Developing your social skills can be a challenge. Where do you begin? How do you figure out what needs work in your development? What element of social skills do you tackle first? This article will help you on your way.
Definition social skills
Before we begin: what are social skills? Why do you need them? What do you want to use them for?
There is no single answer to each of these questions. Social skills are influenced by culture, impacted by technology and everchanging.
Overall social skills are defined as the skills you use to communicate with other people.
That is a very wide definition!
Your interactions with people
Social skills cover both verbal and nonverbal communication. They cover written forms of communication. Because a tweet, snapchat, comment or any other form of social media can also be considered part of your social skills.
Social skills are also harder to grasp in a definition because the way that we communicate with other people keeps changing.
Social skills back in the day
Back in the day, we lived in tribes. Social skills were pretty much developed automatically. If not, then you’d get cast out of the tribe. And getting cast out usually meant death, as people are not great at surviving alone.
Later we started living in villages or even cities. Initially, these were still small settlements. That’s helpful since most people can’t make more than 150 personal connections and maintain those.
Eventually, though we started living in cities. At that point, there were usually way more than just 150 people around you. You would run into people at a daily basis that you didn’t know. Again, social skills changed.
21st-century social skills
Fast-forward to the 21st century and we have a ton of technology helping us connect to people and influencing social skills. People had to learn that talking on video calls meant a different set of social skills than just calling them. Because if people can see you, then your physical appearance and your nonverbal communication also play a major role.
And how about the latest development? Where families have dinner with constant interruptions of chirping, buzzing or ringing phones? How you respond to impulses like that also influence social skills.
To summarize: social skills are not set in stone. They are a constantly developing set of skills that you use to communicate feelings and ideas to other people. Which form you use is entirely up to you.
Why you should develop your social skills
Social skills are in a really weird place. On the one hand, we consider them important and on other hand, we take them for granted.
Using social skills to get ahead in your career
For your career, you’ll need excellent social skills to get ahead. Being able to talk to people, influence them, explain your ideas and work with colleagues and clients are the key aspects of getting promoted and getting ahead.
Most companies take social skills for granted. They don’t explicitly ask for them on applications usually, but they will turn you down if you don’t have them.
They will also make the difference in getting promoted or not. Let’s say you and a colleague are both vying for the same promotion. You are far more knowledgeable and you have more skills. Your coworker has better social skills.
There is an excellent chance that your boss will skip over you for the promotion and go for your coworker, simply because he or she has more social skills and is more likable. Tough luck, but this happens all the time. It’s not fair, it feels wrong, but this is how important social skills are.
You live longer
Aside from that good social skills can also prevent one of the silent killers of our modern-day society: loneliness.
Maybe you’ve experienced that feeling of utter isolation. You would love to talk to other people, but you don’t know how to, or you don’t have anybody to talk to.
There are millions of people who are suffering from this sense of loneliness. And it’s not just a sense of loneliness; it will actually kill you.
Over 100 studies have found that loneliness vastly increases the risk of dying prematurely among the elderly. Seniors who were more socially connected had 50% less risk of premature death!
Now you might not be a senior, but loneliness can cause health issues such as depression too.
It’s one of our basic needs
You might deny it. You might consider yourself a lone wolf. You don’t need other people.
And yet you do.
Whether you like it or not; we are social creatures and social interactions are key to our survival. And this social need kicks in almost directly after birth.
Children who didn’t have enough social relationships are slower to learn, lack psychological development and can even experience serious health problems.
Again, you’re probably not a child anymore, but social isolation is just as bad for adults as it is for children.
Developing your social skills
Developing your social skills consists of 5 separate elements:
- Practical conversation skills
- Connecting to people and building a friendship
- Building confidence
- Managing stress
- Fighting your mental gremlins
You can not develop one of the skills and ignore the others. They are interconnected and all act on each other.
Have excellent conversational skills but no confidence? You can’t talk to people.
Tons of confidence but mental gremlins telling you that you can’t do something? No joy.
No conversation skills but stressed out of your mind when talking to people? It sucks.
You’ll need to develop all of these social skills. They are best tackled together, step by step.
Practical conversational skills
Approaching another person, starting a conversation and keeping it going; we all need practical conversational skills.
One of the most familiar skills is small talk: the art of talking about nothing.
But practical conversational skills also entail how to use your body language to make you approachable and what how to act in groups.
Connecting to people
Another key part of developing social skills is knowing how to connect to people. These skills allow you to build friendships and maintain those.
They also cover understanding nonverbal behavior and how to interpret people’s body language. This is critical for when you want to explain an idea or concept. If you don’t see when somebody is not following what you’re saying then you won’t connect to them.
Dating is also part of connecting to other people.
Quite a lot of people struggle with having the confidence to talk to other people. Because if you’re talking to somebody else then they can reject you as a person. That hurts.
If that happens enough times it can drive you away from people, to the point where you just give up on building connections with other people.
By building confidence in yourself and in your growing social skills you’ll find it easier to connect to other people. It will be a less stressful experience.
No matter what you think: you are worthy of love and belonging
These elements of developing social skills ties in with building (social) confidence. Developing your skills can be a daunting aspect. Dealing with other people can be a very stressful experience.
Managing stress and finding ways to relieve it will have to be part of developing social skills.
You can achieve this by doing breathing exercises, writing, meditation, listening to relaxing music or ASMR. For more on that, click here.
Fighting your mental gremlins
We all have negative thoughts in our head. Here at Social Nerd Coaching, we call those mental gremlins. They are the little creatures which are running amok and sabotaging your efforts of building your social skills.
You will need to able to recognize negative thoughts such as:
- I’m not good enough
- People don’t like me anyway
- I don’t have anything interesting to share
- I’m too fat/tall/hairy/sweaty/etc. to be liked
- I’ll always be alone
This part of developing your social skills is critical, as you’ll continue to self-sabotage until you’re able to recognize and silence those annoying little gremlins in your mind.
Developing social skills in the workplace
Social skills in the workplace are key to happiness and business effectiveness. You can be very skilled and very knowledgeable, but without social skills, you’ll end up lonely and you can get passed up for promotion.
Pick a social sub-skill to focus on first
In the workplace, there are several sub-skills that you can improve on. These are:
- Empathy – understanding how people are feeling
- Expressing yourself clearly
- Working together
- Nonverbal communication
Understanding how other people are feeling is the first step in getting a better relationship with them. This is not an easy skill to learn, however, and you’ll find that some people are better at it than others by nature.
To build your empathy skills try to think as if you were the other person. Based on what you know about their situation, how would you feel? What would you think? How would you react?
This is not a foolproof method as everybody works and thinks differently. Where somebody else might react to a situation with sadness you might react with anger or vice versa.
An excellent way to build and show empathy is by using labeling. Labeling is the nonjudgmental summary of a situation. You can think of phrases like:
- “That must really suck”
- “That must have been awesome!”
- “It seems like that was very hard for you”
You’re not judging, just observing. The other person will usually immediately let you know, verbally or nonverbally whether you’re right. If you are: great! If not: listen to them and try again.
Expressing yourself clearly
Being able to communicate and express yourself clearly is another key business social skill that you can develop. You’d be surprised how many people have not mastered this yet.
How you express yourself will vary from person to person though. Let’s say you’re talking to fellow IT-tech. In that case, you easily use jargon, tech-terms, and terminology that only a fellow IT professional would know.
If you’re talking to somebody who is not as versed in tech then you’ll have to change the way you talk and explain things.
My dad is an excellent example of this. Some time ago he had a problem with his email program, Outlook. In Outlook my mom and dad have several email accounts that they check, but only my dad’s mailbox failed at the login.
He didn’t understand why the other mailboxes weren’t affected. Now he is not IT-minded, so I had to explain to him what the problem was in terms that he would understand.
I told him that Outlook is a concierge: it checks mailboxes that it has keys to. It tried to check his mailbox but found that the keys had changed, and thus couldn’t check it. He immediately understood.
Had I explained to him that because he turned on two-factor authentication that considered Outlook to be an unsafe data-connection and thus couldn’t check it he simply wouldn’t understand.
Expressing yourself clearly is one of the most valuable skills that you can have, inside and outside of business.
To practice this or see examples head over to the ELI5 (Explain Like I’m 5 years old) subreddit. This page is all about explaining difficult concepts as clearly and as easily as possible.
Ever had those projects in high school, college or university where one or two persons ended up doing all the work? Or projects where there were no clear agreements on who would do what by what date? That’s the result of poor team skills.
In some jobs, these skills are less essential. If you have a job where you don’t have to work with others then you won’t need them as badly. But most jobs, especially as you’re getting higher up, are about working in teams or even coordinating teams to work together.
Despite the modern ways of project management like Agile, Scrum, Lean, Six Sigma or whatever it’s still basically the same old recipe: discuss and write down who does what.
In projects or teams, every person usually has a role. Being clear on who does what is a good starting point, but it can still cause issues because sometimes you’re not clear on the meaning of words.
If I ask you to think of a flower, then you might think of a rose. If I was thinking of a daisy then we’re not clear on what a flower is exactly.
The key, therefore, is to have people repeat back to you what they’re going to do. This not only creates more clarity but also more commitments.
“I will make the graphics for this project and I’ll be done by Tuesday, Jan 12th”.
Another important element is asking for help when you need it. There’s no shame in being able to get something done, or not having it ready on time, but if you mention it at the deadline, or after you’ve fucked something up, then you’re too late. Request help in a timely manner.
How many actually listen to what other people are saying? In my experience, it’s very few
One of the main culprits is our smartphone. Check out this video from Simon Sinek about the difference between having a smartphone in your hand or on the table. It’s has a major impact on our focus and for the feeling of being listened to.
Body language and the development of social skills
An element of developing social skills that most people seem to overlook is their body language. This is a factor that goes both ways: your own body language impacts how people perceive you, and you can learn a lot from just observing other people’s body language.
Body language is a massive topic and one that I won’t cover in its entirety in this post. These are the key features.
Your body language
No matter what you’re doing, you’re giving off nonverbal signals, also known as body language. How you walk, making eye contact, how you use your hands; these are all ways that we nonverbally communicate how we feel and how we’re doing.
A key skill here is the use of your hands. Especially when you’re explaining something the use of your hands can make a big difference in how clearly you communicate. Most people use gestures automatically, but they generally don’t actually use them effectively.
To effective use, your hands try to use gestures that line up with what you’re saying. Let’s say that you have an idea that will help boost profits. When you say “boost profits” you can draw a line in the sky going upwards. This makes it very clear what you mean.
Check out this TED-talk on how important your hands are in expressing yourself:
It is essential that your gestures line up with what you’re saying! If you use a gesture that doesn’t line up, then people will get confused and distrustful. To go back to our example of boosting profits: if you say “boost profits” and draw a line going down, then people will get confused.
Your words are saying “going up” and your body language is saying “going down”. So which is it? In that case, people are more inclined to believe your nonverbal signals.
Other people’s body language
Seeing whether somebody is confident or nervous is very helpful in any situation. The distinction is actually very easy to make: if people are confident they start taking up more space. If they’re nervous, uncertain or scared, they’ll take up less space.
This goes back to our animal instincts. When we’re confident about a situation we’ll start claiming more space. You can see people spreading their arms out, using “manspreading” as they move their legs apart and use large expansive gestures. You’re basically showing other people “Hey, I’m the top dog here.”
People who are not so confident about themselves will use the flight or the freeze response. They’ll literally freeze up and not do anything, or they’ll get jittery and try to flee.
For now, try to spot the differences between confident and concerned body language between confident and concerned body language. And, if you can pay attention to when people’s body language changes, as it’s a good indicator to subjects that people find touchy or people they dislike.
Dealing with stress when building social skills
Developing your social skills can be a stressful process. You’ll face awkward moments, you’ll have uncomfortable conversations and you’ll sometimes just fall flat on your face.
That’s perfectly normal. It’s important that you manage stress well while doing this.
10 deep breaths
When you’re feeling stressed in a social situation your fight or flight response can kick in. This releases adrenaline into your system, which can make you shake and start sweating.
Whenever you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed it’s time for some deep breathing. Yes, this sounds incredibly basic, but it works like a charm.
Go find a location where you can be alone for a few minutes. Bathrooms work perfectly well for this.
Close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Inhale through your nose, hold your breath for 5 seconds and exhale through your mouth. Do this 10 times.
By doing this you can lessen the fight or flight response and calm yourself down. Calm again? Go back out there and continue your conversation.
You don’t have to do today again
Another thing that can help you manage stress: you don’t have to do today again. If you had awkward pauses, flunked a presentation or messed up a conversation then know that you don’t have to do that conversation again.
You can learn from the conversation and move on.
When you’re in bed your thoughts can run wild. Throughout the day your brain gets input from people, your phone, TV, computers etc. At night, not so much.
So this is when your brain has time to reflect on things and when it can go into overdrive analyzing all the things that you messed up. This when the thoughts like “I’ll never get along with people” and “I’ll always be alone” also pop up.
For some people, ASMR can work very well in this regard. ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. This is a feeling of pleasant tingles that relax you. By now there are a lot of different ASMR channels on Youtube. These so-called ASMRtists create videos to help you relax and to help you fall asleep.
It’s almost as if the soft sounds and visual triggers (following a light) override your brain’s thoughts.
ASMR has somewhat gotten bad rep for being erotic, but that is absolutely not the case.
In this short video an ASMR content creator explains what ASMR is:
When listening/watching ASMR make sure you have headphones in to get the full effect.
Another way of relaxing and managing stress when developing your social skills is meditation. There are a ton of different ways that you can do this.
If you’re a beginner then you can try an app called Headspace. This is an app that provides guided meditation: somebody talks you through what you need to do. They help you clear your mind of everything that’s troubling you.
It works better for some than for others. If it doesn’t work for you: don’t beat yourself up.
Challenges to help develop your social skills
You can set small challenges for yourself to develop your social skills step by step. Here are a few suggestions.
Hairdressers are experts at small talk. It’s something they do every day, with every new client. They are great at talking about nothing.
Next time you’re going to the hairdresser, try to strike up a conversation. You can ask about holidays, plans for the weekend or try talking about yourself a little.
Set a challenge for yourself to actually start a conversation, instead of just waiting for the hairdresser to be done.
Find your people
Nowadays it’s pretty easy to find likeminded people. Especially Meetup.com can be an excellent place to do so. Meetup.com is a platform where you can find groups of people, usually sorted by interest or characteristic.
You can look for a group around introverts, meeting people, or any other topic of your choosing. Meetups are designed to help you meet new people and to have fun together, do something together or to just talk.
This creates an excellent opportunity to practice your social skills. Especially introvert groups are excellent as they will have people similar to you.
Of course, there are more ways to meet people beyond Meetup, such as local clubs and hobby groups. A Google search will usually yield quite a few options.
Send somebody a thank you note
Sending thank you notes is another excellent way to get a mini-practice of your social skills in.
Think of somebody that you’d like to thank. It can be a family member, a coworker, somebody you recently met; anybody.
Write down why you’re thankful and try to be as specific as possible. In the workplace, you can be thankful for a coworker who helped you with a project. Or maybe you can thank your parents for doing something for you. Maybe your neighbor looked after your cat and you want to thank them for that.
This challenge can make you a little uncomfortable, and that’s the point. Try to stretch your social confidence and social skills a little bit at a time.
A nice bonus of this challenge is that it will also make you feel better for the rest of the day.
When you’re developing your social skills you might be tempted to try to be somebody else. You might try to adapt to the people around you, just so they like you.
That is not the right thing to do.
You have every right to be yourself, including all your insecurities and quirks. Because everybody has those. And that’s ok.
Don’t try to project an image of the tough guy, or the super confident girl if that’s not how you feel. The only effect this will have is that you attract the wrong people and that you have to keep up that appearance at all times.
Also, don’t try to come up with interesting stories or share experiences that you haven’t had. Lying is not the way to building your social skills. It will only turn people away when they inevitably find out that you’ve been lying to them, and you’ll end up alone again.
Be yourself. Be proud of who you are. You have every right to do so, even if you don’t believe it just yet.
Give yourself time
Unfortunately, you won’t suddenly wake up with social skills and all the confidence to talk to anybody you like.
Developing new skills always takes time. Allow yourself time to build these skills. Try to make a little bit of progress each day or each week. Taking things slow is the key here.
It will suck from time to time
As you’re practicing your social skills you’ll find that sometimes it’s just hard. Sometimes you’ll think you’ll never get it. And sometimes you’ll think that people are just terrible and should be avoided.
Those things are all natural.
Some things will suck. So be it.
But there is a big light at the end of the tunnel. Because once you have developed your social skills to the point where you can talk to people comfortable and interact with them as you like, then you will find that connecting to people make all the difference.