People on busy city streets worldwide are less likely to notice, greet, or offer help to someone else because of “urban trance” — a self-absorbed state to guard against stimulus overload from the swirl around us. Urbanites learn to manage the anxiety of seeing someone in distress by reflexively shifting attention away. Otherwise, once we experience empathy, the odds are high that we would offer help.

Altruism is emotionally contagious: when we see an act of kindness, it typically stirs in us the impulse to perform one, too.

According to modern psychology, empathy has three parts (1) knowing another’s feelings (2) feeling what the other feels and (3) responding compassionately to another’s distress. Our brains are preset and hard-wired for kindness.

Altruism is a stronger impulse than our built-in bias for anger, jealousy, selfishness and envy. To feel with urges us to act for. Low road empathy is subject to reappraisal by high road reconsideration. The low road offers us a first choice but the high road can decide where we end up. The pre-frontal cortex (where we think and reason) can manage the amygdala…at least sometimes. Sometimes the pre-frontal cortex can even re-program the amygdala: we use the high road to reengineer the low.

Social intelligence, according to Goleman, is a combination of social awareness and social facility.

Social awareness involves:
  • Primal empathy — feeling with others; sensing non-verbal emotional signals. Even though we stop talking, we cannot stop sending signals about what we feel. When it comes to emotions, we cannot not communicate.
  • Attunement — listening with full receptivity; attuning to a person. Attunement is a fully sustained presence that facilitates rapport, i.e. “deep listening”. Talking at a person instead of listening to a person creates a monologue, thereby hijacking the conversation. Intentionally paying more attention may be the best way to encourage the emergence of rapport.
  • Empathic accuracy — perhaps the essential expertise, empathic accuracy distinguishes the most tactful advisors, the most diplomatic officials, the most effective negotiators, the most electable politicians, the most productive salespersons, the most successful teachers, and the most effective therapists. It’s a very important key to successful marriage.
  • Social cognition — knowing how the social world works. Adeptness at decoding social signals.

Social facility involves:
  • Synchrony — interacting smoothly at the non-verbal level. Synchrony is a low road skill, e.g. smiling or nodding at the right moment or simply orienting our body towards the other person. Those who fail to get in synch may fidget nervously, freeze, or simply be oblivious to the non-verbal duet. Dyssemia is a deficit in reading non-verbal signs that guide smooth interactions. Dyssemia plagues children who are social rejects and later troubled relationships in the adult world. Dyssemia isn’t caused by neurological conditions like autism or Asperger’s syndrome, but seems to originate from failure to interact enough with peers, or from a family of origin that didn’t display a given range of emotion or followed eccentric social norms.
  • Self-presentation — presenting ourselves in ways that make a desired impression — to control and mask our expression of emotions. Charisma is one aspect of self-presentation that peaks in effective public speakers. Women are ordinarily more emotionally expressive than men, but are often constrained by the norms of the workplace where crying and anger can be taboo. A possible exception: anger may not seem out of place when it comes from the boss.
  • Influence — shaping the outcome of social situations. Skillful and subtle use of acknowledged power — like the very best police officers.
  • Concern — those most susceptible to emotional contagion are those most moved to help others, and act on it. Concern becomes potent when harnessed to high road abilities. Concern is at the root of the helping professions such as medicine and social work, who thrive when concern waxes, but burn out as it wanes. Manipulative people who may be skilled in other abilities of social intelligence fail here.

The low road is eminently trainable. Conventional ideas of social intelligence have too often focused on the high road — on cognition about relationships — ignoring low road essentials like primal empathy, synchrony and concern. A purely cognitive perspective slights the essential low road brain-to-brain social glue that builds the foundation for any interaction. The full spectrum of social intelligence embraces both high road and low road aptitudes. The basic elements of nourishing relationships must be included in any full account of social intelligence. Without them the concept remains cold and dry, valuing a calculating intellect but ignoring the values of a warm heart.

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