that there is no place for soft emotional skills in the tough world of business.

My experience is that managers worry that employees will take advantage of them if they show any empathy.

But changing times and recognition of the strategic advantages of taking employees feelings into consideration has lead to social consciousness being regarded as a critical skill for effective leaders.

This has even impacted the training given to doctors. Today doctors are trained to formulate a bio-psycho-social understanding of the problem rather than treating patients purely as a diagnosis.

Empathising with someone - understanding their point of view - doesn't mean you have to agree with their point of view.

Empathy is really about acknowledging the emotions of others, being thoughtful and considerate of their feelings, and making decisions that take those feelings into consideration.

How to build social awareness

  • Improve your listening skills. Take a short course in effective communication skills.
  • Pay close attention to interactions with other people. Be aware of what they say, how they say it and what they do.
  • Identify other people’s emotional states. Listen carefully to what they're saying and notice how they respond to external events, such as someone greeting them or asking them to do something.
  • Think about your feelings. How does the other person’s emotion make you feel?
  • Think before you answer and give clear answers.

Try This

Pay close attention to your interactions with other people. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Did I listen actively to the person who approached me? Was I too busy to listen?
  2. Did I ask the other person questions about the content of what s/he was saying as well as his/her feelings and emotions about what they are saying?
  3. Did I change my body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other elements in order to meet the needs of the other person?

Sensitivity and diversity

Developing social awareness is important as it affects your response to people and situations.

The starting place for becoming socially aware is self awareness.

Self awareness is essential in order to understand the feelings and emotions of others while self management is necessary to ensure that your response is appropriate to the situation.

An empathic response requires awareness of diversity and a sensitivity to the needs and emotions of others.

Diversity encompasses acceptance and respect while recognising our individual differences and uniqueness. Open communication plays an essential role in managing diversity and building an awareness of social situations.

Everything starts with an 'E'

I always enjoyed this bit of grafitti. While it's true that everything starts with an 'e' I've discovered that empathy always starts with 'u' - (you).

Mother Teresa (1910-1997) told us that empathy has to start with us. She said Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person. This advice comes from one of the best voices for social awareness that we can listen to.

Social awareness is a key element of your emotional intelligence. Don't complain about people who are not understanding of your needs. Focus rather on growing your emotional intelligence and practicing empathy, service and organisational awareness yourself.

Social awareness is an essential building block for emotional intelligence. Practicing attention to social situations is a habit that closely corresponds with Stephen Covey's Habit 5. The more it's practiced the more likely it is to become a habit.

As we improve social awareness we also improve our experience of life, create opportunities for better work life balance, become aware of other peoples emotions, and improve our ability to respond to change.

Build your Relationship management skills - the final EQ ability.

Leave Social Awareness and return to the Emotional Intelligence overview.

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