This post has been updated on February 4, 2020.


Learning can be thought of as the continuous process of acquiring knowledge, which leads to the later ability to apply that knowledge in real situations when life demands it. Many people consider that the intelligence quotient (IQ) of someone is the single most important factor over one’s capacity of learning. Perhaps this is true, but there is another human brainpower that influences the process of learning — social intelligence.

What does social intelligence mean?

One definition of social intelligence is the capacity to effectively navigate and negotiate complex social relationships and environments. In other words, it’s all about interacting successfully with others in various contexts.

Social intelligence is part of the multiple intelligences theory, a model that has greater usefulness in business and professional settings. The multiple intelligences theory proposes six primary dimensions of human intelligence: abstract, social, practical, emotional, aesthetic and kinesthetic.

In a learning environment, people need not only to be aware of and handle their feelings and emotions but also to recognize the emotions of others (empathy) and communicate and collaborate with them accordingly (interpersonal skills). Empathy and interpersonal skills are just as important in the process of learning as self-awareness and self-regulation.

How can instructional designers use social intelligence in their training?

Instructors must first keep in mind that a learner’s environment plays an important role in their development and that learners can directly impact one another. It is highly recommended for example to transform the LMS into a collaborative space, where new ideas can flourish and problems are solved in the same controlled environment.

Learning scenarios can be created to help corporate learners develop their empathy. This is essential not only for employees who interact with external stakeholders of their company but also for everyone working in a team. Understanding other people’s feelings, intentions, desires, and motivations is crucial in dealing with all sorts of situations professionally. I’ll give you three examples:

  1. Learners in a sales department can practice how they should react to an angry customer’s complaints, an undecided prospect, or the perfect client (by the way, there is no such thing as the perfect client… but one must dream)
  2. Subordinates can learn when is the best time to approach their managers with a new idea or request based on the latter’s moods, for example, if they’re stressed, angry, or cheerful.
  3. Colleagues can learn how to recognize when a teammate has a problem while performing a task and try to help them.

The next step after recognizing others’ emotions is to react to them tactfully. More often than not, working places host a mixture of people with diverse cultural, educational, and professional backgrounds. Even if each employee has different learning goals, they all strive to reach their company’s goals, and they can only do that if they work together. Group activities always require communication between members, receptivity to other people’s ideas, and interaction both from a leadership position and a team member position.

In conclusion

Social learning happens naturally because our brains are wired to connect with others. Human beings are socially intelligent and they learn better when they can ask questions about what they don’t understand and also when they can give advice to others on subjects they master.

Instructional designers who use social intelligence principles when creating training courses will help their learners not only retain knowledge better but also develop their empathy and interpersonal skills.

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