Social Intelligence: Why it Matters When Achieving Coaching Mastery

by Marissa Afton

Imagine two coaches in mid-session, each facing a critical juncture in their respective client processes.

Coach #1 is gently guiding the progression of the discussion: her client is talking about a current struggle with an important relationship in his life. Coach #1 is actively listening to her client, modulating her vocal tone and pace to match her client’s, allowing space and silence for her client to contemplate his options and come up with his own ideas. At the end of the session, her client has a clear goal and action plan, plus the confidence needed to execute it and achieve success.

Coach #2 is also engaging the client as he talks through a crucial issue he is having with his faltering business. As Coach #2 starts to offer advice in an effort to help her client become unstuck, she begins to talk over him, missing important cues that would indicate that she is losing control over the direction of the coaching session. As her client becomes more frustrated, his own thinking is muddled, and he begins to shut down. By the end of the session, both client and coach are confused about why more progress wasn’t made, and both are disappointed with the outcome.

Aside from the obvious divergence between these two coaching styles, one element stands out as the difference between coaching incompetence and coaching mastery: social intelligence.

Social intelligence is the field of social science research and psychology that speaks to how well we are able to gauge another’s internal state of being in the moment and respond accordingly. In recent years, social intelligence has become mainstream as its popular use increases in multiple personal and professional settings. If we think of emotional intelligence as the study and practice of how we manage our individual emotions in different situations, social intelligence, simply put, speaks to how we manage ourselves in relationship to other people, plus our level of skill in handling complex social situations. It is this understanding of our capacity for social intelligence, and our ability to strengthen it, that coaches stand to benefit from in their journey towards coaching mastery.

From a mental science perspective, humans are hard-wired to be social. Our brains contain specialized neurons (called “mirror neurons”) whose very job it is to sense and respond to others in our environment. Social neuroscience has demonstrated that there is a biological imperative to having good social intelligence: the better we are at reading and interpreting the emotional states of those around us, the more likely we will be able to make quick decisions about how to react and respond in ways that benefit all.

But having the hard-wiring for social intelligence doesn’t guarantee proficiency. More likely than not, each of us can remember a time when we have been on the receiving end of an interaction with someone who did not demonstrate masterful social intelligence. As coaches it behooves us to develop this skill. Our coaching interactions — and client breakthroughs — may depend on it. In a very real way we influence how our clients think, the way they respond to us, and the manner in which they approach their coaching challenges, both positively and negatively. Research has even shown that we can ‘catch’ other people’s emotions: if we’ve ever been snapped at or unfairly treated and it affects our own outlook or behavior, we have ‘caught’ somebody else’s emotional state. That means if we are un-centered, unclear, have an agenda, or are disengaged from our sessions, our clients may be adversely impacted by our emotional state (and most likely won’t even consciously understand why).

Several of the coaching masteries indirectly imply a need to exercise a high degree of social intelligence. “Establishing and Maintaining a Relationship of Trust” (Mastery #1), “Engaged Listening” (Mastery #3), “Processing in the Presence” (Mastery #4) and “Expressing” (Mastery #5) each offer opportunities to flex our social intelligence muscles and choose to respond – rather than react – to our client moment by moment.

Improving one’s “social radar” – the ability to read our client’s inner emotional state and modulate our responses accordingly – is key in attaining the next level of coaching mastery that we seek. Reviewing the measurements of success in the above mentioned coaching masteries (accessible via the eBook here) offers straightforward guidelines and clues on how you can strengthen this important skill.

A coach who has worked to develop his or her social intelligence can expect to positively impact clients in ways that have lasting effects beyond the coaching hour. Since our capacity for emotional regulation, clarity and centeredness (all aspects of refined social intelligence) will enable others to focus, problem solve and feel better about themselves, it becomes a win-win for client AND coach. The good news is, with a little practice, anyone can improve their social intelligence capabilities and reap the benefits for themselves and for others.

Marissa Afton 
Marissa Afton is a partner at Cognitive Change Concepts, Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in integrating cognitive psychology and neuroscience to positively influence organizational change. A sought-after executive coach, Marissa has worked extensively with leaders of Fortune 500 companies across the globe, helping them apply social intelligence and other transformational leadership skills to become more impactful with their teams and subordinates. Marissa is also a founding member with the IAC.

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