Why Smart People Have Poor Communication Skills – and What to Do About It
On October 23, 1990, David Pologruto, a high school physics teacher, was stabbed by his smart student Jason Haffizulla. Jason was not a teenager you think would try to kill someone. He got straight A’s and was determined to study medicine at Harvard, yet this was his downfall. His physics teacher gave Jason a B, a mark Jason believed would undermine his entrance to Harvard. After discovering his B, Jason took a butcher knife to school then stabbed his physics teacher before being reprimanded in a struggle.
Two years following the incident in a New York Times article, it was reported Jason raised his grade average to 4.614 (exceeding the perfect average of 4) by taking advanced courses and graduated with highest honors. He was smart.
Jason got better than perfect grades and still emotionally lost himself by trying to wound or kill his teacher. He could never improve his grade by stabbing his teacher. How can someone as smart as Jason do something so dumb?
The answer? Smart can be dumb. Studies show there is little to no correlation between IQ and emotional intelligence and that smart people are as likely to be good at communicating as “dumb people”. But I’ve observed smart people with poor communication skills make common mistakes in their communication. Intelligence can work against you.
How to Be Successful and Smart
I regard myself as an intelligent guy. I was no Einstein but got good marks in Mathematics, Physics, and other technical subjects. I graduated high school with the highest marks of my year level. I began a degree in Engineering, majoring in Mechatronics, an area of study that integrates mechanics, electronics, and computing. I would be able to design robotics and cybernetic systems – the wave of the future. Such skills would surely give me an edge in life.
After one year of study with decent marks, I began to see two major classes of students. The first category of student turned up to few lectures, partied every weekend, enjoyed a great social life, and did minimal work to pass courses. The second category of students were intelligent, hard workers, got good grades, and were very focused on their studies. Surely these intelligent, hard-working students would fill the great jobs before the lazier class of student?
Not so. Students are often shocked upon graduation that their technical qualifications are unimportant. Students in school are lead to believe their academic knowledge is the primary determinat of a great job and success. Howard Gardner in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences defines various types of intelligence and emphasizes that schools are too focused on logic and linguistic intelligence. Robert Kiyosaki in Rich Dad, Poor Dad is a more famous author that demotes the common belief that the government’s education system leads students to wealth and success. Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers contains further proof that IQ has little correlation with achievement.
Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, says that IQ is too narrow to predicate success. The implications of emotional intelligence, which is summarized as an understanding of your emotions and the emotions of other people, are profound in communication and many areas of life. “Emotional Intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities,” says Goleman, “either facilitating or interfering with them.”
Graduates enter the workforce only to realize that co-workers hate them, less intelligent people are the ones receiving promotions, and sucking up to the boss doesn’t help personal earnings. The students have “hard skills” such as technical know-how, but they lack the “soft skills” like conflict management and social etiquette. The transition for intelligent people from being goal-oriented to process and people-oriented is usually realized through experience.
It’s not that people dislike you because of your intelligence; it’s that people dislike you because you’re rude, not understanding, or annoying to be around.
If you have experience in hiring people, you know the importance of people skills. A person’s knowledge can be useless in some industries when the person has no people skills. You can have great ideas, theories, and solve complex problems, but if you cannot effectively communicate that material in a persuasive and exciting manner by relating to your fellow human, you face an uphill battle in whatever challenges you encounter. It’s not that people dislike you because of your intelligence; it’s that people dislike you because you’re rude, not understanding, or annoying to be around. The intelligent person with poor communication skills is insensitive.
Hopefully I can reveal the elusive obvious to you in this little exercise. I want you to think back to primary school or high school. Perhaps even college. Select the most memorable class to you.
I want you to categorize, and roughly rank, class members based on two sets of criteria: intelligence and popularity. You don’t need to go through every class member, but recall those at the end of each spectrum. That is, remember the smartest few in the class and the most popular few in the class. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, give a person a rank of ten in intelligence if you feel they were the most intelligent in the class. For the students who had lots of friends, give them a ten in the popularity category. Try to categorize roughly six students. If you have problems remembering, quickly write the ranks down on paper.
Now, with the students you have ranked in one category, rank them in the other category. So if you have ranked the smartest student as a ten in the intelligence category, give the person a rank you feel is appropriate in the popularity category. Do the same for students you ranked in the popularity category.
Now that you have several people in each category, think about the difference between the student-types.
Did you noticed a distinguishable difference in the students you ranked during the exercise? No difference may exist, but most who do this exercise notice the intelligent lack friends. The smartest were generally not very popular because they had poor social skills. Presumptuous? Likely, no.
Smarter, wealthier, or generally people who have feelings of superiority, refuse to seek help in dealing with people.
All intelligent people do not have poor people skills just like all unintelligent people do not have good people skills. You may think, “But I know someone who is smart and great with people.” Good. So do I. Intelligence and people skills are not mutually exclusive characteristics. Having one does not mean you cannot have the other.
Academically intelligent people fail in predictable areas of their lives for predictable reasons. What makes matters worse is they avoid solving the dilemma because of pride. The genius-failure paradox describes that people who want to feel smarter, wealthier, or generally superior to others refuse to seek help in dealing with people. You can feel inferior learning a skill like communication that you believe should be natural. To learn such a skill is an admission to your weakness and stupidity.
How the Problem Begins in Childhood
A study titled Reading Difficulties, Behavior, and Social Status published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, found that 81% of children referred to aggression and social behaviour as the number one reason for disliking another child. As children age, the researchers found that a child’s academic performance increased their peer acceptance.
The study also found that achievement and other factors are influential to peer acceptance. We do need to keep in mind that peer acceptance does not equate to only social skills. Peer acceptance can increase due to one variable that is completely unrelated to communication. What we can take from this study is that right from the beginning of our social interactions, we are liked or dislike based on our behaviour and social skills.
Herpreet Kaur Grewal in an article titled Lack of Social Skills Can Make Poor Even Poorer, refers to a study done by the Institute for Public Policy Research. The study confirms that the economy makes interpersonal skills as important as academic skills. Grewal says, “Those with good social skills born into poor families are 14% more likely to be well-off by age 30 than a similarly under-privileged person with average social skills.” The study presents a few interesting points that are worth noting for the purpose of this article.
Firstly, social skills and other communication skills were found to be more important later in life. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing. When you were young, you could get away with yelling at other kids. You could even fight with little or no repercussions. Should you punch someone at work in the face tomorrow (I hope I haven’t given you any ideas) because of your inability to resolve conflict, the quality of your professional and personal life will suffer.
A second finding of interest to us is that the best way children can develop the communication skills required for life are through organized activities. These groups should have children of diverse ages, experiences, and interests, as well as adult leaders that provide guidance to the young group. The adult leaders typically have a goal they want the children to achieve together. Team sports are a good example of activities that fit the described criteria to help children develop their social skills. Even for mature adults, interacting with diverse individuals improves their communication skills because it requires a person to adapt and understand different people.
The implications of these findings on this article are vague, but I present them to you for your curiosity. Do smarter people participate in fewer organized activities that fit the criteria of developing children’s social skills? Do smarter people participate in more singular extra-curricular activities like learning to play a musical instrument? Is their a trade-off between social interaction and increasing your intelligence? Do the less-intelligent individuals spend their time in these socially-beneficial activities instead of studying?
One thing we do know is that social skills and other communication skills need to be frequently practiced. While people can naturally have the gift of the gab, be emotionally intelligent, or easily win friends, communication skills atrophy without use.
Poor communication skills can put you in a dangerous cyclic effect. Poor communication deters you from situations that require those skills, further decreasing your social skills. If a boy has poor communication skills during developmental years because he did not participate in activities like football that Grewal speaks of as important for social development, he can struggle to get out of the rut due to the cyclic effect of avoiding social situations.
Common Mistakes Smart People Make in Communication
Intelligent people solve problems with their superior logic. The individuals use rational thinking to eliminate problems. A dilemma arises when they attempt to solve an emotional problem with their logic.
The logic dilemma is partly given birth from an intelligent person’s love of information. Locating information makes life easier. With the Internet being a superhighway for information, intelligent people are inclined to read, learn, and analyse their issues via the World Wide Web. (Maybe that’s why you’re reading this article).
However, communication skills are skills. Communication skills are not information. Any skill develops through practice. If you are an intelligent person, I still want you to learn about communication skills, but know that acting on your knowledge is more likely to be a bottleneck in your personal development than gathering more information.
Intelligent people see problems and provide solutions – a harmful formula for human relations.
Back to the logic dilemma, people are an illogical formula. If people were a formula they would be defined by 1 + 1 = 3. Logic and intelligence cannot explain the complexities of human emotion. Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, emphasizes the importance of emotion in human relations and the little influence logic has on our behavior. “When dealing with people,” says Carnegie, “remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion.”
In my Communication Secrets of Powerful People program, I define two distinguishing behaviors of people that fall into the logical trap. Firstly is a common mistake we all make: we point out the obvious. Stating the obvious is frustrating and emotionally ignorant. Some examples include:
- “Breaking up with a guy is tough. Don’t worry, there’s the right man for you out there somewhere.” This starts well, but then the person says the emotionally-ignorant obvious.
- “I can’t believe you burned my toast. That’s stupid.” Do you really think he or she burned the toast on purpose?
- “Wow. I’m so sorry to hear about the burglar breaking into your car. You really should have locked your doors.” Thanks for the advice… Idiot!
The second common logical mistake is making factual statements. People make the factual statement mistake when they talk about an emotional issue with logic and rational. An indicator of this type of mistake is when the respondent says, “You don’t get it” or “You’re missing the point”.
As an example of the factual statement mistake, Jill is talking to her good friend Michael, an intelligent guy, about her recent break up. Jill begins to “open herself up” and discuss her broken relationship. The emotions she communicates are uncomfortable to Michael. As is common with smart people, Michael perceives Jill’s affliction and his own discomfort in clear terms. He does not see muddled emotions. He sees pain; not resentment and anguish; or hatred; not partial likeness and hatred.
Michael wants to resolve Jill’s hurt. In his black and white world, Michael sees clear emotions, problems, and provides a solution. He thinks giving her advice is best for her wellbeing. He may use his intelligence to give advice, provide reassurance, or create some other communication barrier. Intelligent people see problems and provide solutions – a harmful formula for human relations.
The logic-driven communication used by Michael frustrates Jill. Jill isn’t after a solution; she wants someone to empathize with her and understand what she feels. Michael is too intent on resolving problems and providing advice.
People want to emotionally connect with you. You cannot connect and make friends, however, when you erect an emotional barrier with advice and factual statements. To overcome this problem, I strongly recommend you get the Communication Secrets of Powerful People program then read chapters 9 and 10.
Combating Emotions with Logic
People today think they need to conquer their emotions. The smart, possibly think this more so because of their problem-solving habits and intellect. Popular self-help myths lead us to believe that emotions like depression and anger must be manipulated to achieve happiness.
Goleman says, “Even the most academically brilliant among us are vulnerable to being undone by unruly emotions.” Take for example, anxiety. The smart often try to suppress an emotion such as anxiety with self-talk (“I shouldn’t be worried about this”) to free themselves from what they do not want to feel. The secret cure to social anxiety, however, is acceptance of anxiety and doing what you are afraid of. Through this action day-by-day you can live on purpose. Goleman says that our fears, anxieties, anger, and emotions guide our everyday lives.
When intelligent people cannot resolve an issue, they may complain and blame others for the outcome. Their knowledge and past experience in solving problems causes them to look beyond themselves to explain why the problem remains. Even when they blame outsiders, a smart person may conclude that because a problem in unsolved, it cannot be solved or it is not worth the effort to solve.
Pat Wagner from Pattern Research, a Colorado company that provides organisations with a communication programs, says smart people tend to convert their self-diagnosed failings into virtues. They use their intellect to convert emotional weaknesses into strengths. Wagner terms them as smart flaws.
One particular smart flaw I used that Wagner mentioned was not starting a conversation because it would be a waste of time. The real reason I didn’t start a conversation was my fear. I was scared ****less. Now I am more aware of my most common smart flaws, I stop myself in my tracks when I use them then identify the real reason why I rationalize my behavior. Whenever I do not talk to someone because “it is a waste of time”, I now realize it could be because I am not dealing with my emotions. I maybe hiding: the fear of talking to strangers, feelings of unhappiness, or the anxiety that I will be boring.
Another emotional weakness with smart people – particularly guys when they want to approach a woman – is fear. “A smart guy’s strength is his mind,” says David DeAngelo, a dating coach for men. “His weakness is often his emotions. Smart guys are often immobilized by fear.”
Women wonder why men struggle to walk up then talk with them even when a woman sends obvious signals of interest that she wants to chat. A guy’s analytical mind switches on immobilizing him from action. A thousand crazy scenarios and potential problems race through his head in psychological war.
The problem for intelligent people who think a lot is they think a lot.
The analytical mind has its purpose. The mind has served humanity well in the past to get us where we are today. It has identified predators, threats, and immediate dangers.
The problem for intelligent people who think a lot is they think a lot! They tend to plan everything before taking action, which causes them to lose spontaneity and be boring. Such behavior may result in neediness, validation, and indecisiveness.
In social situations, over-analysis is a killer mistake. Intelligent people try to mind-read people in conversations. They micro-manage their interactions based on analytical feedback. This drives their fear and uncertainty in conversations.
The next time you catch yourself micro-managing your conversations and worrying what the other person thinks, remember the other person is likely to be more concerned with what you think about them. Remind yourself that you cannot mind-read – and trying to do so only creates anxiety. Live in the moment more often and you will notice people naturally attract to you.
A few last points I want to make on logical strength and emotional weakness deal with conversation. We hunger for emotional connection in conversations. We love drama, fun, and controversy. Facts, logic, and technical subjects are often boring and too complex. The emotional side of conversations engage people. Academically intelligent people may focus too much on logical topics. Women are especially interested in any type of drama. Watch their eyes light up when you talk about the latest celebrity fashion stuff ups and other popular dramas.
Another emotional weakness, in addition to the subject of conversations, is the vocabulary used. Academics often use technical vocabulary to prove their intelligence – a killer of rapport. Simple, duh-duh, language is more effective than technical linguistics and non-methodologically circumstantial language that homosapiens find distateful. The same goes for writing to keep people interested. I try to write in a casual way – similar to how a conversation goes; not technical stuff, things, and other types of stuff, you know? This last reason is why so many great findings in academic journals go hidden for years. The general public cannot be bothered reading jargon.
On that last point of being too technical for people, something that may interest you is how some people write emails to me. I teach communication, but that does not mean being technical, using complex vocabulary, and trying to be intelligent helps build rapport. You can tell the difference. Here’s one example of a technical email I received last week:
Dear Joshua. Allow me to extend my formal gratitude in your beautiful array of teachings…
The intent behind such emails is great. The problem when you speak in jargon is the person you talk or write to does not feel connected with you. Lots of organizations fail hard with this principle when handling complaints.
Let’s compare that email example with this one:
Hey Joshua. Thanks heaps for the articles. I’ve learned that… You’ve helped me improve my relationship with my partner because…
Can you sense the difference? The last example is more friendly, but not overly casual. The person in the first example who appears intelligent does not “connect” because they are too technical. Even if you are intelligent and have a complex vocabulary, use terminology the other person uses to build rapport. Do not try prove your intelligence. We want to improve your communication skills, not boost your ego.
A Little-Known Secret to Learn Communication Skills
Take a moment to imagine you have traveled back in time to the Stone Age with a smart friend. You and your friend arrive amongst a tribe when two saber-toothed tigers approach. What choice do you make: 1) Do you get help from your intelligent friend? or 2) Do you rely on tribe members that are intelligent as your dog back home, but you know they have spent their lifetime surviving and adapting to the environment?
Our trip in time to the Stone Age shows us that intelligence does not equate to survival and other important skills. Stone Age dwellers were far from the level of intelligence people have today. I remember hearing a strange statistic that the decisions we make when reading a newspaper (such as skimming sections, understanding an article, and selecting what to read) in one day exceeds the total decisions made by prehistoric people in their lifetime.
Intelligence doesn’t equate to effective communication skills.
Intelligent people must acknowledge their expertise is limited. You cannot be an expert in everything. Intelligence does not equate to effective communication skills. A person from the Stone Age is sure to teach you something. Instead of being right, concede you do not know everything about communication.
Find the first steps you need to take to develop expertise in an area of your interest – even from someone of less intelligence. If you are interested in how to hold a conversation, the dumbass you hate may teach you a lot. Find what you need to do first then take the next step.
The Attitude You Need to Develop an Amazing Life
What happens to intelligent people who struggle in their social life? They keep quite. Intelligent people are habituated in solving problems, being an expert, and working things out themselves so they refuse to ask for help. They choose to freeze themselves with fear and uncertainty than ask someone about social skills. There are several interesting reasons for rationalization and smart flaws.
Not in all cases, but smart people look down on less intelligent people. No way will an intelligent person ask someone less intelligent for help. If the intelligent person is also wealthy, not in a million years. To seek help from someone with less intelligence is demeaning to the ego and a sign of weakness.
People of less intelligence are not inferior. Their friends are not weird or immature. These are smart flaws. I sometimes catch myself thinking that someone with less intelligence or less skill cannot teach me. What a dangerous lie that is. You can learn from someone with an IQ of 60. Accept it. You will be more desirable when humbling yourself.
Boost Your EQ
Follow this short cheat-sheet to boost your emotional intelligence and become better with people:
- Think emotions, not logic. Humans are emotional creatures. Putting emotions in your limelight enables you to deal with them.
- Focus on people’s needs. That is how you manage emotional situations and persuade people.
- Withhold advice. Give a listening ear instead.
- Compliment people. Praise makes people feel great.
- Develop self-awareness to be more people-aware. Tune into your anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, and joy.
- Accept your emotions. Stop beating yourself over certain emotions.
When helping an intelligent person improve their communication, it is good to explain how their expertise will strengthen when their communication skills strengthen. Dale Carnegie talks about appealing to those characteristics you want in others to create those characteristics. Intelligent people know they are smart. One such statement in appealing to those good characteristics for changing the intelligent person’s behavior would go along the lines of, “You and I know you’re an intelligent person. Improving your communication is another way of showing people your intelligence, expertise, and good skill-set.”
Another explanation of why smart people do not seek help is that social skills are assumed to be natural. People skills can be a laughable skill to develop. If you need to develop your people skills, you could be labeled as a “loser”. Intelligent people cannot risk humiliation when they ask for help. They need to maintain their feelings of importance.
It is easy to talk about the necessity of seeking help, but seeking help is tough. No one by their own can gather the life skills to overcome personal problems. There is no shame in seeking help; only shame in not seeking help.
Quietening your ego proves your expertise more than stubbornness. People will be attracted to you when you are not obsessed with being right. Asking for advice is a secret technique to make people feel important and increase your personal magnetism. Withholding your intelligence can win you friends, even if you do not play dumb like Arthur Schopenhauer suggests:
It is a real recommendation to be stupid. For just as warmth is agreeable to the body, so it does the mind good to feel its superiority; and a man will seek company likely to give him this feeling, as instinctively as he will approach the fireplace or walk in the sun if he wants to get warm. But this means that he will be disliked on account of his superiority; and if a man is to be liked, he must really be inferior in point of intellect.
There are millions of lessons waiting for you to be discovered in conversations. Listen, empathize, and make friends to discover the lessons. Then you will be smart.
(I have posted people’s comments from an older version of the article below.)
Joshua Uebergang aka "Tower of Power"
Joshua Uebergang, aka "Tower of Power", teaches social skills to help shy guys build friends and influence people. Visit his blog and sign-up free to get communication techniques, relationship-boosting strategies, and life-building tips by email, along with blog updates, and more! Go now to https://www.towerofpower.com.au/free/