Interpersonal Sensitivity: The Key to Understanding Others

People with interpersonal sensitivity know how to read the non-verbal signals of others. They also understand their attitudes, desires, intentions, and emotions. It's a competence that reverts back to our own physical and mental well-being.
Interpersonal Sensitivity: The Key to Understanding Others
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Interpersonal sensitivity is a competence that allows you to obtain information from others from their non-verbal language. It involves being aware of their needs, states of mind, and psychological realities. You might think that these kinds of skills could be included under the label of empathy. However, in reality, interpersonal sensitivity goes far beyond this dimension.

People who practice interpersonal sensitivity are better at managing the world of social relationships. This is because they notice and intuit the intentions of others. Therefore, they’re able to act accordingly, either to help, avoid risks, or build more enriching and productive relationships.

Consequently, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that interpersonal sensitivity forms the core of emotional intelligence. This is a psychosocial variable that also has a great impact on psychological well-being. In fact, research exists that supports how a low command of emotional intelligence is related to major depression and schizophrenia.

People with good interpersonal sensitivity excel in job satisfaction and leadership.

Friends talking about Interpersonal Sensitivity

Interpersonal sensitivity

We all have basic psychological competencies that allow us to be able to generally assess the states, attitudes, and moods of others. However, despite having this ability, not all of us develop it in the same way.

As a matter of fact, there are some people with great skills in handling and understanding social and emotional dimensions. On the other hand, there are those who need to greatly improve these kinds of abilities.

Thus, we could define interpersonal sensitivity as the capacity to identify what others feel, what they think, what their personality may be, and their needs and expectations. It doesn’t involve being a fortune-teller. In fact, it involves making a series of evaluations by way of non-verbal signals. For example, gestures, tone of voice, postures, movements, way of dressing, etc.

The University of Ottawa (Canada) conducted research that emphasized the little attention that’s been paid to date to non-verbal behavior. However, in reality, this type of language and its understanding have great relevance, both in the social sphere and within organizations. Therefore, being sensitive to all these codes is decisive in the development of emotional intelligence.

The components of interpersonal sensitivity

Seeing beyond words and deciphering the human being in such a way that transcends language to understand their messages. Who wouldn’t like to possess this kind of competence? As we mentioned earlier, we all have basic emotional skills that we can develop (Mayer, Salovey, Caruso). However, in order to do this, we first need to understand what components make up interpersonal sensitivity:

  • Behavioral sensitivity. Understanding the behaviors, attitudes, and actions of the people around us.
  • Emotional sensitivity. Connecting and understanding the emotions of others and acting accordingly.
  • Social sensitivity. Deciphering what people’s needs, thoughts, personalities, and beliefs are.

As we stated earlier, interpersonal sensitivity is related to empathy. However, they aren’t the same. For example, empathy makes use of an emotional and cognitive connection. In other words, we perceive what the other feels and thinks. However, interpersonal sensitivity reads non-verbal signals to make correct and accurate judgments about other people’s realities.

Understanding and predicting what the people around us are like is key to  our own well-being. It allows us to build happier relationships, solve problems, and also avoid situations that could be counterproductive for us.

Man talking to his partner about interpersonal sensitivity

Interpersonal sensitivities and psychological well-being

Interpersonal sensitivity and psychological well-being are two variables with a direct relationship. Furthermore, we know that people skilled in the competence of emotional intelligence possess lower cognitive rigidity and a greater internal locus of control. This means they’re more skilled in countless scenarios, whether they’re resolving conflicts or lending their support.

Other characteristics that define interpersonal sensitive people are as follows:

  • More outgoing and connection-oriented personalities.
  • Open and curious, with the ability to achieve.
  • Meticulous, observant, and tolerant.
  • Empathetic. However, they pay more attention and credibility to gestures than to people’s words.

The University of Lausanne (Switzerland) conducted research that demonstrates that, although women are more skilled in the area of emotional sensitivity, men are also competent in the dimensions of social and behavioral sensitivity. Therefore, it appears that we can all develop the capacity of emotional intelligence.

Being receptive and reading the signals and behaviors of others allows us to adjust and react much better to any circumstance. This is key to psychological well-being and also allows us to work on interpersonal intelligence, as identified by the psychologist, Howard Gardner.

Finally, we can confidently state that, in order to successfully and happily navigate the journey of life, it’s not essential to have what we know as the traditional form of intelligence. In fact, what’s needed is simply to possess good social and emotional skills. Indeed, interpersonal sensitivity is the guiding force that’ll help push us forward in any situation.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Bernieri, F. J. (2001). Toward a taxonomy of interpersonal sensitivity. En J. A. Hall, y F.J. Bernieri (Eds.), Interpersonal sensitivity: Theory and measurement (pp. 3– 19). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Carney DR, Harrigan JA. It takes one to know one: interpersonal sensitivity is related to accurate assessments of others’ interpersonal sensitivity. Emotion. (2003) Jun;3(2):194-200. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.3.2.194. PMID: 12899418.
  • Hall, J. A., Carter, J. D., y Horgan, T. G. (2001). Status roles and recall of nonverbal cues. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 25(2), 79–100.
  • Hall, J. A., Murphy, N. A. y Schmid Mast, M. (2006). Recall of nonverbal cues: exploring a new definition of interpersonal sensitivity. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 30, 141-155.
  • Hall, J. A., y Schmid Mast, M. (2008). Are Women Always More Interpersonally Sensitive Than Men? Impact of Goals and Content Domain. Personality and Social Psychology, 34(1), 144-155. DOI: 10.1177/0146167207309192
  • Ickes, William & Smith, J.L. & Hall, J. & Hodges, Sara. (2011). Interpersonal sensitivity: A set of abilities we can dial up or down as needed?.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.