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How to be an Emotionally Intelligent Partner: Focus on Social Awareness

By Lisa Schainker, Extension Assistant Professorcouple talking

This article is the third in a series on emotional intelligence. The second article “How to be an Emotionally Intelligent Partner: Focus on Self-Management” can be found here.

Have you ever watched a stranger from across the room and tried to figure out how they are feeling? You were probably looking for clues like their body language, the tone of their voice, and their facial expressions. Whether you realized it or not, you were engaging in a skill related to one of the four components of emotional intelligence called social awareness (Goleman, 1995). Unlike self-awareness, which is looking inward to learn about and understand yourself, social awareness is about looking outward to recognize and appreciate the feelings of others and the reasons behind them (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009).

When you are having an important discussion with your partner it can be challenging to focus on what they may be thinking or trying to understand their emotional state. This is because it is difficult to ignore or set aside our own feelings or thoughts in the middle of an interaction. If we want to exhibit social awareness when it comes to our partners, we must try to understand how they are really feeling in that moment without letting our own emotions get in the way. Consider trying the following strategies to enhance your social awareness with your partner:

  • Stop talking and listen. One of the most important strategies we can use when it comes to social awareness is to stop talking and truly listen to what our partner is saying (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). This sounds easy in theory, but in practice, it can be challenging to stop ourselves from saying something when our emotions run high. During the conversation, try not to anticipate what your partner is going to say next or focus on what you want to say back. Remember to stay in the moment and allow give and take in the conversation.
  • Use empathic listening. Empathic listening entails listening patiently to what your partner has to say, even when you do not agree with it. Instead of arguing or disputing facts, show them that you accept what they are saying by simply nodding or saying something like, "I understand" or "I get it." The goal is to simultaneously focus on the emotion being expressed by your partner as well as the literal meaning of their words (“Empathic listening,” n.d.). You can also work on seeing things from their perspective by first considering, “If I were this person, how would I be feeling right now?”
  • Timing is important. When you do have something important you want to say, always consider the other person’s state of mind and the context before deciding whether or not it is the right time to share it (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009). For example, let’s say you can’t wait to get home to share some positive news with your partner. However, when you get home, you notice that they seem a bit distracted and quiet. Instead of expecting your partner to be ready to share in your excitement, you should first ask what’s going on with them. This shows that you are both able to pick up on their emotional state and that you care how they are feeling.
  • Focus on non-verbal messages. Your partner’s body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions are saying a lot if you pay attention. Do their non-verbal cues match their words? If not, this is an opportunity to mention what you are noticing and ask them what is really going on. Pay close attention to their face, particularly their eyes, as they can speak volumes about their true feelings. 
  • Ask them to confirm. Confirm whether or not your observations are on track by asking a reflective question. Do this by stating the evidence you see (it looks like you are feeling…) and asking a direct question (did something happen?). It is up to your partner to decide how much to share, but you have made it clear that you are interested in how they are actually feeling.
  • Stay engaged. Try to lean toward your partner when they are speaking and refocus on their words and non-verbal cues. Continually remind yourself that you are in the conversation to listen and learn something. Although it may be challenging, focus on quieting your inner thoughts and using your listening skills. Focus on being approachable to your partner and not getting defensive. When you argue or get defensive, it can immediately shut down their willingness to remain vulnerable with you and share openly.

While no one is expected to be a mind reader, when both you and your partner work on your social awareness skills, it will go a long way toward helping you understand each other and will ultimately strengthen your relationship.


  • Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart.
  • Empathic listening: Going beyond active listening. (n.d.).https://www.mindtools.com/CommSkll/EmpathicListening.htm
  • Goleman, Daniel. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than Iq. Bantam Books.