How to Learn Social Skills

In my course with Cal Newport, Top Performer, we have students engage in research to identify which career skills would benefit them most moving to the next phase of their career. Initially, we had expected these to be complex craftsman-like skills: writing, programming, design, etc.. To our surprise, students kept coming back telling us a somewhat different story: soft skills were the key to getting ahead.

This is a common story in larger organizations. In such organizations, being a brilliant programmer, designer or writer is useless if you can’t effectively coordinate with the people around you. And in bigger organizations, the people around you can easily become the biggest obstacle to that success.

Knowing how to deal with people artfully, therefore, can easily become a key skill to success. I know many incredibly successful people whose main asset is being really good with people.

This is doubly true outside your profession. Whether it’s dating, friends or family, having strong social skills is enormously helpful. Those who are skilled at dealing with people just find life easier. People want to help them and they have fewer conflicts and problems.

Two Ways of Thinking About Smarts

Social intelligence, like regular intelligence, is probably a mixture of innate predisposition and effortful learning. Some people, like it or not, have intrinsic personalities or capacities that make them more charismatic, likeable and socially intelligent.

However, at the same time, acquired knowledge and skill matters as well. Just because you have a certain predisposition to be good at picking up social cues or understanding social dynamics doesn’t guarantee you’ll do well in unfamiliar social settings, like public speaking or negotiating. Similarly, just because you find social situations more tricky than most doesn’t mean you can’t get good at those things.

In my mind, social skills aren’t fundamentally different from any other kind of skill. Yes, being an attractive, confident extravert who can easily read social cues makes things helpful. However, even if you lack these talents, you can acquire compensating skills to make up for it.

In my own life, I’ve definitely been smarter with things than with people. School subjects and intellectual topics come fairly easily to me, but social situations have generally required more work.

But given that bias, it means that working harder on my social skills has tended to have an even larger payoff than mastering a more cognitive skill. Even if that effort hasn’t put me into any exceptional range of ability, it has still benefited enormously because social skills are very often a situation where costs exceed benefits. If you can minimize the costs of poor social skills you’ll very often get much bigger advantages than if you go from being good to excellent. A lot of social savvy is simply making fewer obvious mistakes.

The Cost of Bad Social Skills

People who struggle with other skills do get made fun of in our society, but most people get somewhat of a pass for struggling with math, sports or intellectual skills. Social skills, however, are different. Poor social skills are a real disadvantage because having poor skills is often seen as a moral failure rather than a merely intellectual one. Creep, jerk, snob, weirdo and many other slurs are often attributed to people who don’t have particularly ill intentions, they are simply lacking in normal social graces.

Good social skills, in my opinion, is more risk-avoidance than reward-seeking. While people like to laud those with magical charisma that can accomplish incredible things, I feel this isn’t the usual way to think about social skills. Rather, having good social skills is largely about avoiding misfires which cause mutual communication to break down.

Social skills are a bit like the ship that moves you across the sea of life. It doesn’t matter how fast your engine is or how clever your navigation is, if you’ve got leaks in the hull, you won’t get very far.

Many people I’ve communicated with through this blog feel that there social skills are what hold them back. Given my own experience with trying to deliberately improve this aspect of my life, I’d like to share some thoughts on how you might be able to get better at it.

How to Get Good at Communicating

Given that learning social skills is just like learning any other skill, you can exploit that fact to design a plan to get better at it. There’s no magic to being good with people that’s any different from being good at math, skiing or chess. True, your talents may be different in each area, but once you take your current position as a given, the learning process is largely the same.

The first thing to realize about learning any skill is that learning tends to be rather specific. You don’t learn “math” you learn something much more specific, say the chain rule for a taking a derivative or the sine law for triangles. Similarly, you don’t learn “social skills” broadly speaking, you master a particular aspect, such as negotiating with your boss or reading emotions during a conflict.

That specificity is key to starting the learning process. Yes, it may be disappointing to realize you face a bewildering array of social situations when your goal is to get better at all of them. Your task may be broad. But this is, in principle, no different from learning any large subject, whether it’s programming, math or design.

One challenge of social skills, however, is that given they aren’t taught in a normal curriculum, it may be somewhat challenging to see where to start. Given this, I’d like to suggest some ways of thinking about how social skills divide up, broadly speaking, so you can have an easier time picking which specific skills you’d like to start improving.

Listening Versus Speaking

The first distinction that I think is important is that social skills often decompose into a part which is mostly about listening and a part which is mostly about speaking. True, these two aspects usually get blended together via feedback in normal interactions, but I think these components nonetheless rely on different strengths. Therefore, it’s possible to be good at speaking but bad at listening or vice versa.

Public speaking, composing emails, writing a sales page, telling a story, projecting confidence in your voice and body language, these are all speaking skills. Here the goal is that, given your understanding of the listeners’ states of mind, the context and the likely reception of your message, you craft a message that best meets your goal.

A key part of effective speaking, however, is understanding the listerners’ states of mind. Many good speakers fail to land a joke, for instance, because they don’t understand very well how the person who is listening is actually processing what is being said.

Because communication failures tends to happen after you’ve sent your message and then get a response, too many people with poor social skills tend to think they have a problem with speaking skills, instead of a problem with listening skills. Their communication may be fine, it’s just that they don’t really understand the mind of the person they are speaking with so what they say doesn’t have the intended effect.

Think of that guy you know who tells inappropriate jokes that everyone awkwardly laughs at and then, when that person is gone, they complain about him. He may see his jokes fail to land and blame his delivery—if only he told it right, they’d think it was funny. This may be the case, but far more often it’s simply that he didn’t properly read the minds of the people in the room and told something that was wildly out of sync with that reality.

Social Skills are 80% Listening

It would be a mistake, I believe, to think that listening and speaking are equal parts of the difficulty of communicating. My guess is that listening—meaning all the effort taken to correctly understand the social context and minds of other people—is probably more like 80% of social skills, with the last 20% being delivery of your message.

It is possible to find people who have keen social instincts but trip over the speaking part of communicating. However, this usually occurs when there’s some other factor distorting their performance. The person who is too nervous to speak in public, or who struggles with organizing their thoughts in an email, might be of this kind.

In most cases, I’d say it’s the opposite. The person is fine at speaking when they correctly guess the social situation and minds of others, but since they have trouble doing that, they make a lot more mistakes. Their jokes would be funny, their comments would persuade, if other people’s minds matched the mental representation they have.

This ability to form a mental representation of other people, what psychologists call theory of mind, is a lot more challenging than simply organizing your own thoughts and goals effectively.

How to Get Better

The way to improve at anything is to practice. Social skills, and listening in particular, are no different.

Feedback is an important mechanism for practice. You try something, you get a response, and you use that response to adjust your output for next time. I’m describing this as a mechanical process, but really it mostly takes place unconsciously. Motor skills like walking and throwing a ball likely also use some kind of feedback in this way, albeit not at a conscious level.

The challenge with improving your understanding of the mental states of others is the problem of subtext. People rarely say directly what they mean. This means, when you make a social misstep, diagnosing what you did wrong may not be obvious. This is compounded by the fact that, if you’re bad at reading minds, you’ll also be bad at processing social feedback.

This is a tough bootstrapping problem and something similar occurs in other areas of learning. You don’t know what you don’t know, so even diagnosing your problems at first can be difficult.

One way I’ve seen a lot of people try to deal with this is to first learn a lot of theory. That is, if they could only make explicit all the common subtext they’re dealing with, they would be able to more easily consciously diagnose their mistakes. This is particularly prevalent in dating advice for men with poor social skills.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, grand theories of social skills are often wrong. We don’t understand social skills nearly as well as other human fields, so basing your opinions on some well-articulated theory of hidden motivations may have a lot of mistakes. This doesn’t mean theorizing is useless, just that it isn’t an infallible guide for practical benefits.

The second problem is that subtext is usually implicit for a good reason. People do have hidden motives and unconscious behavior, yes. But dealing with those hidden motives consciously doesn’t usually win you friends and allies. Treating what is implicit as explicit is a sign of social ineptitude itself, so doing this step of conversion deliberately often ends up with worse outcomes at first, rather than better ones.

The theory-driven approach to learning to understand other people is often like trying to understand art by having detailed models of the chemistry of paint. It’s not useless, but it would be far better to have your effort invested in practicing brushstrokes.

The alternative, of course, is to spend a lot more time practicing. In this context, having some theories to explain things you see socially can be helpful, but usually because you’re already building an intuition about other people. You’re training your mind to pick up on what other people are thinking intuitively instead of trying to work it out consciously.

Keys to Practicing Social Skills

Practicing this is tough, but I’ve found the following broad strategy works pretty well:

  1. Narrow down your focus to a particular context.
  2. Find a way to engage in that environment at a higher-than-average rate.
  3. If possible, get a peer or coach to give you feedback.

The first step is to drill down into the specific context you’d like to build mastery. It would be nice if all social skill is perfectly transferable and you only need to learn it once for it to apply everywhere. Unfortunately, all the evidence on how people learn points in the other direction: skills and knowledge tend to be learning specifically first, and only generalize weakly after large investment.

Next, you need to find an environment which will allow you to practice at a higher-than-average rate. I’ve done this a few times in my life for various skills I wanted to improve. When I wanted to get better at public speaking, I joined Toastmasters. When I wanted to get better at selling, I volunteered as a fundraiser for a student group. When I wanted to get better at leadership, I volunteered to take over the Toastmasters club I had previously been a member.

Practicing on your own can work, but the main disadvantage is that it’s often a lot harder to see yourself in a social interaction the way others see you. Having a friend who is also practicing and can comment on you is often huge, because that person can see what mistakes you’re making more easily than you can. Even better is a coach, someone who you recognize as being better at the skill you want to master, although good coaches and mentors aren’t always easy to find (especially if you have poor social skills!).

How Much Better Can You Get?

The research on intelligence seems fairly clear that while we have the ability to improve in specific areas quite easily, the more general an ability we look at, the harder it is to improve. Thus, learning a specific mathematical fact is well within the range of most people’s abilities. Getting better at all math through massive accumulated knowledge and skill is possible, but harder. Being generally more intelligent on every possible task is we’re not even sure can be done.

I think the same is true of social skills. If you have very poor social skills, you can definitely still learn to master particular social habits and skills. Saying “ah” or “um” less when you speak or learning to make eye contact when another person is talking, are both highly learnable skills.

With massive practice you might even get good at a large enough range of social skills that you’re “good” or “adequate” for most purposes. You may even become excellent in some narrow specializations of social skills like public speaking, negotiating or having a good relationship.

However its likely that even with serious practice, there may be novel social situations where you’re a bit slower than someone who is more naturally gifted. But that’s totally fine! The fact that there may be some fixed parts of ability at some deeper level shouldn’t negate the possibility of meaningful improvement at other levels.

I know myself that I’m probably not going to reach perfect levels of social skills. But, with practice, I’ve gotten pretty good at some select skills that really matter to my life. I’ve also become adequate at many other skills I used to be quite bad at. In the long-term, I expect I’ll be able to get better at yet other skills I’m still somewhat weak on.

Similarly, if you feel like poor social skills hold you back in an area of your life, or even that you’d like to go from adequate to excellent with a particular skill, I think you can improve it deliberately just like anything else. All you need is patience, persistence and practice.

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