Social Intelligence and empathy – can it benefit conflict resolution?

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social intelligence

Social intelligence (SI) refers to the ability get along well with others; to recognise others’ feelings and to know how and when to assist them. It allows for a respect and understanding of others’ perspectives, emotional states and needs which fosters engagement in positive, safe and respectful relationships. Astute social awareness plays a role in one’s ability to understand and critique societal issues such as, gender, ethnicity, class, or sexual identity (Albrecht, 2015).

Sometimes referred to as ‘people skills’, SI includes an awareness of situations and the social dynamics that govern them, and a knowledge of interaction styles and strategies that can help a person achieve his or her objectives in dealing with others. It also involves a certain amount of self-insight and a consciousness of one’s own perceptions and reaction patterns (Albrecht, 2015).

Behaviour toward others can fall on a continuum between “toxic” effect and “nourishing” effect.

Toxic behaviour makes people feel devalued, angry, frustrated, guilty and excluded. Nourishing behaviour makes people feel valued, respected, affirmed, encouraged and competent. Continued use of toxic behaviour indicates a low level of social intelligence, that is, an inability to connect with people and to influence them effectively.  Whereas, use of nourishing behaviour is an indicator of high social intelligence (Albrecht, 2015).

Relationship management is taking what you have recognised in others and ensuring that the relationship you develop with them is appropriate and mutually beneficial. Relationship management can also have its focus on improving the relationships between you, your organisation and your clients. This element involves interacting effectively and respectfully with a range of colleagues and clients and ensuring they are satisfied with the services provided by you and within the organisation and the treatment they are receiving. Relationship management involves building skills associated with leadership, mindfulness, mentoring and role modelling.


Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s situation from their perspective with acceptance. Compassion is the feeling that empathy brings out in us when we really understand another’s situation.  Self-compassion refers to our ability to be more self-accepting and to quiet the critical voice that we all have in our heads. Research indicates that we are hardwired to respond to empathy and that them more self-compassionate we are, the more compassion we can offer others.  Mirror neurons within the brain become activated when another person responds empathically to our feelings and thoughts.  It is human nature to want to be seen and heard; and empowering when someone ‘gets us’.

There is a marked difference between apathy, empathy and sympathy.  Apathy occurs when we seek to blame or shame people in changing because they do not meet expectations that we impose on them.  Sympathy occurs when you acknowledge someone’s feelings in a manner that is condescending or patronising and no-one seeks to be pitied.  Empathy is the ability to understand a person’s worldview and situation from their perspective.

There are a few key elements you must ensure you adhere too when engaging in an empathetic practice:

  • Separate your responses from those of the person with whom you are seeking to be empathic, and  retain your objectivity and distance
  • Be alert to clues about feelings being offered to you by the other person
  • Communicate with people what your feelings are for them and your understanding of their situation
  • Take the perspective of the other person
  • Embrace diversity and practice acceptance by suspending judgement

There are many blocks to using empathy effectively. Sometimes you may have difficulty feeling empathy because you do not know how to interpret a person’s behaviour.   It is important to be aware of the reasons behind your responses, rather than blaming or finding fault with the other person. Things that can impede your ability to be empathic include, being inattentive, not being interested, self-focused instead of other-focused, lack of respect, poor eye contact, changing the topic and giving advice.

Once you seek to understand, rather than react, you can choose to respond empathically to others. A few good ways to start the empathy process are:

  • finding a common conversational topic which interest and excites the other person
  • establishing a flow, “visibly tuning in” to the other person
  • sharing an activity which builds a bridge between you
  • listen with your head and heart
  • take seriously the needs and concerns of others
  • value feelings and attitudes
  • respect one another’s privacy, experience and values
  • listen actively
  • encourage further elaboration and clarification
  • use open body language and warm vocal tones
  • reserve judgement and blame
  • display interest in what others communicate
  • do not offer unsought advice
  • support another’s attempt to find a solution
  • make affirming statements and gestures

Social Intelligence, Empathy and Conflict Resolution

I recently read an interesting article “Social Intelligence – Empathy = Aggression?” by Bjorkqvist, Osterman & Kaukiainen (2000) which studied the relationships between social intelligence, empathy and behaviour in conflict. They viewed social intelligence as having a perceptual, cognitive-analytical and behavioural component. During conflict, social intelligence was an asset in the situation as the individual could choose to be either aggressive or peaceful. The individual with social intelligence is able to recognise motives and cognitive traps and is capable of producing an adequate behaviour for achieving the desired goals.

Richardson, Hammock, Smith, Gardner & Signo (1994) found that in three studies that looked at empathy and aggression, empathy was negatively related to aggression. They viewed empathy as an important component to alleviate interpersonal aggression.

Studies carried out by the authors found that social intelligence correlates significantly with all forms of conflict, both aggressive and peaceful. When empathy was removed, verbal and physical aggression increased. This demonstrated that empathy correlated strongly with peaceful conflict resolution.

Fernandez (2002) has further developed this theory stating that high levels of social intelligence are important in indirect aggression as the individual will have the skills required to harm the victim by social manipulation. Whereas if the individual had high levels of social intelligence and high levels of empathy, then this would increase the likelihood of a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

In conclusion, social intelligence is essential in interpersonal communication but can also play a role in antisocial behaviour. If social intelligence is paired with empathy then prosocial interactions take place in conflict resolution. However, if empathy is lacking then the result of the conflict will inevitably be aggression.

Albrecht, K. (2015). Social Intelligence: The new science of success. Retrieved from

Bjorkqvist, K., Osterman, K. and Kaukiainen, A. (2000). Social intelligence – empathy = aggression? Aggression and Violent Behavior, 5, 191-200.

Hazelwood, Z., & Shakespeare – Finch, J. E. (2011) I’m listening: Communication for health professionals. Inn Press, Brisbane, Australia.

Fernandez, Y. (2002). In their shoes. Examining the Issue of Empathy and Its place in the treatment of offenders. Wood ‘N’ Barnes publishing.

Pockett, R., Napier L., & Giles, R. (2013). Critical Reflection for Practice. In A. O’Hara & R. Pockett (2nd Ed.). Skills for Human Service Practice (pp. 9). South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford.

Richardson, R, Hammock, G.S., Smith, S.M., Gardner, W., Signo, M. (1994). Empathy as a cognitive inhibitor of interpersonal aggression. Aggressive Behaviour, 20, 275-289.

Article by Wendy Webber
Head of Faculty
Community Services and Counselling