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Click here to read the Portuguese article that appeared in the July issue of Human magazine in Portugal
Below is an English interpretation of the article translated by an associate of Fundação Renascer, a non-profit organization in Portugal helping people with developmental disorders and their families, where Michelle gave a workshop in May, 2009.
Usually, when we are interacting with other people, our ability to understand if a behavior is or isn't appropriate is something intuitive; we can recognize and understand other people's emotions and desires effortlessly. But that's not always the case. There are people who need to learn how to think socially. In May, Fundação Renascer1 organized a conference about Social Thinking, bringing to Portugal Michelle Garcia Winner, the creator of the concept and an acknowledged speech therapist specializing in working with people who present a deficit in social cognition. According to this North American specialist, "social thinking" means "the capacity for recognizing and understanding other people's thoughts, emotions, desires and intentions, so that their own behavior makes sense and they have the potential to predict what other people intend to do next." More simply, it is the ability to perceive another person's perspective.
The potential for the development of these skills, usually, is innate in human beings and then develops through a lifespan.
"Mostly by observing others, people learn how to be socially appropriate; that's why we consider it intuitive. However, those who have a cognitive-social deficit need to intellectualize this learning," Winner says. "Although we can't learn intuition directly", she is careful to add, "it is possible to learn how to think socially and it is a skill that must be worked on constantly, not just with children but also with the adults, since it has a generalized impact in personal relationships, at home, at school and at work or leisure activities; it's what helps us to understand another person's perspective."
Michelle Garcia Winner started to develop the concept in 1995 when she assisted a group of students who, despite their brilliant academic skills, were not adapted socially. And they needed to understand why they had to understand and use social skills with others and the difference that it makes.
The goal of this type of therapeutic intervention is to teach people to understand the functioning of our social brain and to help the individuals see why people expect us to demonstrate a variety of social skills even if we had not yet learned these skills.
"First, we need to understand the social level of each student, and then teach them how the social brain works, helping them to realize that they have social expectations which lead them to be rigid about the emotions of people who are around them," she explains. "The next step is to make them understand that if they have those thoughts, it is natural that other people also have thoughts about them. So we work on perceiving various ways of thinking and the associated emotions, based on different situations. The way we act and the way we socially behave help to inform others of what we are thinking and how we feel."
In the workplace, in particular, Michelle Garcia Winner points out that "social thinking not only helps someone to maintain and solidify his or her job, but also be promoted; we as a society are teaching that strong technical skills are the ticket to success, but it is the combination of those technical skills and social thinking that make people want to work with us." She says, "The people who we work with are, like we all are, emotional people that usually became offended when someone appears to be selfish." And she gives this example: "One of my students received a degree from a top university in the United States and was hired to a high position due to his extraordinary knowledge and also because he learned how to impress in a job interview. Once hired, he wasn't able to keep the job. Last time, he was fired after five months after offending many people and acting like his job and time were more important than the jobs and time of everybody else."