Wed | Jan 26, 2022
Contrasting social intelligence perspectives

Trevor E. S. Smith | Where do you stand?

Published:Sunday | January 19, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Look at these two approaches and see which one is closer to your views.

We use a highly provocative series of interactive exercises at the onset of our work with teams and in our leadership coaching programmes. The exercises challenge deeply ingrained thinking. They invite participants to reflect on whether ‘the way we are’, as a result of our socialisation, supports interpersonal relations or is, in fact, a hindrance to healthy relationships.

One highly controversial topic is: ‘If infants and adults breathe the same air, why do they behave so differently when it comes to inter-personal relations?’

The backdrop is that if we reflect on the behaviour of young children, we will see a tendency towards developing and maintaining excellent inter-personal relationships. Fussing and crying may be present momentarily. However, issues are quickly resolved – provided there is no adult nearby to mess up the reconciliation. That spirit is not generally manifested in adult relations.

The objective of the exercises is to demonstrate that there are mindsets that are commonplace among adults that are not conducive to good interpersonal relationships. We are not always socially intelligent.

Today, I present a synopsis of one of the exercises. Put yourself in the learning environment and take the time to reflect on where you stand.

Ice cream request

I am cast in the role of a little child. I have two siblings – one quite young.

It is summer. I make a home-made boomerang. I should have tested it by throwing it away from my Mom’s show window. I did not. Unfortunately, the boomerang did not start its return flight as I anticipated!

We are in trouble. However, we are hot and thirsty and would like some ice cream.

Who do you think we will select to ask Mom for ice cream?

Me (window breaker); next-in-line sibling that should know better, or tiny tot who can be primed to make the ice-cream request with a totally innocent countenance?

If you chose Me, how is life on Mars?

Before tiny tot makes the appeal, we make sure that we tidy our rooms and complete outstanding chores. We take care to create an environment that invites a positive response.

Tiny tot then approaches Mom with eyes that will melt even the toughest heart. We go to all this trouble because, as adults, we know that children are naïve.

Shift now to the adult scenario:

Imagine an adversarial, unionised working environment. We want a raise of pay (ice cream equivalent). There has been a history of union/management conflict. (Disclaimer: This scenario is not typical of healthy union/management relations.)

Who do the wise adults choose to present our request? The union delegates.

Are they likely to melt the heart of management? On the contrary, the negotiations tend to be fraught with friction and animosity.

Compare outcomes!

All three of us children get ice cream plus cake, and get asked if we would like an extra serving.

On the adult side, as the negotiations drag on, there is open hostility, productivity drops, and there might even be the risk of the withdrawal of labour.

The adults haggle over percentages and finally end up with some compromise that leaves both sides unhappy.

My participants are quick to point out that when you get the wrong end of the stick enough times, you have to take drastic action. They say the exercise is simplistic, because in real life we do not encounter doting, kind-hearted mothers. Trevor is going to have the cost of the damage deducted from his wages, and he may actually be fired for not following procedure.

OK. But pause to reflect on the different mindsets. The children demonstrate a fundamental principle: you trap more flies with honey than with a sledgehammer.

Positioning ourselves in a favourable light opens up the possibility for sustainable, mutually beneficial and cordial relationships.

Confrontational, conflict-ridden approaches often fail to achieve the desired outcome and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of participants. ‘Losers’ tend to be uncooperative and frequently invest time plotting how to get the upper hand the next time.

Is it the air we breathe at the higher level that prevents us from appreciating the fact that cooperation is usually a better option than confrontation?

Another pushback:

What if you have offered so much honey, but each time the offer is trampled underfoot?

If your reasonable overtures are consistently rejected, it might be best to seek the intervention of a third party. Their role might be to assist you in refining your request, or it might be to bring about a closer alignment of the positions of the parties.


Ensure that your 2020 goals are achieved. Talk to us about how we can move you and your team to the next level.

- Trevor E. S. Smith/Success with People Academy. We guide the development of high-performance teams. We are interpersonal relations, group dynamics and performance-enhancement specialists. We provide learning and productivity-enhancement technology solutions. We offer behavioural assessments from Extended DISC on the revolutionary FinxS Platform and e-competency frameworks and e-onboarding solutions in our SPIKE technology package. Email: or