Secret social skills successful people know


When we were at LegoLand I was struck by the high emotional intelligence of the employees. Their job is to make everyone feel like their Lego project is great. (You’d be surprised how many parents are there, swiping the white blocks from little kids at the Lego snowman contest.)

High emotional-intelligence jobs are very hard, and I would rather sweep floors. But I force myself to try to improve my emotional intelligence because people who don’t try to improve it generally suck at it. And people with high emotional intelligence are fascinated by how to get even better at reading people.

So I’m always seeking out new data points for emotional intelligence so I can get that social skills boost I most definitely need.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the social skills secrets of successful people:

1. Don’t try to fake emotion.
The first thing you should do is stop trying to fake that you care. It simply doesn’t work. You know the studies about smiling? They show that if you really smile, your eyes wrinkle. If you fake smile, those wrinkles are not there. And we read that subconsciously.

In fact, most of what we read subconsciously is correct. Here’s a good summary of that in the Economist. But the bottom line on reading people is that we have had millions of years to perfect the skill, and we’re good at it.

We can also tell right away how someone feels toward us. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that people judge empathy accurately in just 20 seconds of video without sound. This means we are reading the face. This also means that it’s pretty difficult for someone who doesn’t feel empathy to feign empathy.

2. Focus on doing rather than feeling.
I read a lot of books about how to have good social skills, and the instructions are always something specific I should say or do. For example, if someone is talking about themselves, I should not interject to talk about myself, but rather, ask a question about the other person.

I can do this. But I have a hard time caring, and it shows up as awkwardness—an act of empathy but no empathy showing in my face. Now I get it: the whole “passing for normal” goal is useless.

It’s much easier for me to follow rules that involve doing instead of caring.

3. Pay attention to personality types.
You know you should make people feel good by recognizing them for their work. But it’s actually difficult to know the right way to do that; one way won’t work for everyone, and, not surprisingly, it comes down to personality.

There are four dominant types of personalities. (Find your personality type here. It’s free.) There are four dominant types of people, each motivated primarily by either power, relationships, craftsmanship, or ideals.

4. First recognize then reward.
It’s important to first recognize a job well done, with gratitude. But also, if you reward the person with appropriate work then you’ll encourage a repeatedly outstanding performance. (Insights is a company that trains managers to think like this.)

Here are the four personality types and how to inspire them.

Power. Type-A types. For a job well done, reward this person with public recognition when a task or project is finished. Reward the person with visionary, forward-thinking projects.

Relationships. The cheerleader type. This person also wants some sort of public recognition, but it should be fun. And the thank-you speech is really important to this person. Reward them with projects that are varied and well defined.

Ideals. The crusaders. This person wants to be rewarded along the way, not just at the end. Reward this person as part of their team, not alone. Show faith in their ability to build strong partnerships by giving them more work to leverage that skill.

Craftsmanship. The perfectionists. Reward this person for attention to detail, and do it in a private, one-on-one way. They don’t want big fanfare. This person wants acknowledgement that they did a good job by seeing executive management adopt their work as the standard.

5. Judge yourself on how precisely you give a compliment.
You might not be in a position to reward someone at your company, but you are always in a position to acknowledge the work someone has done. This information helps you understand who wants acknowledgement for what. And you can mention something to them.

This seems subtle, but the difference between high emotional intelligence and merely average is that everyone knows you should give compliments when you can. But not everyone knows who needs what sort of compliment.


80 replies
  1. Tom
    Tom says:

    Not faking emotions is probably #1, as in your list. Then, if you want show you care you only need to care :)

    And, as you say, even if you dont care too much you can still do the right thing.

    I guess high emotional intelligence jobs are very easy for some people and very hard for others. We have a daughter who as a 2-year old mentioned after being on the phone with grandma that “she’s feeling lonesome and wishes she was here”. They hadn’t spoken about that but the girl had immediately picked it up.

      • Sandra
        Sandra says:

        I wish I had figured that out years ago. ‘Faking it’ initially made me feel uncomfortable. Then I connected the dots as far as making things easier goes. Sometimes just a thought of someone else thinking, oh Sandra did/said such and such (perceived good or bad) can make a world of difference in the success or failure of a task or project. We’re all interconnected and it pays to be sincere, and when we don’t feel like it, to pretend like we do.

  2. Tom
    Tom says:

    Great post, Penelope, thank you.

    You see things about human dynamics that most people miss, maybe because it’s “easy” for them.

  3. Elizabeth Harper
    Elizabeth Harper says:

    This post is as always very interesting and yet different in a way from your others. I’m still pondering it, but I think I like it better. I always take away something from what you write even when it feels like I have to sort through a few tangental threads to get there. This one was easier to follow, not that I mind a wild ride sometimes. It almost feels like two people wrote it and I marvel at your ability to have two styles of writing in one post. Well done!

  4. chris
    chris says:

    Your first example of emotional intelligence is a staff person at LegoLand. These people are dealing primarily with children . . . and I am wondering if you think there is a difference between the emotional intelligence you need to teach and encourage children v what is needed in the workplace for adults . . .

    Perhaps your tone is different (as Elizabeth notes) because you are morphing your skills from corporate workplace to teaching your children at home.

    You tucked in a comment about (not) caring.
    Caring is relative it seems to me. You cannot care about everyone’s project all the time. There are things/people you care more about, and there are cycles of caring, it seems to me.

    In the past you have admonished people to be kind in the workplace. So, really, you DO seem to “care”. And, as above, there may be differences in how you care with respect to (your) children v how you would care in the workplace.

    Penelope, you sell yourself short with respect to your social skills. I sense that you care about a lot of things. I get encouragement from you all the time. I think blog-writing is a form of reaching out–which is a caring thing to do. You care enough to give background, to give evidential links, to make your writing bristle and sparkle. You put in pictures. You self-disclose–all caring bits.

    Awkwardness is not evidence of not caring. It is just everyman (-woman) flipping back and forth between areas that are more or less comfortable, areas in which they have more or less expertise. It seems to me that it is okay to say “I don’t know what to say”. Think of the last funeral you attended . . . Nobody really has the “right” words, but you still want and need to say something to a bereaved person.

    Last, I really like the idea of rewarding a person by giving them appropriate work. It seems that would work for schooling kids as well as for adults in the workplace. (This also acknowledges that we all want to work, to be productive. Managers–and teachers!–should make that assumption about everyone, and not act like cops, forcing you to work and policing your work.)

  5. Mark Wiehenstroer
    Mark Wiehenstroer says:

    “But not everyone knows who needs what sort of compliment.”
    Well written post and I definitely agree that getting the right diagnosis before administering the compliment is critical. Otherwise it’s a fake cookie cutter type which may or may not apply to the situation and person. I’d also like to add that in addition to compliments; encouragement, inspiration, and other positive words and actions may be included. Most of the time it will not “cost” you anything and will most likely make you feel better about yourself.

  6. Kathrine Felland Gunnløgsson
    Kathrine Felland Gunnløgsson says:

    Just a quick note about the staff in Legoland in Billund, Denmark – the home of all things Lego.
    They have a special service that made our holiday there a great succes for both Alfred with Aspergers and his younger brother August. Alfred got a special pass at the Information booth so we didn’t have to stand line and we could also stay on the rides for an extra turn.
    This made all the difference for my family – but the best thing was the way the staff treated us. Very kind and personal – made us feel welcome and not like we were cutting in line. As you write – you can not fake a real smile.
    Thanks for all the inspirational posts!

    • anonymous
      anonymous says:

      Cedar Point also offers such a service. My niece has Aspergers. They gave us a pass that noted how many people were in our party. The pass gave us the opportunity to not stand in line, which was great not only for us, but also for those we would have stood in line with :-) My niece was actually able to enjoy a full day there at the point, including learning the joys of riding in the front car of a coaster!!

  7. Cassie Boorn
    Cassie Boorn says:

    I have always been really good at reading how people feel about me. Within the first 30 seconds of talking to someone I already know so much about them. However, my friends like to reference this as “being neurotic” rather than a great social skill.

    I am going to reference this post the next time they say that.

  8. Ali
    Ali says:

    This post is why we keep coming back. Well done. And it also indirectly explains why one-size-fits-all employee recognition programs really don’t work.

  9. Martin
    Martin says:

    I’ve worked at Legoland, Billing (Denmark) for two summers when I attended boarding school not far from there. I wouldn’t say we were ‘trained’ with social skills, but our management clearly recognized and rewarded when we, as employees, did the same to our customers. Natural social skills of employees can really make you stand out as a company.

  10. James
    James says:

    In my past working situations I have experienced managers (superiors) who knew
    little about meeting anyone’s emotional needs. And I have had managers who did
    well. But my problem with the whole idea of reading needs is this: when does one
    become manipulative in order to get results? When does touching a hot button in
    a situation become the dominant reason for “emotional intelligence”? And, as a
    manager, when am I just looking for a “feel good” response to my own emotional
    > Perhaps the writer has dealt with these issues in another writing?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      If you want to harm people, you are manipulative. If you want to help people you are insightful.

      I find it hard to believe that people are intentionally manipulative. I think the word is most commonly used by people with terrible social skills who are penalized for having terrible social skills. As in: “He is so manipulative, which is why the boss loves him.”

      The truth is the being manipulative at work doesn’t work. Because you can’t fake caring. So if you find yourself bitching about people being manipulative it’s probably a sign that you need to get better at reading people and catering to their needs yourself.


      • awiz8
        awiz8 says:

        The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

        Jean Giraudoux (1882 – 1944)

      • Katherine
        Katherine says:

        You can be manipulative without actively wanting to harm anyone. If you are doing it for your own selfish benefit and don’t really care if you harm the other person or not.

        And I wish “faking it” didn’t work as well as it seems to sometimes, but people can be fooled. Otherwise there would be no successful con artists.

        Even so, Love the post. Especially the part about different people needing different rewards & recognition.

  11. Bryan Thompson
    Bryan Thompson says:

    Hi Penelophe. I love this, especially the first two. I have recently begun to learn the fake-emotion thing, but it’s amazing. We all really know this. We experience it all the time. Why don’t we KNOW we know it? :)

  12. Amy Crouse
    Amy Crouse says:

    I don’t readily ooze caring- particularly in the workplace. And I work in Communications, where employees expect me to be sensitive and empathetic. Knowing a few tips to divert from showing false feelings and still making the other person feel fuzzy takes off the pressure. But I still need to remind myself to ask,ask, ask. And I don’t think I am abnormal; Penelope and others posting here give me validation!

  13. Irving Podolsky
    Irving Podolsky says:

    Hi again Penelope,

    As usual, you have delivered personal AND practical advice. I’m going to link to it in my own blog.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to build on what you’ve said here.

    I’m a mid level manager and I use the “techniques” you’ve listed to encourage the people who work for me. But what I’ve also found, is that from time to time, I must encourage and support my “bosses” as well.

    It’s a more subtle and critical task, and as you’ve explained, it definitely can NOT be faked. The managers above me are not looking for compliments so much as they need to know they are effective in their job. And I can express that to them by sincerely asking for their advice and guidance. The subtext of this gesture is the statement: “I trust you to help me.”

    If I mean it, and I implement their advice, they’ll feel good about themselves and associate me with that feeling of accomplishment. But if I’m phoney about it and they figure that out, I come off as manipulative. I become someone to be avoided.

    Everyone needs to know they matter, even the meanest jerks at the top of the company. Next week, I have to again deal with one of those autocrats. I need to find something I like and respect about him, even though he has little respect for anyone else. And then I have to let him know I care about what he tells me. And I have to mean it. If I can sincerely pull it off, all will benefit from this connection.

  14. Marcus
    Marcus says:

    Giving approval for another person’s work is the hall mark of the high value, socially intelligent individual. The best compliments rely on: 1) Telling the other person what you like about them (or their actions); and 2.) Saying WHY you like it.

    Missing out the second step (the ‘why’ part) is the key reason people come across as fake. The more information you give the more authentic, and powerful, your approval is.

  15. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    I always compliment in private and never thought to vary how I compliment. Most employees are surprised as they are not used to being noticed. I have high standing with the line staff employees. Management thinks I am a dinosaur. I am saving this post to read and read. Thanks. It seemed quite thoughtful and introspective.

  16. Scott Asai
    Scott Asai says:

    EI is so important in today’s world, maybe more than ever before. It’s about observing, then responding. Don’t assume, ask. Listen more than you talk. I also really like the part about giving specific compliments/feedback. Generic doesn’t work and people want to be treated as unique people. Thanks for sharing this.

  17. Becky
    Becky says:

    Dear Penelope,

    Can you provide a link for the statement: “There are four dominant types of personalities.” I’m reading it as saying that of all of the MB types, there are four that are most successful. Is that what you meant?

  18. Pat
    Pat says:

    Great advice! A lot of it applies to working with adult students, as well.

    I noticed a proofreader’s error: there are two #4s on your list. That’s one problem that’s easy to fix, anyway!

  19. cm
    cm says:

    Not trying to be pedantic, but the Myers-Briggs test is never free.
    What you can take online is usually another company’s approximation of the test (often, it’s the Kiersey Temperament Sorter), which is fine to take to get an idea of what your Myers-Briggs type might be, but isn’t quite the same.
    Also, the results of the Kiersey test have different names, terms, and definitions from the MBTI results.
    There are 16 personality types according to the Myers-Briggs test. You can group those 16 types into various larger categories, including several ways of sorting them into groups of 4. It is useful to categorize people in that way to learn something about differences, but I don’t think that the MBTI specifically groups folks into those who care about ideals, relationships, power, etc. — I think outside researchers and writers on personality have done that.
    It’s very illuminating to take a reputable personality test like the MBTI (and similar), and learn about the differences in the personalities and how to figure out what tendencies other people in your life might have. There are several good books out there about how to interact with/work with different types, explaining what they value and don’t value.
    It was very comforting to me to learn that only 1% of the female population is my type, and that nearly all of them face similar obstacles in terms of socializing and career that I have in my life. Females of my type are usually the only one like that in their family, in their class at school, etc. It’s usually not until university and later that they even meet other women who are similar, but because they tend to study “male” subjects and do “male” jobs, they still are on the outside and are seen as a bit odd. :-) But “I yam what I yam,” like Popeye said.
    There are so many secret social skills that successful people have – it’s amazing. Dozens and dozens. So many of us are never taught these things by our families or teachers (who often don’t know themselves). And interestingly, these can vary by culture and country. Sometimes, what’s polite and appropriate in one culture is viewed as the opposite in another. Navigating between such groups requires a great deal of skill, tact, tacit knowledge. A little time spent learning about this kind of thing can pay off in numerous ways.

  20. downfromtheledge
    downfromtheledge says:

    i’m afraid if i don’t fake it, i won’t talk to anybody, period.

    i always end up being the one asking all the questions to learn more about people, then the people never reciprocate and i get bored at their level of self-absorption and can hardly fake caring anymore.

  21. Carrie
    Carrie says:

    Interesting. I am a “craftsman” type (ISTP). I sometimes self-deprecatingly refer to myself as a perfectionist but have never seen my TYPE referred to as such. And it’s true, adopting my work as a standard would probably be the best compliment one could give me.

    • cm
      cm says:

      Why is being a perfectionist a bad thing? Those who are really good at their chosen fields are often perfectionists. Stopping at 80% is kind of boring in my opinion. ;-)

  22. Garth beyer
    Garth beyer says:

    I learned the lesson of not faking emotion early on. Just as it appears in your blog posts, we have a similar tactic. If we are the slightest bit away from feeling fulfilled or happy, we look for a way to improve it. Instead of acting like we approve and care, we express what needs to be improved for it to make us happy.

    In other words, you are focusing on doing rather than feeling. You make feeling the end result because we are all self centered humans. But some of us actually have good ideas that can improve more lives than just ours.

    What I fail to do is incorporate your last couple suggestions. Before enabling actions over emotions, I often forget to be grateful for the other person. Though I always remember to do it after, but that almost always defeats the purpose and lessens the meaning behind it.

  23. The False God
    The False God says:

    Mentioning Myers Briggs in a positive light doesn’t lend you much credibility… This reads too much like a freshman-level hippie psych elective.

    If you think there are people who can’t convincingly fake whatever emotional state they want to at a given time, then I’ve got some acquaintances that have property on Alderaan they’d like to discuss with you.

  24. Chris
    Chris says:

    I am very skeptical of the idea that people are good at determining other people’s true characteristics by looking at them or interacting for a few seconds.

    If empathy is so hard to fake, why are criminals able to fool people into trusting them? The answer is that people can be fooled. Emotions can be faked.

    On the other hand, psychologists do get good publications from publishing ideas that seem like nonsense. Color me skeptical.

  25. Sardondi
    Sardondi says:

    When I first read about “EQ” some 20 years ago, I scoffed at the idea, mostly because it seemed designed to give the social engineers and fuzzy-thinking crowd a way to cheaply, and falsely, inflate self-esteem; an idea which I think is actually harmful in the long run. I have always thought I valued “thinking” people as opposed to “feelers” probably because I thought my IQ set me apart.

    But after some 40 years of dealing with the public as customers and clients, I’ve come to finally realize that I probably had a higher “emotional intelligence” than that IQ of which I was so proud. And I finally understood I had always relied a great deal on emotional/social cues as well as in dealing with people.

    Being able to read and to understand, even anticipate, another’s needs and goals can be a priceless aid in not just commercial transactions. And it certainly makes for far more pleasant interactions when at least one of a pair is trying to grasp what would gratify the other, and then tries to find a way to make it happen.

  26. Roger Arango
    Roger Arango says:

    Good article–I teach a graduate course where I require a lot of group work–I always start the course by having students take the KTS–it helps the students understand how people think and smooths out many of the issues that arise in group work.

    I am an INTP (31 zero) on the T scale–empathy is not my strong suit, but knowing that means I need to have someone who can help people on the TF side–my point, I think is this. The personality inventory, be it MB or KTS helps me to understand my own limitations and take action to compensate.

    Good summary and thanks for putting it up.

  27. Bob_R
    Bob_R says:

    The naive use of Meyers Briggs is one of the dumbest things going is social science. MB divides people into two groups on four axes of personality. This is like taking all people with over 100 IQ and calling them “smart” and calling all people below “dumb.” It is a terrible use of statistic. Unfortunately it reflects the standard in social science. A “dumb” standard.

    • cm
      cm says:

      “Social science” actually doesn’t use the MBTI that much. Academic psychology seems to prefer the 5-factor model of personality, which wikipedia can explain to you. (It is quite similar to the MBTI, in my opinion.)
      Looking at how people’s personalities differ in important ways and categorizing them in various ways in order to develop and teach useful knowledge is not “dumb”. It’s no different than eye specialists who categorize folks into being short-sighted, long-sighted, etc. and then give them a personalized glasses prescription so that their vision can be improved and they can get along better in the world.

  28. Paul Dow
    Paul Dow says:

    Has anyone seen boxing promoter Don King speak? I’ve only seen him on talk shows, and I really wish I could talk more like him.

    I know he may not be the first choice to be your best friend, but he just has a great way of complimenting people so it makes you just like the guy. I’m stuck in a pattern that I feel like I’m a phoney when I try to compliment someone. Mr. King comes off so genuine, that I can see why he is so successful in his job, even if it may take some exaggeration when being a boxing promoter.

  29. John D
    John D says:

    The secret is to be sincere. You know the old saying, “Sincerity is the key, once you can fake that, you have it made.”

  30. crypticguise
    crypticguise says:

    This article is such a joke. Emotional Intelligence? And how do you measure emotional intelligence?

    Some people have outgoing friendly personalities, some people do not. It is difficult but not impossible to teach social dimwits how to deal with customers.

    Funny article. Try again.

  31. jay
    jay says:


    I wouldn’t say funny article, but the clinical terms and self-consciously polite way you discuss empathy as though it were an anthropological curiosity suggest you’re simply a high-functioning sociopath. You really should try again.

  32. GingerR
    GingerR says:

    I think a lot of #1 & #2 can be easily accomplished through another priciple: mind your manners.

    Manners have developed in society for just the purpose of smoothing social situations.

  33. fred doe
    fred doe says:

    There’s a book called, “How to win friends and influence people”, it’s by Dale Carnegie. So old,so simple and to some so trite. Someone could be a superior Concierge and yet be a raging sociopath? It happens all the time. Emotional intelligence is not a science, a art form maybe?

  34. chris
    chris says:

    For everyone who has spoken out against faking it . . . Have you never heard of “fake it till you make it”? You practice a skill till it becomes automatic. Up until the automaticity phase, the skill may seem awkward or insincere. It is not. It is, simply, an emerging skill.

    If you have been self-absorbed and want to remedy that situation, someone may suggest you ask an open-ended question and then wait and listen attentively for the answer. Nod. Maintain eye contact. Smile. This is not insincere. You are practicing a skill which you never learned, which you want to know/do now . . .

  35. k
    k says:

    So if you’re not supposed to fake smile at work…what precisely do you do instead? Sulk all the time? This is a serious question, unfortunately.

  36. Antonia
    Antonia says:

    This is very valid, love this post.

    One thing lots of people do not realize is that Love is really about Doing not Feeling and Caring is Love. We all ought to Love one another, it is the most fundamental thing to being Human. Love people, Love Nature. People are too caught up in exchanging Emotions and Feelings for Love, so EQ definitely will not be well developed until we actually focus on the doing.

    I like the ccompliment bit too, it reminds me of a company event I attended once. It was a coaching on creativity in the workplace. We were taught how to give compliments, why and how.
    Why? At the most basic level, someone took their time to do something, even if you don’t like the outcome, your compliment should drive them to want to do better. There is always something positive, look for that. How? Don’t use buts, You can say something like, ‘I really appreciate your effort and I think one thing that could make your work even better is… ‘
    Stay Positive and Constructive.

  37. Jon
    Jon says:

    This was the year I discovered my ASD "diffabilty", this was the year I finally got context for my life. I went through the grief stages to acceptance (I was on anger longer than I should have been). It's been a long year. To the point; I discovered this blog as part my personal research/learning and have it marked as one of the best for me and have benefited markedly by its tone and candour. This article on EI is another offering that struck a chord with me. When I called my wife and "NT" she shot back at me with "Better than a NUT (Neuro-Untypical)". Loved ones keep you very grounded :-).
    Merry Christmas!

  38. Pam Hollister
    Pam Hollister says:

    Understanding one’s personality type and recognizing the type of your friends and business associates assists greatly in improving your emotional intelligence. For instance, I make decisions logically, which in the MBTI means I make decisions as a Thinker. Understanding this about myself has been a major advantage in knowing why I handle things a certain way and also helped me understand those people that make decisions as a Feeler.

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