10 Practical Intelligence Examples (Sternberg’s Theory)

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People with practical intelligence have street smarts. They like to solve problems that are relevant to their lives, don’t like dealing with theories or abstract ideas, and like to learn by doing, not reading.

Practical people often struggle in education systems that were formed for people who are “book smart”. These people learn better through hands-on activities.

Practical intelligence examples include skills in trades (e.g. carpentry and plumbing), conflict resolution, construction, and nursing.

If you have practical intelligence,

  • You prefer to learn by doing, not by reading
  • You can utilize tools to get things done
  • You like to implement ideas
  • You enjoy problem-solving
  • You want to know how to apply knowledge to real-life
  • You are an action-taker and feel good completing tasks

Practical Intelligence Definition

Then Robert Sternberg proposed a triarchic theory of intelligence that included analytical, creative and practical components.

Sternberg defined practical intelligence as a skill that allows people to function in the real world and solve practical problems.

It is the ability to adapt to an environment or change the situation when needed. Some have referred to this as “street smarts.”

Howard et al. (2001, p. 49) define it as:

“Practical abilities are those needed to utilize, implement, and apply problem-solving processes to concrete and relatively familiar everyday problems. Practical students are motivated by, and appreciative of knowledge they can take with them when they leave the classroom.”

Although practical intelligence lacks the memorization of facts like a scientist, or the creativity and expressiveness of an artist, it is a unique form of intelligence in and of itself. It is the ability to think on your feet when encountering everyday challenges that require an immediate solution.

In a very real sense, it is a form of intelligence that has wider applicability than analytical or creative intelligence.

Analytical vs Practical vs Creative Intelligences

Analytical Intelligence ExamplesCreative Intelligence ExamplesPractical Intelligence Examples
Analytical skillsDesign skillsYou can utilize tools to get things done
Evaluative skillsYou like to compose and collateYou like to implement ideas
You can explain things wellYou enjoy discovering new thingsYou enjoy problem-solving
You can critique ideasYou are highly imaginativeYou want to know how to apply knowledge to real-life
You are good at categorizing thingsYou are highly inventiveYou are an action-taker and feel good completing tasks

Examples of Practical Intelligence

1. You’re Good at Public Relations

A public relations professional is tasked with helping a company or a brand maintain a positive image in society. They are managers of public opinion and try to influence how a particular brand is presented in the media.

They often work for celebrities to help shape their image. For example, they can offer advice on which products to endorse, or what crucial elements an ad campaign should contain to foster a certain image.

Working in public relations is an exercise in practical intelligence because one must deal with the issues at hand and work to shape them accordingly. It requires an almost intuitive understanding of how to manipulate reality to achieve a specific end.

Related Article: Tannenbaum And Schmidt Leadership Continuum – Pros & Cons

2. You’re Good at Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution is defined as the process of solving disagreements. Those disagreements can involve individuals or companies. For example, a person skilled at conflict resolution may be asked to serve as an arbitrator in labor negotiations between a union and a corporation.

Another example might involve a dispute between two individuals that have agreed to arbitration over the legal system. Managers and others in a leadership need to have good conflict resolution skills to help colleagues get along and work well together.

No matter the specific situation, it is important that the person handling the conflict is fair and impartial. They must be willing and able to understand both parties’ perspective.

3. You’re Good at Keeping Calm in Emergency Situations

An emergency situation requires an immediate reaction. However, in extreme situations it can flood a person with fear and anxiety. This can be an overwhelming emotional experience and cause a person to freeze. Freezing is not good.

While some people freeze, others have an instinctive reaction to run. Running away from the source of the emergency is the most adaptable course of action to take. It can be a life-or-death decision.

Although it does not require a pragmatic analysis of public sentiment, or a careful negotiation to satisfy conflicting parties, this is a good example of Sternberg’s practical intelligence.

4. You can Perform Well in a Job Interview

Job interviews can be tricky. On the one hand, the goal is to create a good impression and be offered a job. On the other hand, trying too hard can make a person come across as phony.

Being able to read the situation well starts with an analysis of the interviewer. One must also understand the implications of various possible answers to each question. Each option can sway the interviewer’s judgement in a different direction.

To make matter’s even more complicated, some interview techniques are actually designed to force the applicant to choose between two unpleasant alternatives. Other strategies deliberatively try to put the applicant in a stressful situation.

Being able to decipher the goals of the interviewer and their question, combined with an assessment of how various responses are to be perceived, is a second-by-second exercise in practical intelligence.  

5. You are a Skilled Negotiator

The legal profession is the consummate example of practical intelligence. In most cases, both the defense and prosecution attorneys must negotiate a compromise that works within the confines of complex laws. In criminal cases, that resolution must also pass the scrutiny of public opinion.

In trial cases, lawyers have to have a keen understanding of how their case is progressing and make adjustments to their strategy. When conducting a cross-examination, they must apply the law in how each question is presented, which can often hinge on the use of a single phrase. A skilled judge will see that they do it correctly.

At the same time, they must make sure that those questions will be understood by jurors. During final arguments, all of the evidence has to be synthesized for the jury in a way that they can see how the law applies and how it should be implemented.   

6. You’re a Good Customer Service Representative

There may be no other job in the world that requires the same level of people skills as that of a customer service representative. This job used to be housed in “the complaint department.” A name most likely changed to be less provoking.

Handling call after call of unhappy customers is certainly not a pleasant way to spend one’s day, five days a week. Customers can already be highly frustrated, but the representative has to find a way to apply company policy with the demands of the customer. Not an easy task at all.

This can be accomplished by implementing various psychological techniques involving showing empathy and a certain tone of voice to defuse the situation. In the end, reaching a satisfactory solution and closing the call graciously is a true exercise in practical intelligence. It also means it’s time to move on to the next call.   

7. You’re good at Project Management

Managing a project involves leading a team to accomplish its goals on schedule. Quality of the work has to be ensured at each stage of progress, which requires the project leader to apply the requirements to the work accomplished on an ongoing basis.

Before the project even begins, the leader has to estimate the timeframe and resources that will be needed. In addition, the deliverables have to be practical and reasonable. The project must also be modified to comply with company policy, environmental and labor issues.

The project manager has to be very skilled at adapting each project to numerous factors. In addition, as many projects can take months to complete, those adaptations are continuous over a significant period of time.  

8. You’re good at Gamesmanship

Trying to win doing things that are not technically breaking the rules, but very close to bending them so far that it is questionable behavior. Gamesmanship is usually used in the context of sports, and sometimes politics.

For example, common tricks include trying to distract your opponent during a pivotal moment of play, or faking a foul or injury. Pretending to be hurt is so commonplace in European football that it almost seems like a part of the game.

In tennis, players use a variety of techniques to try to gain an advantage. A player might take all the time allowed before hitting serve, or ask for a bathroom break right before their opponent’s match-point serve.

Whatever the sport might be, it involves recognizing the moment’s importance and trying to manipulate the factors to give an advantage.  

9. Immigrant Success Stories

How many times have we heard an amazing story of person leaving their home country and becoming immensely successful in a foreign land? Typically, the immigrant enters their newly adopted nation with virtually no money and maybe can’t even speak the native language.

However, over a few years they somehow manage to start a small business. A few years later, that business has grown, and before you know it, they have started a franchise. These are truly inspiring stories and great examples of practical intelligence being utilized to its fullest.

In order to achieve that level of success, the person must find a way to survive, one step at a time. Every day is an exercise in responding to situational factors and knowing how to react to work through them. Gradually, they make steady progress and end up being financially successful

10. You’re a Good Coach

Coaching a professional sports team is a job like no other. Every week can present another tremendous challenge. Dasy before the game, the opponent has to be analyzed for tendencies and weaknesses that can be exploited. Players on that opposing team and studied thoroughly.

Then the coach has to make numerous game-time decisions, such as who will start and which players will match-up best against the opponent? Once the game begins the coach has to adapt the strategy to weather conditions and the team’s mental state.

As the game is played there are moment-by-moment decisions that will need to be made as well. Which players are performing well? What is the other team’s strategy? How must the team modify their plan and personnel set accordingly?

The head coach must be the master of manipulating situational factors to the team’s advantage, which means calling on every ounce of practical intelligence.

Conclusion

Practical intelligence is the ability to adjust to the situation. It involves adapting, utilizing existing parameters to one’s advantage, and being able to manipulate the current situation to create more favorable circumstances.

There are examples of practical intelligence all around us. A public relations specialist knows how to create a favorable image for a brand by manipulating information given to the public.

While an expert in conflict resolution, a lawyer, or a customer service representative are skilled at understanding different perspectives and working within that framework to reach a solution that satisfies everyone involved.

At the same time, immigrants that arrive in a country poor and work their way into financial success do so by exercising their practical intelligence to its fullest extent.

Of Sternberg’s triarchic theory contains three components, practical intelligence might be the most useful one of all. If you had to choose only one to have, which would it be?

References

Abraham, A. (April 19, 2022). Canada Immigration: The Top 10 Successful Immigrant Stories. ICY Canada. https://icycanada.com/canada-immigration-top-10-success-immigrant-stories/

Howard, B. C., McGee, S., Shin, N., & Shia, R. (2001). The triarchic theory of intelligence and computer-based inquiry learning. Educational Technology Research and Development49(4), 49-69. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02504947

Howe, L. (2004). Gamesmanship. Journal of The Philosophy of Sport, 31, 212-225. https://doi.org/10.1080/00948705.2004.9714661

Nash, C., & Collins, D. (2006). Tacit knowledge in expert coaching: Science or art? Quest, 58(4), 465-477. https://doi.org/10.1080/00336297.2006.10491894

Sternberg, R. J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of human intelligence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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