Social self – a contradiction?

Reading one of the more popular posts on the HBR website this week, The Must-Have Leadership Skill by Daniel Goleman — http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/the_must-have_leadership_skill.html — I was struck by Goleman’s notion of “social self”.

One of the social intelligence indicators: during a getting-to-know you conversation, does the candidate ask about the other person or engage in a self-centered monologue? At the same time, does she talk about herself in a natural way? At the end of the conversation, you should feel you know the person, not just the social self she tries to project.

I think “social intelligence” is a useful concept in management and I agree that a strong leader has to have a great deal of emotional or social intelligence.  And it seems to me that the “social self” we “project” is a performance that we create for ourselves in a particular setting. It’s hard to deny the importance of creating intimate conversations that are not “self-centered monologues”.  When we create performances that include talking about ourself in a “natural way” and focusing on “other” rather than on “self” we are creating intimacy.

Language makes us cateogrize and categories are static in a way that can prevent us from seeing human activity. The “social self” contains two words that contradict each other when you think about it! I like to contemplate this sentence that I previously quoted from a learning session with Dr. Lois Holzman:

Language prevents us from seeing that language prevents us from seeing.

So what does this have to do with my musings on business leadership and performance?

In conversations with executives who are working to further develop their performances in the workplace these issues come up all the time — how we are talking with each other, how we are listening and what we are istening for.  This is where improvisation is such a critical tool.  When we improvise a scene we learn to create intimate and socially intelligent conversations with others. How?  We keep our focus on the “we” (the social) and not on the self.  In this way we have the best shot at listening, communicating, persuading, and collaborating.

This post is my “yes and” to Goleman’s article.