Creating better social interactions
31 Aug 2022

Creating better social interactions

Written by: James B.


One of the most important traits that social scientists have identified as the key to getting along with people is agreeableness. This is really about being cooperative, friendly, considerate and helpful. This doesn’t of course mean being a push-over and agreeing with everything. It’s important to know when to be assertive and stand up for yourself when you need to, but these traits of being friendly and considerate you’ll find are common in individuals we may describe as a people person. So this is something to bear in mind as we move through this module. 

I wanted to start this section with a quote by Dale Carnegie. He wrote a book back in the 1930s called How to Win Friends and Influence People, a title you may have heard of. What’s amazing is how relevant so many of the concepts he talks about in the book are to us today. 

He said: You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.

So if we want to create better social interactions, we want to become curious about others. Some may have this innate curiosity but I want you to think about when you meet someone new – how interested are you in what they have to say, versus how much would you prefer to talk about yourself and your own experiences. This is something that takes some self-awareness, so next time you go into a conversation like this, try to be aware of the balance of the conversation. 

I’m not sure if you remember the talking stick from our days at school. You could only talk if you had the stick. Let’s imagine a metaphorical talking stick in our conversations. The talking stick should pass equally around all members of the conversation. If one person is hogging the talking stick, it’s probably not a great conversation for the other person. The key to showing interest in others is partly in being able to ask quality questions. Asking open questions that will help you learn more about that person and allow them to feel heard. 

Resisting the urge to be right

There are other things that can get in the way of us having good social interactions with others. One of those is our desire to be right. This is our ego usually leading that one. 

We all like being right, but often this comes at the expense of someone else feeling bad or ‘put down’, which never really makes us feel good. Being right or defending our position takes a huge amount of mental energy and often ends up alienating us from people in our lives. No one will ever thank you for correcting them or for you proving they were wrong. We have to think to ourselves, does it really matter? If you’re still telling yourself ‘yes’ then it’s probably the ego speaking. If we want healthier relationships and better social interactions, we need to let go of the desire to be right. 

Next time you feel the urge to correct someone or make sure they know you were right, try to notice yourself doing it and see if you can hold back. Think about what outcome you’re really hoping for. It probably won’t come from staunchly defending your position. 

Impact vs intention

When thinking about creating better social interactions, I’d like us to think about the concept of impact vs. intention. This is the fact that sometimes what we say doesn’t always match up to the way we make other people feel. We may say something that feels insignificant or minor to us, but in some way, it upsets or offends another person. This is an example where the impact of our behaviour is very different to the intention. We didn’t mean to make the other person feel bad and we can’t really understand why they’ve taken offence to what we’ve said. 

The overall message in all of these conversations is that when someone does something harmful or offensive to another person, the perpetrator's intent is not what's most important when gauging the appropriateness of an action. Was someone hurt by something? Was there a negative outcome? If so, that is what’s important. Whether or not the perpetrator meant to cause harm is not.

So what happens when your intent doesn’t match up with the intended impact? Part of being a successful communicator is being able to identify these potential situations and taking feedback on them. Identifying these situations starts with awareness and understanding. Often we feel we have the right to express our opinion because it’s what we think and feel (and sometimes of course it’s important to do this) but if expressing your opinion causes offence or upset to someone, do we really need to express it? Again thinking about why we feel the people around us need to know what our opinion is. 

It is important to try and understand the other parties’ point of view, possible filters and the way in which they may see and hear things. You must adapt your style to work with these things in order to maintain positive communication and strong relationships. 

When we are told that the impact of our actions or words is hurtful, we can start by apologizing without any caveats, rather than trying to defend ourselves by saying we didn’t mean it in that way. 

Let’s look at an example. 

You may say to a colleague that you didn’t ask her to be involved in a project because she seemed like she had too much on and had a busy home life. That colleague may take that as you saying that you thought she was not able to keep up and prioritised her home life overwork. She may be hurt by this because she felt she was denied an opportunity. 

We shouldn’t brush this off as the other person being over sensitive. 

If people are offended by the things we say on a regular basis, we may really need to reflect on this. 

Being aware of stress

When thinking about creating positive social interactions, we also need to bear in mind our stress levels. 

We know that stress inhibits our ability to:

  • Accurately read another person’s non-verbal communications
  • Hear what someone is really saying
  • Be aware of our own feelings
  • Communicate our needs clearly

Stress releases a chemical called cortisol. When we have a lot of cortisol in our systems, it suppresses a natural chemical called oxytocin – which is responsible for empathy, trust and building social bonds. So it can make it very hard to have productive conversations with others when we’re feeling very stressed. 

So particularly when we need to have a difficult or sensitive conversation with someone, we need to think about our stress levels at that time. It might not be the best time to do it if we’re highly stressed. 

Remember you can always explain to someone that you’re not in the right headspace for a particular conversation and ask for a time out. We don’t want to get drawn into a conversation and say things that we might later regret. We’re unlikely to come to a level of understanding with someone if we have too much cortisol running through our system. 

If you feel you’re highly stressed a lot of the time, this will have an impact on the relationships in your life so this is certainly something worth addressing. 

Taking and giving feedback

The last thing we’re going to touch on in this section is the concept of giving feedback. We often feel like giving our feedback or constructive criticism to someone will help them improve or change, but this is very rarely the case and I’ll explain why.

We have two independent networks in our brain that are significant to us here. They are the analytic network and the emphatic network. 

The analytic network enables us to focus, make a decision & solve a problem. 

But it closes a person down to change, new ideas & possibilities.

The emphatic network on the other hand enables us to be open to new ideas, people and emotions. 

These two networks act independently but the interesting fact is that they suppress each other, they cannot be activated at the same time. 

Scientists have studied what happens to our brains when we receive criticism or negative feedback of some kind. They found when this happens the analytic network lights up and the emphatic network is suppressed. 

So what does this mean?

It means when someone tries to give us constructive feedback, the part of our brain that is open to change and new ideas are shut down. Meaning we’re highly unlikely to take that feedback on board and change from it. 

The truth is when we criticize others it says little about that person and more about our need to be critical. We often see this as feedback, but it’s very rare that anyone will take this ‘constructive feedback’ onboard and change from it. How many times have we tried to get someone to change by giving them feedback, but they never change how we’d like them to. 

Change has to come from internal motivation or being inspired positively. It doesn’t generally come from someone else telling us we should change. 

Unless someone expressly asks for your feedback, in which case they will be open to it, I would resist the urge to give it.