Developing Interpersonal Intelligence

The Ability to Relate to and Interact With Others

Interpersonal Intelligence. AMV Photo/ Digital Vision/ Getty Images

Interpersonal intelligence is one of Howard Gardner's Nine multiple intelligences. It refers to how skillful an individual is in understanding and dealing with others. People who excel in this intelligence typically are able to discern moods, feelings and motivations of others. Politicians, teachers, therapists, diplomats and even parents are among those that Gardner sees as having high interpersonal intelligence.

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, temperments, 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

Not surprisingly, 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

Teachers can help students boost their interpersonal intelligence by using some specific strategies, including:

  • utilizing group projects
  • having students teach a unit
  • including community service activities if applicable
  • conducting interviews for class assignments

Crafting activities that allow students to interact with others, practice their listening skills and enhance their ability to communicate will help them be successful in this area. As the teacher, you can be the model for enhancing this ability in students by holding weekly "class" meetings, conducting a mock "election" or holding a monthly lunch meeting. Take advantage of any opportunity to model appropriate social behavior, interact with students and have them interact with each other. The more your students practice their social skills, the better they will become at using them in real life.