Student Learning and Relational Intelligence

We’ve been hearing a lot of buzz around “emotional intelligence,” but it’s time to recast the concept. As psychotherapist Esther Perel says, emotional intelligence is not self-referential; it’s about knowing how to relate to others and how to manage the way they relate to us. A more useful term is “relational intelligence,” and we should be teaching it to our students from an early age.

“There is an enormous restlessness and anxiety at the moment about how we relate to one another,” Perel said during her presentation at SXSW 2019. At the same time, “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.”

Although she’s speaking to an audience about the parallels between personal relationships and work relationships, most of her points carry over to the classroom. Relationships between teachers and students, between teachers and parents, between students, between teachers—these are where we need to focus our time and energy.

“The quality of our relationships at work determines the actual quality of our work and our overall ability to succeed,” she says, and it’s true for school environments as well. When teachers and students feel connected, deeper learning can happen.

“But unlike performance, relationships are harder to measure, harder to sustain, and harder to repair.”

So, what is relational intelligence, exactly? And how can we teach it to ourselves so that we can teach it to others?

Why Is Relational Intelligence Important?

“Relational intelligence is the ability to learn, understand, and comprehend knowledge as it relates to interpersonal dynamics,” writes Steve Saccone, author of Relational Intelligence: How Leaders Can Expand Their Influence. “The more relationally intelligent we become, the more we will demonstrate increased love, respect, and trust in every relationship in our lives, which will inevitably elevate our influence.”

One of the most valuable—if not the most valuable—skills of the future will be relational intelligence. We can see this shift happening in the business world, as organizations change their focus from production, efficiency, process, and performance to authenticity, belonging, trust, empathy, and transparency. We need to prepare students for this changing landscape now, even starting from early childhood education.

Perel believes this shift arises from three things:

1) Rise of Expectations: Never before have we expected so much from our partners and never before have we expected so much from our work.

2) Rise of Emotions: In other words, emotional capital. Emotions are tied to the workplace now, and we talk about our work environments in terms of belonging, trust, and transparency.

“We basically are using in the same breath psychological safety and performance review.”

3) Production Economy to Service Economy: We used to work to put food on the table; now we work to fulfill our life purpose. We want our lives to be about quality of service, not simply about producing results. “We have basically brought market economics into our personal lives.”

She also notes how people are more concerned now than ever before with being “treated like humans” at work. At the same time, we live in a culture that values the dehumanization of certain areas of life, many of which can be automated with technology. It may be ironic, but the reality is that we are moving in both directions very quickly and need to prioritize those “soft skills” just as much as hard skills.

Saccone takes Perel’s points even further, offering in-depth guidance on becoming more relationally intelligent. But first, he speaks to its growing importance.

“In the past, authority and credibility were built on status, power, or position—but in today’s world it’s build on relationships and trust. To be relationally intelligent, we must shift from a positional authority mind-set to the crucial leadership mind-set of relational authority.”

According to both experts, the primary components of relational intelligence we need to teach our students are as follows:

1) Autonomy and interdependence

Perel: “Every organism and ecosystem on the planet learns to navigate the same polarities: commitment and freedom, stability and change, and autonomy and interdependence.” Teaching students how to balance these polarities is key.

2) Conflict management and communication

Saccone: “True spiritual leaders create relational health around them because they know that their influence flows best wherever healthy relationships exist.”

Perel: “If you want someone to change, you must first address what they’d lose by changing. Even if the person agrees they need to change. We all get attached to our ways of doing things.”

3) Self-awareness and accountability

Perel: “If you want to change the other, start by changing yourself.”

Saccone: “The more we lack self-awareness, the more potential there is to create a negative environment where we constantly offend people because we don’t understand their point of view, or we hurt people’s feelings regularly because we lack sensitivity to what they’re going through. When we find the courage to look inside without allowing the filters of self-protection and self-preservation to blind us, it opens up a vista to personal growth that we never thought possible. The path toward increasing our greatest leadership impact begins with honestly acknowledging our inability to see ourselves clearly.”

Six Ways to Be Relationally Intelligent

In his book, Saccone defines six roles of a relational genius: 1) The Story Collector, 2) The Energy Carrier, 3) The Compelling Relator, 4) The Conversational Futurist, 5) The Likeable Hero, and 6) The Disproportionate Investor.

Which one are you?

1. The Story Collector

“The path to helping a person feel known involves learning to be a story collector—that is, someone who draws out the story of people’s lives with genuine interest. When someone is relationally intelligent, he or she cultivates relationships where people are able to share the most interesting facets of their life story.”

These people practice Relational Intelligence by doing the following:

  • Learn how to become more interested in others by exploring the story their lives are telling
  • Focus on drawing out the dreams, life history, and personhood of others
  • Discover not just facts or information about a person but explore what drives their lives, what makes them different from you and me, and what has shaped who they’ve become
  • Make people feel known not only by understanding their dreams but also by exploring the story of their past
  • Don’t draw out every detail of people’s past, but rather identify the most defining moments in their own story

“The path to understanding a person often begins with looking at what fuels the person internally,” Saccone writes. “People’s values drive their life choices; what kind of relationships they engage in; where they give time, money, and energy; how they treat people; and even how they wish to be treated.”

2. The Energy Carrier

“There are two kinds of people in the world: those who are able to read the tone and those who are able to set the tone,” Saccone writes. “It’s the difference between being a thermometer that measures the temperature and being a thermostat that sets the temperature. A relational genius has made the shift from being a tone reader to a tone setter.”

These people can do the following:

  • Identify and harness their internal power to affect outer change
  • Shift the undercurrent of a given situation in a better direction
  • Recognize opportunities for positive impact by assessing the energy in the room, rather than staying task-oriented
  • See the significance in what appears to be mundane, recognizing the weight of that meaning in an internal place and sharing the power of it with the surrounding environment.

“The energy we carry within, and the force of its strength, is determined by how alert we are internally,” Saccone reminds us. “It is entirely possible to appear highly alert on the outside, while being virtually asleep on the inside.”

3. The Compelling Relator

Keep people interested by speaking your truth. At the same time, be prepared for resistance from those who don’t agree. “If everyone speaks well of you, you are giving in to the forces around you more than you are allowing the force from within you to emerge from the strength of who you are.”

Especially in terms of leadership, Saccone warns against siding with the herd.

“If everyone always agrees with you, and if no one ever criticizes you, then you’re probably not leading as much as you think,” he says. “There’s no doubt that leaders sometimes create controversy by leading from their convictions. An underlying fear could be what holds you back. Maybe it’s fear or failure. If it’s not fear that hinders your willingness to step into controversy, then maybe it’s lack of clarity about your values, mission, and convictions.”

Compelling relators have the following traits:

  • They dare to be controversial, challenging normal patterns of thinking
  • They don’t try to please everyone, and refuse to relinquish what they care about simply to make others happy. As a result, they encounter resistance because the majority of people resist change
  • Maximize their effectiveness by speaking and acting in a way that creates necessary and productive tension
  • Develop the ability to discern when to courageously step into a moment and be boldly controversial
  • Act or speak for the greater good of others, even if they need to relinquish their grip on harmony and personal comfort or put fears aside
  • Begin communication with the other person in mind
  • Understand that people have short attention spans and are bombarded with information daily
  • Conduct themselves with passion

“One common denominator that I’ve observed with the most interesting people I know is this: they have passion,” Saccone says. “In whatever setting, whether you’re a leader sharing you’re your cause with a group of volunteers, a supervisor to establish new friendships, one thing remains true: the more passionately you care about what you’re saying, the more people will desire to listen to you, be around you, and take part in your mission.”

4. The Conversational Futurist

“Conversational futurists realize that every conversation is alive with potential and has the capacity to move forward and create change. They’re driven to evolve a dialogue with intention and progress and are able to use their words as a medium to do so.”

Here’s how:

  • Improve your ability to formulate your thoughts before you speak
  • Listen to whom you’re talking and be engaged on a human-to-human level
  • Listen to the questions people are asking even if they aren’t being spoken in question form
  • Resist the temptation to simply reaffirm what a person wants to hear
  • Maintain the courage and wisdom to press into any unhealthy thinking patterns
  • Recognize cause and effect in a person’s life by listening to them speak, seeing the trajectory of where their choices are taking them before they even get there
  • Develop the ability to move people forward by offering them a perspective on their future
  • Learn to reverse the wrong assumptions of a conversation

“To become a conversational futurist doesn’t require a certain amount of life experience, extraordinary intelligence, or personality type,” Saccone writes. “It simply starts by helping people connect the dots of cause and effect in their lives. It will require courage to share our honest thoughts in a loving way with people whose path we cross.”

5. The Likeable Hero

Likeability has a lot to do with trust, and may even be inseparable from it. To become a “likeable hero,” Saccone recommends the following:

  • Practice serving others and adding enjoyment to a moment or relationship
  • Embody a high yet realistic level of optimism about work, life, and relationships
  • Earn trust quickly by being likeable as a leader

6. The Disproportionate Investor

These people become relationally intelligent by investing their time and relational energy wisely. As leaders, they see the connection between relational energy, success, and influence.

They are the opposite of consumers, who always look for what they can take from others. Instead, they focus on giving to others.

“A sure sign of an investor is seen in the people who energize you practically every time you interact with them,” Saccone says. “They enter relationships looking to give more than they get and to make a positive contribution even if it’s just a brief moment.”

The way we choose to relate to one another reveals what we value most and defines the quality of our human experience.

“Just as the global economy is all about money, the human economy is all about relationships,” Saccone writes. “Relationships define what it means to be human, which makes them both complicated and fragile. They are the most challenging and complex arena of our lives. They can create enormous amounts of pain, but they can also be the source of indescribable joy.”

Now that we’ve learned, we can teach.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

Leave a Reply