Daniel Goleman
January 5 2007
By Rebecca Knight, Financial Times

Daniel Goleman knows people. I don’t mean he knows “people”, that he is connected to celebrities or gangsters or politicians, although I suppose he might be. I mean he gets people, he understands people. He has a keen appreciation for the scientific basis of why we are the way we are - why some of us are natural flirts while others of us have a hard time getting a second date; why some of us are wired to make a great first impression at a job interview while others are useless at navigating office politics.

Goleman is an expert on emotional intelligence, the ability to perceive, assess and manage our emotions. His book on the subject, published in 1995, has sold more than 5 million copies and been translated into 30 languages.

His new book, Social Intelligence, is a sequel of sorts. The book - equal parts science manual, sociological study and pop psychology page-turner - is about how we can be smarter in relationships by being empathetic and learning how to read other people’s cues and then act on them.

Goleman and I are due to have lunch at a Tibetan restaurant in Northampton, Massachusetts, the buzzing New England college town where he lives. He arrives at Lhasa Café wearing a professor’s uniform: blue jeans, a maroon jumper and a tweed jacket. Goleman, who has kind eyes and a closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard, plops down in the booth and engages me in some pleasant chit-chat: my journey from Boston, the unusually nippy weather, this year’s dazzling autumn foliage - this is what the experts call “building rapport”.

A minute or two later, after spying my little black digital voice recorder, he begins to look pensively around the room. Goleman, who earned his Ph.D. in personality and development at Harvard and worked for many years as a science journalist, tells me he is worried that the noisiness of the restaurant might interfere with the sound quality on the machine and make it difficult for me later to transcribe the interview. See that? Empathy.

Goleman walks over to our waitress and apologizes to her - by name! - that we will not be dining there today, promising to come back another time. He is the master of diplomacy.

And so we cross the town’s Main Street and settle upon Paul and Elizabeth’s Natural Foods Restaurant, located in a refurbished department store. After ordering drinks - a cup of Earl Grey tea for him, and a glass of pinot noir for me - we settle in to discuss his new book. “Social intelligence is being smart about relationships, it’s the interpersonal part of intelligence,” he tells me. “The brain is wired to acquire social intelligence from birth on. The first time a mother and baby meet eyes, that baby has started to lay down a blueprint of how you interact.”

You don’t have to go out of your way to create this “blueprint”, he says, it happens naturally through what are called mirroring neurons. This is where his research gets a bit technical: these mirroring neurons are a class of brain cell that operate like an internal wi-fi - tracking the emotional flow and intentions of the person we are with, and replicating this perceived state in our own brain. We are, he says, constantly engaged in a “neural ballet” that connects us - brain to brain - with those around us.

“An enormous amount of learning from infancy and childhood goes on through modeling - through observing how others act - and bringing that into the brain as part of a potential repertoire for behaviour and then using it in the right situations,” he says. “The brain is designed to do that, it’s very efficient.”

As we dip in to our first course, a chunky split-pea soup, he explains how socially intelligent behaviour - or lack of it - plays out in the office.

“The more rapport you have in a business setting, the quicker the deal will go down and the better people will work together as a team. It’s very important to attune to that and to realize that the inner states of people as they work together matter.”

What happens, I ask, if we’re not attuned to that?

“A work environment that is emotionally toxic is also a great detriment to effectiveness. Socially intelligent leaders recognize that part of their world is to help other people be at their best - which is to be motivated, be enthused and be interested.”

Does it surprise you how many leaders can’t seem to do that effectively?

Goleman answers almost mid bite: “It not only surprises me, it appalls me. Frankly, it suggests to me that too many organizations are rather naive about the ingredients of leadership and make the classic mistake of assuming that someone who is an outstanding individual contributor would therefore be an outstanding leader. If they’re an outstanding individual contributor keep them as an individual contributor. Give them a raise,” he says emphatically.

Sounds sensible, I say, but can it really work in practice? After all, most offices I know are political minefields.

He then tells me about a fellow he met recently who heads a bank in Boston. This bank boss recognized the phenomenon we are talking about and so created two tracks for promotion. One track is for employees whom the company values, but who will never be leaders, allowing them to continue to be strong individual contributors and to gain more status and pay. The second track is for the employees considered to be the real leaders. It seems to work, he says.

Our main courses arrive: for Goleman, a deep-fried fish sandwich; and, for me, a spinach salad tossed with a mustard vinaigrette dressing. What happens, I ask, to those who lack even a whiff of social intelligence - they must be doomed to the lower rungs on the corporate ladder.

Goleman shakes his head vigorously. “It’s not that you have it or you don’t,” he says. “Social intelligence is a composite of many abilities. Some people might be fantastic at recognizing what clients need - that’s a form of empathy. Some people might be very good at feeling the mood of a room and tracking that moment-to-moment. Some people might be very skilled at making new connections, have extensive networks. Other people might be very good at understanding the political dynamics of a company. If you’re at a high level in business, odds are you’re pretty good at many of those.”

So how do the rest of us get better?

The answer, he says, is very simple: by listening. “Listening poorly is the common cold of social intelligence. And it’s being made worse by technology. To have a human moment, you need to be fully present. You have to be away from your laptop, you put down your BlackBerry, you end your daydream and you pay full attention to the person you’re with. It may sound rudimentary, but think about how often we just keep multitasking and half pay attention. You can overcome that by becoming mindful of what is happening.”

I notice that Goleman has left two half moons of bread crust - similar to the way my young cousins leave their sandwich remains - and I worry that he wasn’t satisfied with his meal. He sees the concern in my face.

“It was too much,” he says by way of explanation. “And bread is not that great for you.” (Goleman, who says his favorite form of exercise is walking around New York City, is thin-framed and probably doesn’t need to worry about his intake of carbohydrates.)

Our waitress inquires whether we would like dessert and recites a list of “natural” choices: pumpkin pie, fresh fruit crunch, dairy-free mousse. I opt for a slice of the banana cream pie. Goleman decides to skip the course, but after being assured that the pumpkin pie is made with fresh, not canned, pumpkin, he orders a slice to go. “It’s my wife’s favorite,” he says, beaming. His wife, Tara Bennett-Goleman, is a psychotherapist and teacher who has also written a popular neuroscience bestseller. I take my cue and ask whether there is such a thing as a “socially intelligent” marriage.

Two things seem to be essential for a robust, happy and healthy marriage, he begins. “The first is when a couple is learning how to work out disagreements, they don’t let it escalate to the point where they can’t talk about it any more; maybe they have a time-out and then talk about the problem in a more rational way.”

The second is the five-to-one ratio. The healthiest marriages have five positive interactions for every one negative one. “That means that if you’re going to fight for a half hour, have a good time for an evening.”

As we get ready to leave the restaurant, I ask whether there are differences between men and women in terms of innate social intelligence.

It’s not that either gender has an all-out advantage, he says. “Women tend to be better at primal empathy, which is the sensing feelings. It’s more socially nuanced, they tend to be better at reading situations. Men tend to be better at managing distress.”

But these are not frozen skill sets - we can improve. “It’s not like IQ. These are plastic skills and the brain is designed to get better, the brain is designed to use it or lose it. Anyone theoretically can get better.”

Anyone? Even you? I ask.

“I don’t consider myself particularly socially intelligent. I don’t go around saying be like me, I just say: this exists.

“I’m probably not too bad... you’ll have to ask my wife and kids.”