Situational Intelligence

The Most Important Skill You’ve Never Heard of

The term itself, situational intelligence, comprises the military’s use of situational awareness and the term social intelligence, popularized by the work of writer Daniel Goleman. In the military, situational awareness entails using our senses, coupled with tactical, and strategic thinking, to gain a minute-to-minute picture, invaluable to personnel stationed in the field or to crews piloting aircraft. In contrast, social intelligence focuses on the ability to use the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most intensively involved in decision-making, to override the more instinctive, knee-jerk reactions generated by our limbic system. Goleman’s notions of “high” (prefrontal cortex) and “low” (limbic) roads map tidily onto Daniel Kahneman’s “slow” and “fast” methods of thinking. However, the term situational intelligence combines both an understanding of the minds of others via socio-behavioral studies with recognition of others’ emotions through data on non-verbal communication.

All those titles on non-verbal communication have got only half the equation we need to interact with others. In addition, we also need to recognize the intellectual short-cuts or heuristic biases others may hold toward us or toward the issues we’re discussing. And we also need to know how to encourage understanding by communicating our perspectives persuasively—and by embodying our mental states mindfully with facial and bodily expressions.

For example, in the picture above, an observer might merely see agreement between two men, with the female bystander clearly aligned with her male colleague, based on her standing close to him. However, even without knowing the context of this meeting, we can immediately identify several dynamics that give us clues about the participants’ mental states—without knowing anything of the context. The man on the right might be leveraging his negotiating position to establish dominance over the man to the left. His handshake alone, his thumb placed over the other man’s thumb and hand, signifies a desire to dominate. Moreover, his smile is merely a social smile, signaled by the relaxation of muscles around his eyes. In contrast, the man on the left exhibits the tell-tale signs of a Duchenne smile, the genuine smile where muscles around the eye contract, the cheeks are elevated, and the smile itself spreads widely, with or without the display of teeth. He clearly feels either he’s got the better of the other man or relief at having concluded negotiations in a way he feels works in his favor. We can also guess which “side” the female bystander might be on: the man on the left’s. Although she is standing closer to the man on the right, she places her outstretched fingers on the table, pointing toward the man standing opposite her, usually indicative of positive feelings. In contrast, if she had reservations about the relationship she and her partner have just forged with the man opposite, her hands would retreat beneath the table. However, her non-verbal signs are mixed, as her smile is social, a mere widening of the lips without the strong crinkling around the eyes and upward tilt of the cheeks evident in the smile on the man on the left. But, without knowing the context or her baseline behavior, we can’t tell if she’s relieved to have concluded negotiations, displaying more positive feelings toward the man opposite because she dislikes the man by her side, or asserting her equal status by placing her hand on the table while the two men conclude an agreement with a handshake.

Situational intelligence can prove crucial in job interviews, working with clients and colleagues, and in ascertaining when you need to back off—or up—in taking a position. That level of awareness, requiring what one colleague at UF referred to as “parallel processing,” can seem exhausting the first time you use it in a crucial negotiation. Instead, try using these skills in social settings, being mindful of what you observe and which techniques prove most effective at persuasion (see the “What We’re Reading” feature), before you use it in high-stakes scenarios.


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Warrington College of Business Administration
100 BRY
PO Box 117150
Gainesville, FL 32611-7150
Phone: 352.392.2397
Fax: 352.392.2086

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