Jump to section
We all have moments where our social skills fail us. Perhaps your joke was greeted with awkward silence. Or, at a restaurant, you enthusiastically told the waiter that they, too, should enjoy their meal.
The odd mishap with friends is hardly cause for alarm. The embarrassment will soon transform into an inside joke, deeping your bond with others.
But, if you fumble too often, it can take a toll on your self-esteem and mental health. If you don't know how to improve your social skills, it can hold you back socially and at work. Some behaviors can come across as antisocial or even harmful to others, while simple shyness can read as aloof, standoffish, or arrogant. Knowing this might not put you at ease, but it can help you understand other people's reactions.
Now that companies are starting to pull teams together in person, many people are feeling some level of social anxiety. Just because it feels uncomfortable, not feeling confident in your ability to spend more than 5 minutes chatting with coworkers isn't an option. The good news? The past two years haven't helped anyone feel socially smooth. Many people are feeling awkward. The bad news? Many people are behaving awkwardly, and misunderstandings will happen.
You don’t have to change yourself. But you might have to change your approach, not just to appear more sociable but to avoid the most unnecessary points of friction that undermine your confidence. This will not only improve how others perceive you, but it can also benefit you in other ways.
If you’ve been feeling out of place, developing your social skills can help you feel more at home with your colleagues. It can also improve your confidence, sense of belonging, and ability to collaborate at work — all important skills that will affect your mental health, motivation, and ability to succeed.
Training your social skills can be difficult. But we know you can do it.
Here’s how to improve social skills at work, with strangers, and in every other part of your life.
What are social skills?
Social skills are the verbal and nonverbal communication skills required to foster connections and appropriately navigate social settings. Think about socializing a puppy: The more interaction it has with other puppies when it’s young, the better it knows how to act when it’s older. Humans are similar.
Most of the time, when people think of “social skills,” they think of their everyday interactions. It’s how they gain acceptance from their colleagues or peers and involves being comfortable when speaking to strangers, easily making friends, and earning the respect of your co-workers.
These things don’t always come naturally. Individuals with social anxiety, for example, might have trouble connecting with others. Introverts or shy people who like to keep to themselves may actively avoid social interactions — and appear rude as a result. Or, sometimes, we get uncomfortable around people we don’t know and lose some of our social confidence.
No matter the case, it’s nice to have some basic principles to fall back on. Knowing how to develop your social skills will help you in the long run.
The benefits of having good social skills
So what’s in it for you? Well, a lot. Improving your social skills is essential for your social health and overall well-being.
In terms of mental health, people with strong social ties have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy, and are more cooperative.
For your physical health, researchers knew as early as 1988 that lack of social connection is more harmful than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. And, more recently, they learned that isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia as you age.
Sharpening your social skills will also pay you back in the form of social capital. Entire university programs are devoted to studying this concept. But, to keep it simple, we can define social capital as the sum of all benefits from being part of a social group.
Social capital comes with its own list of benefits:
- People will like working with you. Social capital often translates to goodwill from your colleagues; if you’re easy to work with, people will be in your corner when you need it — like when you’re gunning for that next big promotion.
- When you ask for help, people provide it. What goes around comes around. If you’re kind and helpful to others, they’ll do the same for you.
- Others will understand your boundaries. Don’t want to go to a social event? It’ll be easier to refuse when people trust there are no hard feelings. When you use your social skills, you can help others see where you’re coming from and better communicate your feelings.
- Clients will love you. Whether you’re a freelancer, salesperson, or customer service rep, social skills are essential to winning and keeping clients. People like good work with a good attitude.
- You’ll nail your job interviews. Job interviews are about making great impressions. This is the perfect environment to flex your social skills. Use open body language, eye contact, and friendly facial expressions to impress your interviewers.
In today’s gig economy, social capital is critical. It can earn you a higher salary, win you more interesting projects, and may be the deciding factor in your next job application. Consider working with a BetterUp coach to improve this area of your career.
How can I enhance my social skills?
We’re glad you asked! You can definitely learn or improve your social life. Here are some general guidelines to get you started:
1. Improve your emotional intelligence
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what they might be going through and try to understand their feelings. You’ll better understand their perspective, which will help you respond appropriately.
2. Look inwards
Pay attention to your emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and triggers. Then it will be easier to control them while interacting with others.
3. Practice effective communication skills
Use tactics like active listening and open body language to demonstrate attentiveness. This opens the door to more positive interactions.
4. Fake it ‘till you make it
Try acting like your more social peers, even if it’s just small talk. It will become easier every time you try it.
5. Ask more than you speak
You don’t have to worry about speaking up; ask open-ended questions and use active listening. People love talking about themselves.
6. Give compliments
Everyone likes a good compliment. Tell someone that they were great in that meeting, or their project was top-notch. Be specific.
7. Be polite
Good manners go a long way. Words like “please” and “thank you” are small but powerful ways to soften requests.
8. Use open body language and non-verbal communication
Face the person with whom you’re speaking. Pay attention to your tone of voice. Make eye contact. Use your body language to show you’re present and paying attention.
9. Read the news
So many conversations revolve around current events; try to keep up so you can chime in.
10. Don’t let your thoughts get the best of you
It’s okay to feel a little anxious, but don’t let it get the best of you. You’re not your thoughts. Take a deep breath and try to let them go; this will help you relax in a social situation.
11. Start small
Start by spending time in a coffee shop or practicing your conversation skills with family members. Then you can ease into larger social settings. Before you know it, you'll be making new friends at your next social gathering.
Do I have trouble with social skills?
A lot of people with anxiety or ADHD have a hard time connecting with others. Introverts or very shy people may also struggle.
Here are some signs that you don't have great social skills:
- You scroll on your phone while people talk to you. Smartphones are great at keeping us connected, but often to the detriment of those right in front of us. It puts a physical barrier between you and the other person at best. This communicates non-receptiveness to their words, and at worst, you seem bored, uninterested, and rude.
- You never take off your headphones. Sure, you might pause the music while someone talks to you. But they don’t know that. Take out your earbuds to show that you’re listening.
- You never do anything in person. These days, you can order just about anything to your door. But while this is wildly convenient, it cuts you off from the outside world. Don’t let yourself become socially isolated.
- You force humor when it might not be appropriate. You may want to defuse your anxiety with humor, but it’s not always the best time. Learn to read the room and only use jokes when it makes sense.
The bottom line
It’s normal to experience awkward moments. You might tell the theatre employee to enjoy a movie they’re not going to see or tell a joke that no one laughs at. It happens; cut yourself some slack.
But poor social skills go beyond the occasional blunder. At best, you seem aloof. At worst, outright rude. It’s good to evaluate your social skills and see which ones you can improve to be your best self.
That’s not to say that you can learn to overcome shyness or that you have to be a social butterfly. But it’s nice to know that when you want to strike up a conversation — whether inside or out of work — you’ll feel comfortable doing so.
If you need help, BetterUp is here. We’ll give you the tools you need to learn how to improve your social skills to ease your social discomfort or learn better communication skills. Whatever your best self needs, we can help you find.
BetterUp Staff Writer