Social Thinking: What are You Thinking About What I am Thinking?

(Originally published September 25, 2016)

A great deal of my business and interpersonal communication coaching is with intuitive, technical professionals – analysts, engineers, scientists and the like.  Some might use the word “introvert” to describe them, but I have been made aware that many recoil at being labeled in that manner. These individuals are often subject matter experts (SME) and are not always self-aware when it comes to communicating with a wide range of people in the workplace.  This can make them difficult to work with and for.

Speech language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner is credited with coining the phrase “social thinking.” In her book, “Social Thinking at Work: Why Should I Care? (2011, co-authored with Pamela Crook), she defines it this way.

“Social Thinking is what we do when we share space with others and when sending an email, sitting in a classroom, lining up at the grocery store, reading a work of fiction, watching a funny video clip, participating in a business meeting, driving in traffic, and a host of other daily activities that involve our social interpretation and related reactions.  We consider the context; take in the thoughts, emotions and intentions of the people with whom we are interacting and use that information to determine how we respond. How we think about people affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects our own emotional internal and external responses. It’s an incredibly complex process that most of us take for granted.”

I once had a client who was a proven SME and he told me very emphatically that he valued logic over emotion every day of the week. He was raised to discard emotion in favor of logic. To him, emotions were weak and touchy-feely. All that mattered was reasoning assessed according to strict principles of validity.  When this kind of person is up for a management role, their people skills will come under significant scrutiny, because when you manage people, it’s no longer just about what you communicate but also how.

What about you? When you deal with various kinds of people at work do you often have these kinds of questions swirling around in your head?

  • What does he mean by that? I have no clue what he is thinking!
  • Why are you bringing emotion into this conversation?
  • Why does he look at me that way? What’s wrong with him?
  • Why don’t you just stick to the facts?

If so, it may raise serious concerns about the way you think about, work with and relate to others: your social thinking. But don’t worry. Social thinking can be learned at any age and self-awareness is the first step.