Techniques for Improving Social Skills

Say you’re sitting at the bar in your favorite club. You and your best friend have decided to go out and see if you can meet someone interesting. You get into a conversation with the bartenders, laughing and bantering, but you soon notice that they are paying a lot more attention to your friend, and basically ignoring you. This is not the first time this has happened – and, for the 50th time you ask yourself: what’s wrong with me?

Here’s another scenario: you’re at a party, crowded with people milling about, groups talking, laughing together, everybody having a good time but you. You are standing against the wall or sitting by yourself in a chair, no one around you. You’re unhappy, lonely, embarrassed, again, wondering What’s wrong? – wishing you’d stayed home.

Other people are noticing. Someone says, “She’s so withdrawn,” or “she’s very shy, isn’t she?” Another woman says, “I think she’s stuck up. Thinks she’s better than we are.”

But that’s not the truth at all! I’m not stuck up, I want to talk to someone, why doesn’t anyone approach me?

You may just be socially inept. Perhaps no one ever taught you social skills. Perhaps your parents did not value those things. Perhaps your life has been speckled with periods of emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation when you have closed yourself away from other people for what seems to you to be good reasons. Whatever your situation, whatever your age, it’s not too late to learn. If you are tired of being treated this way by people, you don’t have to continue in this vein. Every minute you spend absorbed with your personality, character, upbringing or any other personal issue robs you of an opportunity to interact with other people. You may not think others will notice how self-absorbed you are, but they will. For many people, their expressions and body language gives it away.

How can you help yourself? Here are some things to think about.

o People come into a conversation with certain expectations. Considering that we all need acceptance, approval, warmth, human contact and love, don’t be surprised if these are your expectations also.

o To the extent that these expectations are met, all people engaged in the conversation will benefit, and will approve of their fellow conversationalists. To the extent that their expectations are not met, they will feel negatively about the other person, and will likely ignore them, or withdraw from the conversation altogether.

o Some experts have estimated that 50% of Americans are shy to more or less degree. Some people try to hide their shyness or cover it with aggressive behavior, compulsive talking, etc., while others accept that they are shy and don’t try to conceal the fact. Some people suffer from conditions that will keep them shy forever if left untreated, like social anxiety disorder (social phobia) which affects 7% of the population. If you are a sufferer, ask your doctor if a therapist is indicated.

If you do not wish to consult a therapist, you may help yourself by practicing a few social skill techniques:

A friend of mine, Carolyn, is painfully shy. She rarely went out or attended parties, but a neighbor she was fond of invited her to a birthday party, and she felt obliged to go. Upon arriving she greeted her hostess, then took a chair in one corner, next to a loveseat. A young couple seated there appeared to be deeply engaged in conversation, so Carolyn did not speak to them. She simply sat, looking around or down at her hands. After a few moments she got up to fill a plate at the buffet. When she came back, one of the couple had moved into her chair!

“I felt insulted,” Carolyn admitted, looking a little embarrassed. “I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. I took another seat, ate quickly, and left. My entire day was ruined.”

What should Carolyn have done instead? After exploring the entire question of social skills, Carolyn confesses the entire incident could have been avoided had she:

o Made eye contact. For some people, this is difficult, even all but impossible. It’s a problem for Carolyn. She says, “I seldom make eye contact. I know I should, but it’s painful for me. I always feel embarrassed, like I’ve accidentally come upon a naked person.” It is a powerful thing – they say the eyes are the windows of the soul, and it’s true, to make eye contact means looking directly into someone’s psyche, but by starting small (just a glance) and slowly lengthening your gaze, you can overcome this block.

A shy person standing alone at a party should try to look interested, should smile at people passing by, and if they look or smile back, say “good morning,” or some other appropriate greeting. If you look approachable, you are bound to be approached. And watch your body language: keep your arms relaxed, your body turned toward others, don’t be afraid to wave.

o Smiled. A person who frowns, or looks blank, does not appear welcoming. A frown or the absence of expression can turn people away from clear across the room.

o Introduced herself. People who are interested in other people will introduce themselves upon coming into the proximity of others. If you want to join a group, ease up to them, listen for a while, then take advantage of a lull to introduce yourself. And SMILE.

o Added something to the conversation. “You needn’t institute an immediate argument or offer an opposing point of view, simply add a short, positive statement like, “That was an excellent comment you made a moment ago,” Carolyn advises. “It’s best to make introductory statements that are neutral. If everyone freezes, ask how they are acquainted with the host or hostess.”

This is the point at which many shy persons collapse: time for small talk. Many people detest small talk, chit-chat, and for good reasons. The intellectually gifted may feel restless, irritated, bored or even contemptuous of the topics discussed. It’s shallow, superficial, a complete waste of time, you don’t get anything out of it and neither does the other person. But small talk does serve a purpose. It’s reliably safe, and for shy people, it may be a lifesaver – the door to a whole new world for them. It’s a way to learn about other people gradually, a bit at a time. Small talk is a sort of laid-back way of finding out if you have anything in common (a bridge to the next level of communication), and whether the other person appeals to you generally. “Conversational grease,” Carolyn calls it. Once you learn how to small talk effectively, opportunities to talk about things that really interest you will increase.

Once the period of small talk has passed, someone – you? – may introduce another topic, perhaps a news article or book you have recently read that deals with a current, somewhat controversial issue – not so provocative as politics or religion, but something that will spark discussion. The trick here is to keep your comments brief, look people in the eye as you are talking to them, and give way to the next speaker as soon as your point has been made. Do not wander off into a rambling discussion of your family or co-workers; keep to the topic and give others a chance.

If you see someone you would like to know better, smile, hold their gaze a bit longer than you would otherwise, and if it’s a person of the opposite sex, you may wink. A wink is attractive and safe, but conveys your message without doubt. If you manage to engage them in conversation, think of some interesting event coming up and ask if they’d like to attend it with you.

Another point to consider: empathy. Once you have joined the group or found someone to talk to, listen closely to what is being said. You wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with someone.

A connection means you have hit on some subject of interest, whether it may be rollerblading, 17th century poetry or tracking the nefarious schemes of your relatives, that you hold in common. A chance to embark on a friendship, perhaps, or to pursue a common interest with an attractive member of the opposite sex. As they describe their experiences, try to put yourself in their shoes – show you are interested in them and their activities. If you can do this, your body language will reflect your interest – you may find yourself leaning toward them, maintaining eye contact, your limbs relaxed, palms open, a pleasant expression on your face.

Empathy means:

o That you care and are willing to understand and accept what the other person says as valid.

o That you do not want to misunderstand.

o The conversation tends to become less trivial, more significant.

o The other person feels comfortable revealing deep emotions so that the conversation becomes more rewarding for both.

o Our connections with and understanding of other people will improve.

Now you have an understanding of what it will take to train yourself to be a more effectively social person. If you try but are unable to accomplish this transformation on your own, help is available.


Find a friend or relative to help you. Set up a situation in which you often find yourself withdrawn or tongue-tied, perhaps an employment interview. Have your helper play the part of the employer and ask you appropriate questions. The questions and their answers are not important, what matters are your social skills. Ask your helper to rate you on the elements: eye contact, smiling, body language, empathy, etc. Rate yourself as well, and compare notes. Reinforce the positive elements and take note of areas where improvements can be made.


Toastmasters, a public speaking club, has worked miracles for shy people. When you join you are given a New Member Kit which includes a Communication and Leadership manual, orientation materials and suggestions aimed at raising your skill in evaluating speeches and using gestures. The prepared speeches in the manual are designed for beginners. Soon you will be writing your own speeches. With practice, even an extremely shy person can get used to and even learn to enjoy giving short speeches. Other members will evaluate your speaking and give adv ice. Toastmasters say you can “learn to think on your feet” by giving spontaneous, two-minute speeches.

Dr. Charles Henderson, Ph.D. , psychologist and college professor, recommends that people wanting to improve their social skills try self-hypnosis.

“Anyone with normal intelligence and a desire to be improve him- or herself can learn how to use self-hypnosis,” (he says). “And shyness is one of the areas of application where self-hypnosis seems to work like magic…No matter which kind of shyness you have, self-hypnosis can help you bring out your strong side, the side that may have been dormant most of your life.”

According to Dr. Henderson, almost half the population of the US suffers from some form of shyness. He advises sufferers not to conjure up images of people walking around like zombies and sitting frozen, unable to return from the trance state, as they are totally unrealistic. There is nothing difficult or supernatural about hypnosis. If you can lean back, close your eyes and think about pleasant things, you can employ self-hypnosis. At his website (see the link below) Dr. Henderson offers “professionally recorded hypnotic inductions” designed to help people achieve the trance state. You can also record your own tape, if you like. The purpose of hypnosis is to move the conscious mind aside and deal directly with the subconscious mind.

The induction process is simply a matter of relaxing. Dr. Henderson suggests making a pendulum – a weighted string you hold that works something like an Ouija Board. You hold it up and after it starts swinging back and forth, you assign meaning to its movements, i.e. “No,” “Yes,” “Maybe,” etc. Then you ask it questions. The theory is that your subconscious mind causes movement in the pendulum to answer your questions.

If that seems a little twee to you, simply lie down and relax your body, starting at toes and going up, or at the top of your head and moving down. Once you are completely relaxed, make your suggestions: “After I leave the trance state, I won’t want to smoke,” or “After I leave the trance state, I will give up my shyness and adopt an attitude of confidence.” Knowing how to phrase suggestions and pose questions is an art in itself. Visit Dr. Henderson’s site to learn the best way to proceed.


Perhaps your shyness arises more from fear than from lack of social skills. You may need to address these fears and conquer them before you will feel really comfortable in social situations.

If you find you freeze up while approaching someone, or even when invited to approach someone, try relaxation techniques before and during the conversation. Breathe deeply and instruct yourself to relax. If you have to withdraw for a moment to accomplish this, by all means do so. The more you practice this, the better you will get at it, and the easier it will become. Before long it will become more or less automatic.

Give yourself the right messages. Don’t tell yourself, “I’m feeling panicky, I want to go home, I feel so bad.” Instead, say, “I feel good, this is an interesting person worthy of my attention, and I will enjoy this conversation.” To that little demon in you that says, “They are going to hate you, think you’re weird, or crazy,” say this: “You sit down and keep quiet. You are wrong, and I’m not going to listen to you.”


The name of the game here is practice. Start slowly, with friends or relatives, and ask them to give you feedback. Keep in mind that while you may consider yourself quiet and introspective, others may see you as withdrawn or simply feeling superior. When you believe you’re being truthful and honest, other people may experience you as being critical and unpleasant. Make a plan and carry it out; practice steadily, moving always ahead, and you may find your life has changed dramatically!

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