Emotional Intelligence for Musicians and Arts Leaders Part III: How to Develop Empathy and 5 Other Strategies for Social Awareness

As a musician or arts leader, you have undoubtedly dealt with some “interesting” personalities in the course of your work!  Inevitably in the course of putting together an artistic venture, people put forth strong ideas that might clash with your own.

Have you ever stopped to think what might be going on with the other person that would lead him or her to act in a particular way?

If so, you are on the road to developing the third skill in building emotional intelligence or EQ:  social awareness.

My previous posts on emotional intelligence focused on YOU and how to build personal competence through better self-awareness and self-management.

Now we are ready to tackle the other side to emotional intelligence:  social competence or how to deal effectively with other people.  Social competence involves two more skills:

Social Awareness

The ability to sense the emotions of and empathize with those around you; and

Relationship Management

The ability to interact, work effectively with and influence other people.

Let’s begin with skill number 3:   Social awareness

Just as the start of personal competence was the ability to sense your own emotions, social awareness means that you pick up on the emotions of the people around you and grasp what they are thinking and feeling in the moment. This is a critical skill for today’s musicians and arts leaders because it helps you to relate to other people and make each person with whom you deal feel understood and respected.  Just think how useful that can be in dealing with all of those artistic collaborators, administrators, board members, donors, students, colleagues and anyone else with whom you deal!

And as we saw with the other two EQ skills, you can build your social awareness by taking specific action steps. Here are 6 strategies that you can employ to build your social awareness and boost your EQ.

Strategies for Building Social Awareness

1.    Observe and Be Mindful

The start of developing social awareness is to slow down and be in the moment when dealing with others so that you can focus on and absorb critical information about other people without allowing your own thoughts and feelings to interfere with your perceptions.  

The next time you have an encounter with someone else, be there! Don’t worry about the past or plan for the future:  just pay attention to the other person and stay in the moment.  

2.    Listen

Listening is a powerful communication skill that involves paying close attention to others and remaining open-minded so that you are focusing on what the speaker is saying and not allowing your own agenda to clutter up your impressions.

It means that you are aware of both what the person is saying—the words—as well as how the person is saying them by observing her tone of voice, the speed with which she talks and the volume of her voice.  

It also means reading between the lines for what is not being said and listening intuitively for the person’s real agenda.

Musicians have an advantage here because they have to listen carefully to themselves and others in the course of performing.  So use that skill to listen to others before you speak.  Not only will you pick up valuable information but you will also draw in the other person and facilitate making a meaningful connection!

3.    Pay Attention to Body Language

While words convey one level of information, you can pick up a lot of social cues by observing someone’s body language in order to assess how sincere and reliable this person is. How do you do this?

Start with the person’s face:

Look into his eyes.  Are they shifting around or does the person meet your gaze directly?
How about his smile? Is it authentic or do you sense that he is putting on a show?
What if the person is frowning or scowling?

Next, observe the rest of the person’s body:

What is his posture? Upright or slumped over?
How relaxed or tense is he?  
Are his shoulders hunched?  
His arms crossed?

By paying attention to body language, you will get a sense of how open and sincere this person is.  That can go a long way in helping you to understand what is going on with this person so that you can frame the appropriate response.

4.    Use Names

Isn’t it nice when someone addresses you by your name? This easy technique is a great way to build social awareness since it means that you are genuinely focusing on the other person!  You can practice it by using the person’s name whenever you are introduced to someone new:  

Hello, Sam, it’s nice to meet you.  

Then, make it a point to use Sam’s name a few time during the conversation. If necessary, jot down Sam’s name after your encounter to help you remember it.

PS:  This strategy is one that I am currently working on since I often have trouble remembering names!

5.    Practice Empathy

One of the most important aspects of social awareness is empathy: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and sense what he or she is thinking and feeling.   Having empathy means that you can put aside your own feelings, beliefs and agendas to understand where the other person is coming from.  Empathy is a powerful way to gain perspective of a situation so that you can communicate appropriately with the other person and identify challenges and conflicts before they escalate into something bigger.

The next time you find yourself dealing with a challenging person, stop and ask yourself:

I wonder what is making this person behave this way?

Take a moment to put yourself in that person’s position and imagine what you would do if you were this person:

  • How would you be feeling?
  • What would you say?
  • How would you act?

By slowing yourself down and empathizing with this person, you will begin to see her as a human being, just like you, which can go a long way to taking the sting out of a difficult situation and helping to frame the appropriate response.

6.    Check in with others

You can build your social awareness by getting a reality check from others on how accurately you are reading their cues.  

If you are meeting with someone who seems upset or distracted, you might want to ask,

You seem a bit upset.  Is everything okay?

While he may say that he is fine, it shows that you care enough to want to go deeper.  You might be able assess the accuracy of  your observation by checking in on his body language.  And you may be surprised if the person opens up and tells you what is going on.

Bottom Line

Start building your social awareness by selecting a few of these strategies.  By practicing, you will undoubtedly improve your ability to pick up on what is really going on and ramp up your EQ!

I will return with the fourth EQ skill, relationship management, so that you will have a complete picture of emotional intelligence!