Developing adequate social skills is one of the most important parts of human development, and it’s an area in which there’s always room for improvement. Not only do social skills help you express yourself and make meaningful connections with people in our lives, but they’re also integral to advancing in one’s career and succeeding in the world. Do you struggle with social anxiety or paralyzing shyness that interferes with making friends or communicating effectively with co-workers? Have you been told that you’re too aggressive at times, or do you find it difficult to be assertive when the situation calls for it? Good social skills are one of the key ways in which we get our needs met throughout life. Yet the different social and professional situations that comprise our lives are complex and differ vastly from one another. They’re not always easy to navigate- in fact, quite the opposite.
We think the most important aspect of being social in the world is developing a set of skills that allows you to express yourself genuinely, and show the world who you are. Read ahead for some tried and true tips for improving your social and communication skills in the diverse areas of life.
1. Build Effective Communication Skills
Communication skills are the cornerstone of a strong social support system. While no one’s emotional and psychological needs are perfectly met in life, a common goal is to develop and maintain a support network of meaningful, reciprocal relationships. These are essentially relationships in which we generally feel understood cared for, and supported. Although certain inherited traits may predispose some people to the development of good social skills, social skills are learned behaviors. The greatest teachers of social skills are usually trial, error, and experience.
2. Let Your Body Talk
We can’t have a discussion about communication without emphasizing the importance of nonverbal communication. Since most of us have a generally well-formed idea of what verbal and nonverbal communication is, we won’t delve unnecessarily into the standard definitions. But we do want to start this discussion with a few pointed reminders. It’s important to remember that, believe it or not, nonverbal communication makes up the vast majority of communication. Think about it: We continuously speak with our body language and facial expressions; it’s an ongoing conversation without words that lasts throughout a large portion of everyday. Even when we are speaking, the tone of our voices are usually more telling and make more powerful statements than the actual words we’re saying. The tone of our words largely gives them their meaning. (We’ve all heard a muttered “Thanks a lot” that isn’t exactly a genuine expression of thanks. In fact, we’ve probably all heard about a million of those and other sarcastic phrases in which the tone provides the meaning). But it’s a good idea to keep in mind that sarcasm isn’t always the best way to express disagreement or disappointment. Like many other social coping mechanisms, it serves to mask genuine feelings if used in excess or in inappropriate context.
Body language is another essential clue to how someone is feeling in a social situation, and you want to be sure that yours reflects the message you want to send. Being aware of your body language is one of the best barometers of your social skills- and comfort level- in different situations. Body language tells you and others how you’re really feeling, and you want to make sure it matches up with the message you are trying to convey. For example, nerves are perfectly natural at a job interview. Some people get nervous in large crowds, intimate situations, or other social settings. But if you are trying to convey confidence at a job interview or openness and friendliness at a social event, be aware of your body language.
Are your shoulders hunched, are you looking down, or are you nervously fidgeting or twirling your hair? If so, you may be inadvertently sending the message that you want to be alone or do not welcome conversation. (Later on, we’ll discuss the difference between nervousness and social phobia, which may require behavioral therapy to improve). Some people appear to close their body language when they’re nervous or uncomfortable, crossing their arms or tightening their muscles.
Your facial expressions also speak for you. You can be saying all the so-called right things at a meeting or a job interview, but if the look on your face screams boredom, guess what the general impression of you will be? You’re bored. What many people don’t realize is that nonverbal communication often sends a louder message than words. This is partially because the nonverbal part of communication is usually instinctive and reflexive in nature. We tend to give more conscious forethought to the things we say than to the things we do with our body- it’s just the way it is.
Nervousness is another common emotion that arises in social or work-related situations. For many people, there is additional anxiety at the beginning of any relationship. When you’re just getting to know a new friend or potential love interest, the element of uncertainty is high. You may really like this new person, but don’t know yet how they respond to certain actions you frequently do, topics that may emerge in conversation, or situations that arise. You might not know how they feel about notoriously sensitive subjects like politics or religion (and many, many more). No matter how connected people can initially be, the desire to get to know someone precipitates actually knowing them, and the process takes time. It’s completely natural for all of these factors to increase anxiety. And although you can never control another person’s thoughts or reactions, you do have control over the way you manage this perfectly normal type of anxiety.
3. Develop Resilience
Let’s leave the first (or second or third) date for a moment, and imagine you’re at a job interview. Interviews are nerve-wrecking because there’s so much emphasis on making a good first impression- and you have to pack so much knowledge about yourself into a negligible block of time. Conveying your personality, skill level, and the unique contributions you will bring to a job obviously takes time. Yet you basically have to present a snapshot of all these things to a potential employer within an hour or less. Consider the fact that you don’t know the person to whom you’re speaking, and there’s substantial room for misunderstanding. Bridging the gap between you and your potential employer for the purposes of an interview requires good conversational skills, but make sure you’re doing as much listening as you are talking- namely because you’re employer will more than likely be assessing your listening skills and want to know they are excellent. But also, tuning into a potential employer’s verbal and nonverbal messages gives you a window of insight into what they want to hear from you. Let’s imagine that you’re making a strong point during conversation and your interviewer visibly tenses. Or perhaps he or she tightens her mouth and squares her shoulders; she may fix you with a terse stare temporarily disengage by avoiding eye contact. Any number of nonverbal cues will clue you into your interviewer’s apparent discomfort or disapproval, sending off red alerts in your mind.
What to do in a situation like this? Well, it depends on several factors, such as the context of the conversation and both personalities in the room. But if you’re making a statement or expressing a strong opinion, and you notice that your interviewer (or new boss or co-worker) isn’t reacting well, you have a couple of options. You can temper your statement or opinion by using words that neutralize your stance on the subject. You also have the option of explaining in more depth whatever it is that seemed to cause the consternation. The obvious advantage here is that you’re showing sincerity, confidence, and social competence by conveying your genuine thoughts while respectfully acknowledging the other person’s feelings. You’re also showing that you can relate to different perspectives and find common ground.
Make sure that your body language drives home your point. If your body language appears both relaxed and engaged, you will give the impression that you really care what the other person is feeling. Make eye contact to re-establish connection and show that you’re really listening.
4. Identify Your Social Fears
Social anxiety often involves the fear of taking a certain action, such as initiating eye contact or conversation. Identifying the action you fear doing is a good start, but then you’ve got to figure out why you fear it. Many people who suffer from social anxiety are self-conscious and afraid of being judged negatively. While some social anxiety sufferers try to negate the anxiety by using avoidance behaviors, others overcompensate by exhibiting overly gregarious behaviors, making grand social efforts that others might perceive as overzealous, insincere, or attention-seeking.
A lot of people fear that they’ll be judged even before they act at all. There may be something in their appearance that they’ve been made to feel badly about in the past, or perhaps there’s a particular aspect of their personality about which they’re highly insecure. Many times, social anxiety becomes so intense that its presence alone brings on fear. After all, people do tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to react to fear with fear. If you’re uncomfortable, others will sense it and feel unsure how to resolve the now-mutual discomfort or anxiety.
But don’t worry- even in a high state of discomfort, it is possible to convey an attitude of friendly openness that dispels the anxiety between you and the people around you. The first step to building a bridge between you and the person or people you’re socializing with is to find out what your particular fears are. Write them down so that they stand out clearly in your mind. If possible, talk about them with a close friend or trusted confidante. An objective perspective can be full of new ideas and bring clarity and insight you may never have gained on your own. A good friend might say, “I’ve known you for a long time, and I think I know why you always seem distant in new relationships. It’s because you’re a cerebral person, and you usually present your thoughts more readily than your feelings. Maybe you’re scared of letting new people get to know your emotional side.” A candid friend might have observed you repeating a certain behavior in similar situations over a long period of time, and he or she can tell you what kind of impression it gives to an outsider. Sometimes our social fears cause us to behave in ways that don’t accurately represent our feelings. Sometimes social behaviors cue us into feelings or inner conflicts we didn’t know we had, and prompt us to resolve them.
5. Know Your Strengths- and Customize Them
Now that we’ve discussed what may be your perceived or real weaknesses in social situations, let’s draw on your strengths. Learning how to work your strengths to your advantage without converting them into avoidance behaviors can be tough. What do we mean by this? Well, many of us find ourselves overcompensating in social situations that fuel our anxiety. Believe it or not, everyone is endowed with certain social gifts waiting to be uncovered.
6. If You’re Funny, Be Funny
If you’ve never heard the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine”, we regret to inform you that you’ve been living in a cardboard box all your life. Yes, this is a tired cliché that becomes trite when you say it too much, but there is a grain of truth to be gleaned from most clichés. Many of the world’s favorite comedians have infamously copped to covering up crippling shyness with humor- and it works for them in their career. If you’re lucky enough to have the gift of comedic timing (which many of us don’t), it’s something to be cherished. A good, well-timed joke can be the escape route we need from awkwardness in a conversation. Laughter lightens the mood and puts people at ease, warming them up to you. A certain amount of dry humor can even be a healthy coping mechanism in truly difficult situations.
Just be sure you’re not relying on it to provide an emotional escape route from uncomfortable or painful situations that need to be handled with emotional honesty. This is important on a personal level for your own emotion health and growth. But it’s also important because everyone has sensitive subjects, and most of us would like them to be handled in a tactful, caring way. Crude or inappropriate jokes about others’ suffering- or simply goofing off in a setting that is meant to be serious- is a social taboo. It sends the message that you don’t care about or respect the topic at hand or the people discussing it- or worse, that you are mocking or deriding them. Obviously, this doesn’t earn you many points in a social or professional setting.
7. Be Yourself- But Don’t Be Afraid to Think Outside the Box
Are you highly intelligent with a tendency to process most matters through the mind before the emotions? If so, you are at a real advantage in the sense that your vision of many situations may be objective rather than clouded by the confusion which results from viewing the world through a primarily emotional lens. We are all mentally and emotionally hardwired in our unique ways, which is essentially what makes us individuals. Knowing your own inner workings naturally lends you a clearer view of others because it neutralizes some of the bias we all carry simply because we see the world through our own perspective. Within every strength lies an inherent area for improvement. If you’re a cerebral person who considers himself or herself more logical than emotional, then you might find that people frequently come to you for advice. On the contrary, some highly emotional people might be looking for something you don’t readily offer, such as an extroverted display of empathy or feeling. This kind of person might simply want you to meet them at their level, which is an emotional level, and might be an area where you’re less than comfortable. Or you may be completely comfortable- it all depends.
The point is that part of improving your social skills requires you to think outside of the box- or at least outside of your box. In a similar vein to the situation described above, highly emotionalized people could really benefit from an objective perspective. These people often have the capacity to bond deeply and empathize greatly, making them loving, supportive friends and partners. Their co-workers usually benefit from their deeply feeling and caring nature- unless, of course, these people take something personally and can’t let it go. Yet they should make it a priority to broaden their perspective by taking in the viewpoints of others. They can use their emotional empathy to put themselves in others’ shoes, which can inadvertently expand their insight and widen their perspective.
These are just two rudimentary examples of personality types that don’t fully examine the wide range of variance between even similar personalities. But the general idea is that there is insight to be gained from your strengths, and you can use them creatively to adapt to different social situations. Doing this can lead to decreased feelings of loneliness, isolation, and frustration; it can also enhance the quality of the relationships that are most important to us. Effective social skills connect you more fully to the world around you, increasing your sense of belonging.
8. Replace Negative Messages with Positive Ones
What can you do instead of send these reflexive nonverbal messages when you’re nervous in a social situation? There are several different options, and you can get creative with your solution. Ask yourself: What are you most afraid to do in this situation? Sometimes exposing yourself to your fears by doing them effectively helps you transcend them. Try starting up a conversation or simply making eye contact and smiling at an acquaintance or new person (depending on the situation). If it’s a meeting or a work setting, people may be seated next to and across from one another, giving you ample opportunity to make eye contact and start a back-and-forth conversation. The advantage of meetings or similar social situations is that they’re usually dedicated to a specific topic, giving the conversation a focus. In a social scene like a party where you don’t know many people, it can help to join a small group with at least one person you know. Drawing on your listening skills and really tuning into the conversation can give you a feel for the tone of the talk- and an idea of how to contribute.
You can also take small nonverbal steps. If you’re shy, try taking literal baby steps by standing closer to the people with whom you are speaking. Convey an openness to listen and connect by maintaining body language that invites conversation. You can do this by leaning forward, making eye contact, or allowing your facial features to express your interest in what is being said.
How are your conversation skills? A lot of people avoid socializing to a degree because they are afraid that their conversation skills are inadequate or even inept. Sometimes shyness anxiety is the main barrier and it causes the mind to freeze or go blank. Other times, it’s a people-pleasing instinct or fear of disagreeing and disappointing others.
Thus, if you are avoiding eye contact, standing far away from others, and speaking quietly, you are likely communicating, “Stay away from me!” or “Don’t talk to me!” Chances are, this is not the message that you want to send.
9. Talk the Talk: Improve your Conversation Skills
Starting conversations and keeping them going can be a major challenge for people with social anxiety (or people in a situation that makes them socially anxious). Some people are born with the so-called “gift of gab”, while others struggle intensely to make small talk. Shyness and self-consciousness is one common barrier, but for some people there may also be a lack of interest at play. Are you the type of person who is quite frankly bored out of their mind by the prospect of discussing the weather with a colleague or a friend? If so, the bad news is that you’ve got to learn to do it if you want to live and work harmoniously in the world. The good news is that you can do the bare minimum. If you’re worried about sounding awkward because small talk doesn’t come naturally to you, you’re not alone. It can also be really embarrassing to become bored or drift off during the conversation, even if you don’t mean to be rude. Many of us face that very same conundrum. Here are some potential ways to deal with it.
One of the best ways to conquer small talk is to simply do it. Say hello and let a chattier person take the lead, and then add whatever bits and pieces float through your mind to the conversation. Chances are, the person will appreciate your effort, and chattier types will fill in a lot of the blanks naturally. This is yet another instance where nonverbal communication can be used to your advantage. Here’s why: Even if you’re not saying much in a casual conversation with an acquaintance or co-worker, your body language does much of the speaking for you. If you’ve got a friendly face and your body language is open and engaged, the other person will get the message that you’re kind and interested. For most people, that’s enough.
10. Ask Open-Ended Questions
You can also ask open-ended questions, which get the other person talking. More to the point, it gets the attention off you if that’s not where you want it! If you genuinely like or are interested in the person you’re talking to, it’s a sure-fire way to start getting to know them.
If, however, you flourish in the limelight and want more attention, draw on the aspects of conversations that interest you. Many people love self-expression, and people are drawn to them like moths to a flame because they know how to hold court in social situations. However, a good conversationalist is characterized by more than a knack for genuinely expressing who they are, and sharing their interests. They also have engaging ways of drawing such information from others by making them feel interesting and accepted. They give as much attention to the interests and talents of others as they do their own.
11. Master Assertive Communication
Another important aspect of good conversation skills is assertiveness. When most people think of assertiveness, we think of standing our ground in conflict or saying “no” in a situation where there is pressure to say “yes”. While that’s absolutely true, for the purposes of this article we’d like to include another, broader definition of assertiveness. Assertive communication means that we express ourselves honestly, being truthful about our wants, needs, and feelings. With good communication skills, this can be done with the utmost respect for other people and their wants, needs, and feelings.
We’ve all been in situations that make us feel anxious and unsure if others are going to hear us out and understand our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it’s simply not going to happen- the other person has put up a wall and refuses to see beyond his or her point of view. Obviously, it can happen in one-on-one or group situations. (Who doesn’t hate being outnumbered?) While we don’t have control over other people’s actions, it goes without saying that we have control of our own. During a conflict or disagreement, do your best to listen and absorb what others are saying. Even if you don’t agree with it, listening can help you see why the way others feel the way they do or how they arrived at their conclusion. Gaining a deeper insight into the other person’s perspective can help facilitate
understanding, empathy, and even compromise. In the best case scenario, it can help both people use their creativity to come up with a new way of seeing or doing things that better suits both parties.
12. Actively Replace Old Behaviors with New Ones
It isn’t always easy to openly express one’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes in order to be assertive, we have to replace old behaviors with new ones. This can be difficult because old, adaptive behaviors that hold us back were usually developed in childhood. Even if coping mechanisms that hold us back were not developed in childhood, they are usually longstanding and deeply ingrained. Do you instinctively avoid conflict by avoiding offering your opinions or conceding to others even when you don’t agree? Do you laugh often at jokes that you don’t find funny? Do find yourself agreeing with the majority in group discussions- even if you secretly have an unpopular view? If so, you’ve probably developed a passive communication style. And although passivity may seem like the path of least resistance, it doesn’t actually guarantee that others will like or love you more for it. Actually, it invites more dominating people to take advantage of you, and alienates the people who genuinely care about you. This is because holding back your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions prevents others from really getting to know you.
On the other hand, you may have a tendency to control and dominate others, leading most people to see you as an aggressive character. This could be the result of an uncontrolled temper or unresolved anger issues. It could also arise from a displaced feeling of oppression carried over from a situation in which you felt that you were the one being dominated. Whatever the cause, aggressive behavior prohibits personal and professional growth, and it generally alienates you from others. Even if people seem to be swept away on the tide of your aggression and smile in your face, many are probably too afraid of you to assert themselves- or truly share themselves with you.
However, developing an assertive communication style decreases the anger and resentment that ultimate results from passivity or aggression. Assertiveness gives you more control over your life and gives others that same feeling, which can only be a positive thing.
13. Self-Actualize Your Social Skills
What we mean by this is that it’s a good idea to give your social skills some direction. Create social goals for yourself, and achieve them by using improved skills. Do you have a stable career, but feel that there’s something missing in your life? Maybe there’s a secret part of you that thrives on self-expression, and acting is something you’ve always wanted to explore- but never had the time, opportunity, or courage to do so. In this case, joining a class or even an online group that focuses on your interest can hel break the ice. Sharing your interests with others makes them less intimidating to talk about, and most people feel more comfortable once they find some common ground and a sense of belonging.
It goes without saying that your social goals can be just about anything you set your mind to. They don’t have to be related to a hobby- they can simply revolve around learning more about an interest of yours or expanding your mind. Are you interested in preserving the environment or learning more about climate change? Do you love a sport and want to keep score with others who share your passion? Is political activism your thing, and you go through life with a smoldering longing with a desire to expand yourself by working toward a change? Whatever their goals are, most people want to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. It is a common desire to want to connect to others both personally and on a larger scale. Yet modern life has many in survival mode, exhausting their physical and psychological resources just to pay the bills and balance their responsibilities. Even becoming highly successful monopolizes many people’s time and energy, leaving little left to do the things one enjoys outside of work.
14. Use Technology to Jumpstart Your Social Life
We don’t want to sound like millennial robots who rely on technology for even the most minute human interactions and daily activities. We wholeheartedly recognize the importance of real time human connection; we think the development and maintenance of meaningful relationships is integral to overall wellness and helps reduce the risk of professional burnout. But whether we’re among those who love or hate the increasingly prevalent role that technology plays in our lives, we can’t deny that it has its benefits. And we should take advantage of them.
Because most of us have limited time for socialization, social media opens up doors from home. We know that when most people think “social media”, they automatically think “Facebook”, “Instagram”, or “Twitter” because those are the big ones right now. But there are other, more interactive social media tools and apps that offer a more personalized experience that focuses on your shared interests. Some specifically focus on one form of art or media, such as Actor Access, which connects actors, filmmakers, screenwriters, and just about anybody interested in TV, film, or stage acting. It doesn’t just connect people socially, but also facilitates potential projects, work opportunities, and networking avenues. A quick Google search reveals many travel planning apps for people who love to travel.
The list could go on and on, but we’d like to make mention of our own upcoming social media app, which is a platform for people with just about any interest under the sun. Aptly called Plans, it’s a social media tool in which your news feed is populated by events based on shared interests. So if your friends are chefs, foodies, or culture connoisseurs, then your news feed will reveal exciting events that reflect those interests. Although Facebook and other trending media giants connect people on a mass scale, our goal is to provide a much more personalized experience that focuses on cultivating quality experiences- not just images that increase our social media celebrity status.
Whatever social media tools you use, it’s a good rule of thumb to value quality over quantity when it comes to friends and experiences. But the benefits of using online social media tools are plenty, and it’s not just about convenience or saving time and energy. Several prominent theories about the quality and validity of virtual communication are being embraced by the field of psychology. These theories suggest that despite unique obstacles such as lack of nonverbal communication of face-to-face time, it is possible to make a genuine, meaningful connection online. Many people who meet on dating apps and communicate for some time before meeting discover that the connection they made online has the potential to develop into an intimate relationship. Thus, people who are shy and lack spontaneity may find that it’s easier to share themselves freely online. Of course, this is not a suggestion to avoid real time relationships and hide behind the internet; we all need the social skills to interact and connect to others at home, work, or in live social situations! But meeting people online can be a great start, and many people who connect via the internet do eventually meet up. In fact, online groups devoted to causes like mental health and chronic illness awareness, body positivity, and more frequently organize real time events and retreats.
It’s worth nothing that when you do get together in person, turning off technological distractions is a good idea. Turn your phone on silent or answer only urgent calls, sign out of your favorite social media app, and tune into the here and now.
15. Reach out for Help if You Need It
The prevalence of social anxiety is either at an all time high, or is finally garnering awareness as a serious, complex disorder that requires treatment to get better. (We hope it’s the latter). Social anxiety afflicts us all at times and is more prominent in some people than others even within “normal” ranges, but for some of the population, it is essentially debilitating. When social anxiety is causing frequent anxiety attacks, preventing you from enjoying life or developing meaningful relationships, and resulting in depression or low self-esteem, it’s best to seek treatment. The good news is that it is widely available, and awareness of both social and generalized anxiety as a legitimate, stigma-free problem is rapidly increasing. This awareness is spreading like wildfire throughout social media in particular. So it’s not hard to find an online community or support group that shares their struggles and solutions daily.
What Are Social Phobias, and How Are They Treated?
When does social anxiety cross over into the realm of social phobia? In other words, what falls into the normal range of social anxiety, and what is defined a problem that needs treatment? Social phobia is generally defined as the fear of being evaluated negatively or showing obvious, physical signs of anxiety in social situations. It’s an intense, pervasive fear that makes many or all social situations a source of anxiety or even terror for sufferers. People who have social phobias usually live in fear of being the center of attention, but some gravitate toward it and talk excessively as a way of anesthetizing their anxiety. Social anxiety to this extent usually manifests itself in avoidance behaviors; people may avoid social settings, job interviews, or even speaking, eating, and writing in front of others. There is a heightened self-consciousness and frequently an exaggerated sense of being scrutinized that feels very real to people with severe social anxiety. The fear may be specific to certain situations (i.e., performing, public speaking, or large crowds). It also may encompass just about any social situation you can think of, even those including gatherings will small groups of friends and familiars.
Because people with social phobias don’t tend to be outspoken about their feelings and struggles, the problem often goes unrecognized. However, because large groups are starting a worldwide conversation about social anxiety and its treatment options, there are more safe places than ever to address the issue. Although social anxiety can be closely linked to other mental disorders such as depression, general anxiety, substance abuse, and more, it is its own disorder. There are many people who suffer exclusively from social anxiety and not other forms. Some people improve with therapy alone, while others benefit from medication as well.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is currently one of the most common and successful treatments for social anxiety. It uses mindful behaviors and specific techniques to change the way you think, feel, and act in social situations. With CBT, the first step is usually to identify key fears and cognitive distortions. It then involves a gradual increase of exposure to the behaviors that scare someone the most.