By Hara Estroff Marano, published on February 4, 2005 - last reviewed on October 28, 2005
If there's one thing most of us never have too much of, it's social confidence.
Whether we are 16, 22 or 42, whether the issue is friendship or intimacy, great relationships don't fall out of the heavens on a favored few. They depend on a number of very sophisticated but man-made skills.
It is now clear that these social skills can be learned by everyone. A few people absorb them effortlessly, as if they are in the air they breathe. Others catch on through watching skilled models, typically in the form of parents. They may not realize they learned how to "do" relationships, they may not be able to articulate what they learned, but somehow they developed a few essential techniques. The most important include how to:
Gracefully enter and exit the activities and conversations of others
"Read" other people well
Find common ground with others
Peacefully solve conflicts
Enlist others in support of a goal.
Make no mistake -- relationships are very complex. Many of us will go to our graves still trying to master them, or apologizing for the ones we messed up. Those who do not master the skills social competence put themselves at constant risk of social rejection. Rejection is a powerful negative experience -- perhaps the most psychically painful of all experiences. It affects people profoundly for decades to come.
The socially competent know that relationships are important and so they are willing to make time for being with others. It is impossible to maintain quality relationships, and the motivation for solving the inevitable differences that crop up, without investing time in them.
By itself, friendship is one of life's greatest sources of pleasure and happiness. Further, success in friendship paves the way for success in that most intimate of relationships, marriage. Studies show unequivocally that it's the friendship part of marriage that makes marriage last. The skills that work among friends work between spouses -- the ability to open a conversation, to join others already engaged in an activity, to resolve differences, to control emotions, to plan time together, to provide emotional support.
So create opportunities for hanging with others, with no agenda. Invite people to visit you at home. Extend an invitation to do some activity together with someone you know.
Learn to "read" others. Pay attention to signals from others that convey such information as what their interests are, or whether they want to be left alone. Make and test inferences about the intentions of others.
Tune in to the situation and the context you are in. Mesh your actions with the behavior of others. Respond in a clear and highly connected way to others' offers to join in activities, a way that is congruent with and contingent to what is said to you. Further, communicate simply; don't blurt out embarrassing things about feelings but rather offer concrete information about the situation you're in. Make comments relevant to ongoing conversations and activity.
To pay attention to and understand others, you must learn to modulate your own emotional states. Regulate the level of bodily tension created by intense feelings -- especially the negative emotions of sadness, fear, anger, and shame. Otherwise, intense negative emotions divert mental energy to defensive coping, prompt display of anger and frustration, and limit the amount of information you can take in.
Approach others with the expectation that others will respond positively.
Learn the most difficult of all social challenges -- how to join others already engaged in an activity. First engage in social reconnaissance -- that is, gather information about what is going on. Direct your focus outward onto others. Observe and listen actively. Search for an opening, a slowing down of the activity, a lull in the conversation, before jumping in. Or ask a question elaborating on something someone else has said. Don't wait and hover forever. This is not the time to shift the direction of the conversation, and especially not onto yourself.
Learn how to deal with social failure. Everyone's best efforts at acceptance will sometimes be rejected. Rebuffs are a fact of life even for the popular. It's crucial to not take all rejection personally (some conversations are just closed deals), acknowledge your hurt feelings (a sign of how important social connections are), but it's equally crucial to try again. Studies show that when faced with failure, people who are well-liked turn a negative response into a counterproposal. They rebound from a turn-down by saying things like, "Well, can we make a date for next week?" Or they move onto another group in the expectation that not every conversation is closed.