3 Tips to Build Social Awareness

A front-line employee with masterful customer skills can seem like they’re performing an act of magic in mask-to-mask communication. How do they intuit what the customer is thinking in a matter of seconds? How is it that they know exactly what to do or say?

What seems like gut intuition or an innate ability is really a high degree of social awareness. Social awareness is your ability to observe, recognize, and understand the emotions, moods, and tendencies of other people. This awareness is necessary to control your reactions to others and manage relationships to the best of your ability.

Be reassured that social awareness is a skill you can grow to reap important benefits. Below are three recent accounts of people high in social awareness who succeed despite masks and new Covid-19 challenges. For each account, one social awareness strategy from our book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 is used to break down how to bring these strategies into your life and to help you implement them in your mask-to-mask interactions.

Kyle: Seeing problems ahead of time, de-escalation, and conflict diffusion.

The Account: “When we [lifeguards in San Diego, CA] assumed responsibility for shutting down beaches at the height of the social distancing, we found our job had quickly changed from something physical (rescues) to something social (law enforcement). Namely, we had to regularly navigate conflicts with people refusing to leave the beach. Kyle stepped naturally into the role of diffuser and compliance officer. He had a way of first striking up conversations, then managing the conflicts efficiently with minimal disagreement. When disagreement was necessary, he stepped up and made sure the person knew who was in charge of the situation.” 

The Strategy: Practice the art of listening. While it may have seemed like Kyle was “just more comfortable and confident with conflict,” he was actually more strategic. By approaching people and learning more before he took the role of enforcer, he bought himself time to get a more accurate read. The non-confrontational start to the conversation was the time period when he listened carefully to the person’s tone, noticed what they said and how they said it, and he even asked questions to get a sense for potential aggression, compliance, or ignorance. Then, he matched his approach accordingly. If he adopted a one-solution-fits-all approach, he would inevitably invite stronger reactions. 

Sohel: Being likeable and increasing customer satisfaction (and tips).

The Account: “When Sohel works the register, our tips are a full 25% higher. He has a knack for engaging people in conversation, for getting orders right the first time, and even asking clarifying questions when he feels the customer might not know what they asked for. When a regular customer recently entered the cafe mask-less, Sohel even managed to convince him to put one on. I couldn’t believe it, but the regular customer actually smiled, laughed with Sohel, put on a mask, and left a large tip.”

The Strategy: Seek the whole picture. What makes Sohel so likeable in a matter of seconds? It’s not the fact that people know much about him. In fact, most people coming through probably don’t even know his name. What he does well is understand how customers enter the room and how he fits into their bigger picture. Some customers may not appreciate small talk, but they will appreciate pleasantness, care, and attention to detail. By focusing on their order and listening carefully, he wins these one-time customers over. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sohel knows that most regulars want to be recognized and forge a deeper relationship. Over months and years, he spends time getting to know regulars and greeting them by name. It was because Sohel took the time to know this regular customer that they talked through a potential conflict quickly.  

Colleen: Creating a good atmosphere and reading people’s needs.

The Account: “Colleen made me realize how much a waiter can really make the whole feel of a restaurant. Despite masks and distancing requirements, she manages to still sense people’s needs in real time and adjust accordingly. She shortens her social approach to match an absorbed couple that wants to be left alone, and she expands her social approach, telling jokes or stories to chattier groups of friends or family members. She successfully creates an ideal environment while still following restaurant safety protocol.”

The Strategy: Catch the mood of the room. While much of emotional intelligence consists of managing our instincts (i.e., learning to slow down when feeling anxious or angry), it’s sometimes useful to let instinct take the driver’s seat. In this case, Colleen catches people’s moods, sociability levels, and comfort around distancing by trusting her instincts. Even though she can’t make out facial expressions, her instincts pick up on all kinds of other clues. From years of working as a waiter, her brain is used to pairing things like tone, posture, and gestures with facial expressions. As a result, when she trusts her initial reaction, it tends to be right.

From Insights to Action. Facemasks may feel like an insurmountable challenge to our social awareness because they’re so different from what we’re used to, but our mouths are one social awareness data point of many. If you think about it, there are a significant number of people high in social awareness who regularly don’t observe cues from the mouth—i.e., the population of people who wear veils, people who are blind, and surgical staff in operating rooms. These people succeed because they learn to compensate for facial expressions with other EQ strategies like practicing the art of listening, seeking the whole social picture, and trusting their emotional instincts to catch the mood in the room.

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