Social intelligence – post #3 – Bringing proper closure to relational encounters and events 


“What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell.” novelist Yann Martel

Beginnings are important. First impressions, initial greetings, the commencement of a trip—how something starts is important. The “front door” is critical.

But we should also carefully negotiate endings—that is, how to properly close the “back door” of a relational encounter or event. A proper ending will enhance the experience and bring good closure. A mishandled ending can be awkward and leave a bitter aftertaste.

For instance, how should proper closure be negotiated in each of these situations?

      • A phone conversation
      • A valued employee leaving an organization after having worked there for many years
      • What to say to family members when you leave your house to go to work
      • A staff meeting
      • A lunch meeting with a friend
      • A major project
      • A vacation with friends

Thoughts to ponder:

      • When was the last time you botched a farewell?
      • When was the last time you intentionally orchestrated a proper farewell?
      • Identify a time in your life when you were personally disappointed by a botched farewell.
      • Identify a time in your life when you were blessed by a proper farewell.

An excerpt from the novel—Life of Pi by Yann Martel—provides a vivid illustration of a botched farewell.

Here’s the setting: Following a shipwreck, a young boy named Pi has been on a life-raft for 200+ days with a tiger named Richard Parker. They have developed an interesting and, in some ways, close relationship. The raft finally washes ashore, but the closure of their relationship is awkward and disappointing. Here’s text from that scene.

A Disappointing Farewell

“When we reached land, Mexico to be exact, I was so weak I barely had the strength to be happy about it. We had great difficulty landing. The lifeboat nearly capsized in the surf. I streamed the sea anchors—what was left of them—full open to keep us perpendicular to the waves, and I tripped them as soon as we began riding a crest. In this way, streaming and tripping the anchors, we surfed in to shore. It was dangerous. But we caught one wave at just the right point and it carried us a great distance, past the high, collapsing walls of water. I tripped the anchors a last time and we were pushed in the rest of the way. The boat hissed to a halt against the sand.

“I let myself down the side. I was afraid to let go, afraid that so close to deliverance, in two feet of water, I would drown. I looked ahead to see how far I had to go. The glance gave me one of my last images of Richard Parker, for at that precise moment he jumped over me. I saw his body, so immeasurably vital, stretched in the air above me, a fleeting, furred rainbow. He landed in the water, his back legs splayed, his tail high, and from there, in a few hops, he reached the beach. He went to the left, his paws gouging the wet sand, but changed his mind and spun around. He passed directly in front of me on his way to the right. He didn’t look at me. He ran a hundred yards or so along the shore before turning in. His gait was clumsy and uncoordinated. He fell several times. At the edge of the jungle, he stopped. I was certain he would turn my way. He would look at me. He would flatten his ears. He would growl. In some such way, he would conclude our relationship. He did nothing of the sort. He only looked fixedly into the jungle. Then Richard Parker, companion of my torment, awful, fierce thing that kept me alive, moved forward and disappeared forever from my life.

“I struggled to shore and fell upon the sand. I looked about. I was truly alone, orphaned not only of my family, but now of Richard Parker, and nearly, I thought, of God. Of course, I wasn’t. This beach, so soft, firm and vast was like the cheek of God and somewhere two eyes were glittering with pleasure and a mouth was smiling at having me there.

“After some hours a member of my own species found me. He left and returned with a group. They were six or seven. They came up to me with their hands covering their noses and mouths. I wondered what was wrong with them. They spoke to me in a strange tongue. They pulled the lifeboat onto the sand. They carried me away. The one piece of turtle meat I had brought from the boat they wrenched from my hand and threw away.

“I wept like a child. It was not because I was overcome at having survived my ordeal, though I was. Nor was it the presence of my brothers and sisters, though that too was very moving. I was weeping because Richard Parker had left me so unceremoniously. What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. When we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. It’s important to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I’d had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little, so that I was on his mind. I wish I had said to him then—yes, I know, to a tiger, but still—I wish I had said, ‘Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express. I couldn’t have done it without you. I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life; now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend. I will never forget you, that is certain. You will always be with me, in my heart. What is that hiss? Ah, our boat has touched sand. So farewell, Richard Parker, farewell. God be with you.’”   [Martel, Y. (2001). Life of Pi, Harcourt Books, pp. 284-286]

The next time you approach the ending to a significant encounter or event, carefully orchestrate a good ending.

Social intelligence – post #2 – Be sensitive to how long you talk in conversations

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I recently came back from a vacation. Several friends at the church asked me how the trip went. My response was too lengthy. They were just being kind…they weren’t that interested in the details of my trip.  

I recently had a phone conversation with a friend from the past. I asked him to give me an update on his life. Soon, I put the phone down on my desk and continued to work. His answer was just too detailed and much of the detail was irrelevant.

I recently asked a friend about his medical condition. Ten minutes later he was still telling me. (I exaggerate.) 

On the other extreme, my eight-year-old grandson tends to speak in monosyllables. “Ben, how was your day?” —“Good.” “What did you do” “Played” I’m teaching him to talk more. 

Let’s analyze this together. What’s happening in each of these situations?

First, we need to understand the purpose of polite conversation starters. When someone asks “how are you doing” they’re being courteous; they probably just want to gently start a conversation. They may want to know, sort of, how you’re doing, but not too much information. A short, two or three sentence response is adequate, then reciprocate by asking “how are you doing?”

Secondly, I think we often overestimate how much detail people want or need to hear. If I ask about your surgery, I don’t need to know what the hospital food was like, just tell me if the surgery was successful.

There are times when longer and more detailed responses are appropriate. If I’m having lunch with a friend and we have an hour to talk, we can go deep on some topics. Though, even in this setting, I’d rather hear a little about many aspects of his life than too much about a few areas. 

The other extreme is to not talk enough. My wife calls me the king of brevity. I am a person of few words; sometimes I need to talk more.

I want to train myself to quickly assess the purpose and parameters of conversations. I want to learn to give short, concise responses that tell enough but not too much. I want to balance my conversations so that each person involved gets equal time to talk. And at times, I need to talk more.

I want to exhibit social intelligence in my conversations. 

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Social intelligence – post #1 – Know the optimum volume needed in conversations

I recently had dinner with a group of friends. The restaurant we were in was full and the acoustics were live so it was difficult to hear conversations. So we each adjusted the volume of our voices so we could hear and be heard. But one friend continued to speak at her normal volume. No one could hear a word she was saying, but she continued on without adjusting. Finally, I made some gestures to her indicating that we weren’t able to hear her (tugged on my earlobe, shook my head). She momentarily increased the volume of her voice but soon returned to inaudibility. 

Every year my family sails on the Christmas sailing of the Queen Mary II from London to New York. It’s a great family tradition and we love the ship. Unlike most modern cruise ships, the QM II has a magnificent library: about 2,000 sq. ft. containing 5,000 volumes. Most everyone on board adheres to the unspoken but well-known protocol of being quiet while in a library. It’s a place to read and think. Whisper if you must talk to others. One time, while I was in the library, a man started talking at full volume. People raised eyebrows at him but he was clueless about his inappropriate behavior. Finally, I asked him to lower his voice and whisper. He was offended, but obliged. 

In both instances (restaurant, library) the individuals were unaware of how the volume of their voice was adversely affecting their presence in a social environment; one was too soft, the other too loud. At those moments, they both lacked social intelligence.

This is the first of several posts on the topic of Social Intelligence, so let me explain what it is.

John Gardner, in his book Frames of Mind, was the first social scientist to suggest that there are multiple ways in which we can be intelligent, or…unintelligent. He discussed six different kinds of intelligence.

 Multiple Intelligence (MI) 

      • Abstract intelligence – symbolic reasoning (IQ)
      • Practical intelligence – getting things done
      • Emotional intelligence – being aware of, and properly responding to, the emotional world
      • Aesthetic intelligence – a sense of form, design, literature, the arts, music, and other holistic experiences
      • Kinesthetic intelligence – whole body competence such as sport, dance, or flying a jet fighter
      • Social intelligence – properly assessing and relating to social environments 

Social Intelligence defined

Executive management consultant Karl Albrecht defines social intelligence as, “The accumulated wisdom that comes from constantly observing and learning what works and what doesn’t in human situations.” Social intelligence allows us to accurately assess and properly relate to social environments. It involves strategic situational awareness and a complimentary set of skills for interacting successfully to relational settings.

Social intelligence includes: 

      • Decorum – propriety and good taste in conduct or appearance
      • Etiquette – the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life
      • Manners – social conduct or rules of conduct as shown in the prevalent customs
      • Politeness – marked by an appearance of consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy

Social ignorance includes: 

      • Crudeness
      • Cluelessness
      • Acting inappropriately
      • Being awkward in social settings

In the next several weeks I’ll be writing about different aspect of social intelligence. The main takeaway from this post is: In a social setting, be aware of the proper volume at which you should speak.