The growing body of research on the advantages of having strong emotional intelligence shows the benefits of being socially skilled. You may feel that you’re just not one of those people who knows how best to act in social situations and are therefore doomed to a life of awkwardness. But no matter how weak you think your social skills are, it takes most people only a few minor adjustments to strengthen and expand them.
Being socially skilled buys you all kinds of advantages in life, from better relationships to more success at work. Knowing that you know how to act in social situations also becomes a positive aspect of your identity. You will feel less frightened by the prospect of interacting with strangers, for example, if you feel that you can rely on your communication abilities.
As a topic in psychology, most of the research on social skills focuses on training people with psychological disorders such as autism or schizophrenia to better interact with others. Beyond the training of these groups, there’s a surprising gap in the literature. But one report by University of Wisconsin rehabilitation counselor and educator Brian Phillips and co-authors (2014), addressed social skills in the area of vocational rehabilitation, and it provides a basis for understanding social skill building more generally.
According to Phillips et al, “All work is social” (p. 386). They interviewed vocational rehabilitation staff working in public agencies to find out their perceptions of the most important social skills that their clients needed to learn. The list that emerged from these interviews forms the basis for the following 6 tips, which can well apply to anyone who wants to get more comfortable—or get ahead:
- Control your nonverbal behaviors. Being able to make eye contact, smile while exchanging pleasantries, and shake hands firmly (but not too firmly) help you to be perceived by others as self-confident, mature, and approachable. Phillips and his team distinguished between “cold” connecting, in which you seem uninterested or angry at others, and “warm” connecting, in which you seem likable and at the same time help others feel at ease. You need to appear friendly if you want others to like you. Once they do, they’ll want to be around you, boosting your chances for relationship and work success.
- Monitor what you say. As important as nonverbal communication is for building your social skills, it’s equally critical to control your verbal output. Swearing at people or objects is not considered acceptable in most group settings; neither are angry outbursts at the people with whom you live or date. You may feel comfortable to say whatever comes into your head with your work buddies or roommates because you know you’ll be accepted. The problem is knowing when these behaviors are okay and when they’re not. It’s easy to fall prey to the tendency to drop obscenities into your speech. However, you need to know when to draw the line. Just as you need to clean up your clothes when you step outside the house, you also need to clean up your language.
- Maintain your boundaries. This discussion of language in impression formation raises the more general issue, discussed by Phillips and his team, of maintaining the proper social distance between yourself and others. We all know how embarrassing it is to listen to an oversharer or to have someone invade our personal space. To the extent that you reveal too much about yourself to others, fail to attend to the line between you and a boss or distant relative, or just blab to anyone who will listen, you’ll be perceived as lacking maturity and judgment.
- Turn on your feeling-detectors. Although not discussed by Phillips and his team, having social skills also means that you are able to read the nonverbal communication of other people. Try to read their body language as a way of finding out if they’re anxious, sad, or stressed on the one hand, or happy and relaxed on the other. Use these signals as “data” on which you can base what you say and do in their presence. You don’t have to state verbally that you recognize their feelings. You can use the knowledge you gain about their inner states to communicate in a reciprocal manner. Good therapists use “mirroring” with their own body language to let their clients know they understand and empathize with their inner states.
- Manage your emotions. You also have to control your own feelings. You may get upset, feel snubbed, or have an irrepressible desire to giggle. However, if you want to be regarded positively by all but your closest family and associates, you’ll need to stifle those feelings. Some people have a natural “poker face,” meaning they don’t allow emotions to affect their expressions, but most of us allow at least some of our feelings to leak onto our features. The better you are at disclosing only those feelings you want others to read, the more likely it is that you’ll be considered a solid friend, lover, or colleague.
- Try to build your self-esteem. Phillips and his team point out that it doesn’t help you to have social skills if you don’t believe in them. Feeling more confident in your ability to communicate with others will help you straighten your shoulders and muster your self-composure. Looking as though you feel comfortable in your own skin is nine-tenths of the battle in actually feeling comfortable. As your social skills strengthen, you’ll, in fact, start to reap the benefits of improved self-esteem.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015.
Phillips, B. N., Kaseroff, A. A., Fleming, A. R., & Huck, G. E. (2014). Work-related social skills: Definitions and interventions in public vocational rehabilitation. Rehabilitation Psychology, 59(4), 386-398. doi:10.1037/rep0000011