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Enabling teams to work better together

11+ tips for fine-tuning your social awareness.

different shoes to denote different personality types


Some leaders inherit their teams. Others build them from scratch.

However you acquire your team, its future success depends on how well and how soon you ‘really get’ the individuals in it.


Effective leaders can ‘read the room’ and ‘take the emotional temperature’ of a group interaction. They can figure out when to enthuse and how to diffuse.

Their social awareness skills make it possible for all voices to be heard and everyone’s contributions to be noticed.

Being attuned to the team dynamics amplifies their trust factor and therefore other people’s willingness to follow their guidance.

Social awareness is about understanding others’ behaviours, motivations, thinking processes and emotions.

It’s also about knowing how your words and actions affect others.

Social awareness is a leadership ‘must-have’ in the emotional intelligence (EI) skillset.

Whether you aspire to the 4, 5 or 12 elements of EI, social awareness always appears in the top 3 of every list.

And it’s a key step in the transformation to team effectiveness.

Daniel Goleman describes socially aware leaders like this:

“They’re the ones who understood what was going on with their teams, not just on the ‘what work is getting done’ level but on the ‘how is the team working together’ level. Those same leaders likely were skilled at interactions with others, able to present themselves well and powerfully influence their team.”

He also suggests 4 ways that socially aware leaders ‘get’ others:

  1. Primal empathy – sensing nonverbal emotional signals like the facial expressions and gestures that say more than the words.
  2. Attunement – listening attentively and being receptive to what the other person is saying or suggesting.
  3. Empathic accuracy – clearly understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
  4. Social cognition – understanding how the social world works beyond individual interactions.

Could you say that you practise these often?

How about the 4 components of social awareness that sports psychologist Eli Straw offers:

  1. Empathy – being sensitive to and showing concern for the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of others.
  2. Perspective – looking through the lenses of other people and seeing that what’s happening is not the same as it is for you.
  3. Respect – for opinions, beliefs, motivations and values that are different to yours and therefore prompt different responses to yours in the same situations.
  4. Compassion – taking action, putting yourself out so that others can benefit.

If you don’t, then add developing them to your next professional performance plan.

The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. It promotes social-emotional learning (SEL) and lists these as social awareness skills:

  • Identifying social cues to determine how others feel
  • Understanding and expressing gratitude
  • Recognising others’ strengths
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
  • Recognising situational demands and opportunities
  • Caring about and being motivated to contribute to the well-being of the group

But even when you already have these skills, it can take many months to learn about someone and reveal yourself to them when you just take turns in the ‘walk a mile in my moccasins’ approach.

Especially when each person has a different style (glittery gold high heels aren’t for everyone!).

What are the cues to look for? How can you show care for the group’s well-being when empathy doesn’t come naturally to you?

You may not be able to fully understand or share the same feelings as others but you can acknowledge that something is important to the other person and make choices about how you respond.

Here are some tips for tuning in:

Verbal Cues

1. Tone of Voice: A change in tone, such as a rise in pitch or volume, can tell you when someone is feeling excited, frustrated, or concerned. You can communicate your understanding by matching it or by deliberately using a different tone if, for example, you need them to express themselves more calmly.

2. Word Choice: Take a moment to really consider what words are spoken or written. Is the other person saying what they think, or what they feel, or what they want to do? If they’re sharing their thoughts they’re probably seeking yours about the same topic, not your feelings (we cover this in True Colors training).

3. Pacing and Speech Patterns: Rapid speech may convey excitement or anxiety, while slow, measured speech could signal thoughtfulness or deliberation. Like with tone, you could match it or encourage a change with the patterns and tempo of your own responses.

Nonverbal Cues

4. Facial Expressions: Subtle changes in facial expressions, such as furrowed brows, smiles, or narrowed eyes, can convey a range of emotions from happiness and surprise to confusion or distress (check out this course).

5. Body Language: Open and relaxed gestures, posture, and body movements usually indicate comfort and confidence. Closed-off postures, such as crossed arms or fidgeting, may suggest discomfort or defensiveness. How do you want the other person to feel in your presence? Your body language will influence theirs.

6. Eye Contact: A person’s level and duration of eye contact can offer clues about their engagement and emotional state. Direct eye contact may convey confidence and attentiveness, while avoiding eye contact could signal discomfort or disinterest. Cultural habits can also influence eye contact, so don’t assume disrespect or disregard.

7. Gestures and Hand Movements: These provide extra context to spoken words. For example, waving arms enthusiastically may convey excitement or passion, while clenched hands might indicate nervousness or anger.

8. Stress Signals: Often our colleagues’ SOS (signs of stress) look, sound and feel nothing like our own. When you recognise an SOS, you can stop adding to the burden and offer help. Stress can be headaches and neck pain. It can also be erratic behaviour, non-compliance, disappearance and energy drops.

Contextual Cues

9. Environmental Factors: Consider where the interaction is taking place. Noise levels, lighting, airflow, temperature and proximity to others can influence people’s comfort and consequently their behaviour.

10. Social Dynamics: Observe how individuals interact with each other and respond to social cues. Who seems comfortable with whom? Who seems to be dominating the conversation? Who is quiet? Who is laughing and what makes them chuckle? Where are people sitting/standing/hovering/ in aspect to each other? How does this scenario compare with previous ones – do you see patterns emerging?

Consistency and Inconsistency

11. Consistency: Because it’s interpreted as certainty and predictability, you need this to build and maintain trust. You want trust in your leadership.

Sometimes a person’s words may not align with their body language or tone, indicating other emotions or intentions under the surface. This inconsistency can trigger your ‘spidey senses’ and prompt you to question further, be on your guard, rethink your initial impression or change your response.

If your verbal and nonverbal cues are inconsistent, you’ll stir the same wariness in others.

Social awareness is critical for the transformation to team effectiveness.

That’s why True Colors goes beyond the self-awareness that is the focus of many other personality profiling and temperament typing systems.

After self-identifying values, joys, strengths, stressors and needs, these insights are shared to help teammates become more socially aware of each other.

In my True Colors workshops we also look at recognising the stress signals that others send out.

If you would like help exploring the effects felt in your team when some people are not very socially aware…

And what you can do to improve how differences are valued…

Plus get better at recognising and responding to different stress signals…

Tap the button below to book a complimentary and unconditional Tell Me More call.

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