Teaching Students Identified with Interpersonal Intelligence

The Ability to Relate to and Interact With Others

People Talking
Interpersonal Intelligence. AMV Photo/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Can you pick out the student who gets along with everyone in the class? When it comes to group work, do you know which student you pick to work well with others to complete the assignment?

If you can identify that student, then you already know a student who displays the characteristics of interpersonal intelligence. You have seen evidence that this student is able to discern the moods, the feelings, and the motivations of others.

Interpersonal is the combination of the prefix inter-  meaning "between" + person  + -al. The term was first used in psychology documents  (1938) in order to describe behavior between people in an encounter. 

Interpersonal intelligence is one of Howard Gardner's nine multiple intelligences, and this intelligence refers to how skillful an individual is in understanding and dealing with others. They are skilled at managing relationships and negotiating conflict. There are some professions that are a natural fit for people with interpersonal intelligence: politicians, teachers, therapists, diplomats, negotiators, and salesmen.

Ability to Relate to Others

You wouldn't think that Anne Sullivan -- who taught Helen Keller -- would be Gardner's example of an interpersonal genius. But, she is precisely the example Gardner uses to illustrate this intelligence. "With little formal training in special education and nearly blind herself, Anne Sullivan began the formidable task of instructing a blind and deaf seven-year-old," Gardner writes in his 2006 book, "Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice."

Sullivan's showed great interpersonal intelligence in dealing with Keller and all of her profound disabilities, as well as Keller's doubting family. "Interpersonal intelligence builds on a core capacity to notice distinctions among others -- in particular, contrasts in their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intuitions," Gardner says.

With Sullivan's help, Keller became a leading 20th-century author, lecturer, and activist. "In more advanced forms, this intelligence permits a skilled adult to read the intentions and desire of others even when they have been hidden."

Famous People With High Interpersonal Intelligence

Gardner uses other examples of people who are socially adept are among those with high interpersonal intelligence, such as:

  • Tony Robbins: Though he grew up in a "chaotic" and "abusive" household and "without any educational background in psychology," according to "Fortune" magazine and Wikipedia, Robbins became self-help coach, motivational speaker and best-selling author whose seminars have attracted thousands.
  • Bill Clinton: Once a relatively little-known governor of a small state, Clinton was convincingly elected to two terms as U.S. president, due largely to his personality and ability to relate to people.
  • Phil McGraw: A psychologist and well-known talk show host, "Dr. Phil" has advised and counseled thousands of people on improving their lives using a tough love approach.
  • Oprah Winfrey: Arguably the country's most successful talk show host, Winfrey built an empire largely based on her skill at listening, talking and relating to others.

    Some might call these social skills; Gardner insists that the ability to excel socially is actually an intelligence. Regardless, these individuals have excelled due almost entirely to their social skills.

    Enhancing Interpersonal Intelligence

    Students with this type of intelligence can bring a range of skill sets the classroom, including:

    • Peer to peer work (mentoring) 
    • Contributing to discussions in class 
    • Problem-solving with others
    • Small and large group work
    • Tutoring

    Teachers can help these students showcase their interpersonal intelligence by using some specific activities. Some examples include:

    • Class meetings
    • Creating group projects, both large and small
    • Suggesting interviews for class assignments
    • Offering students an opportunity to teach a unit
    • Including community service activities if applicable
    • Organizing surveys or polls that extend outside of the classroom

      Teachers can develop a variety of activities that allow these students with interpersonal skills to interact with others and to practice their listening skills. Since these students are natural communicators, such activities will help them enhance their own communication skills and also allow them to model these skills for other students.

      Their ability to both give and receive feedback is important to the classroom environment, in particular in classrooms where teachers would like students to share their different perspectives. These students with interpersonal intelligence can be helpful in group work, especially when students are required to delegate roles and meet responsibilities. Their ability to manage relationships can be leveraged especially when their skill set may be needed to resolve differences. Finally, these students with interpersonal intelligence will naturally support and encourage others to take academic risks when given the chance.

      Finally, teachers should take advantage of every opportunity in order to model appropriate social behavior themselves. Teachers should practice to improve their own interpersonal skills and give students the opportunity to a practice as well. In preparing students for their experiences beyond the classroom, interpersonal skills are a top priority.