By Hara Estroff Marano
If you were ever the last person picked for a team or asked to dance at a party, you’ve probably despaired that popular people are born with complete self-confidence and impeccable social skills. But over the past 20 years, a large body of research in the social sciences has established that what was once thought the province of manna or magic is now solidly our own doing–or undoing. Great relationships, whether friendships or romances, don’t fall out of the heavens on a favored few. They depend on a number of very sophisticated but human-scale social skills. These skills are crucial to developing social confidence and acceptance. And it is now clear that everyone can learn them.
And they should. Recent studies illustrate that having social contact and friends, even animal ones, improves physical health. Social ties seem to impact stress hormones directly, which in turn affect almost every part of our body, including the immune system. They also improve mental health. Having large social networks can help lower stress in times of crisis, alleviate depression and provide emotional support.
Luckily, it’s never too late to develop the tools of the socially confident. Research from social scientists around the world, including relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D., and shyness authority Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., show that the most popular people follow these steps to social success:
1 Schedule Your Social Life
It is impossible to hone your social skills without investing time in them. Practice makes perfect, even for the socially secure. Accordingly, the well-liked surround themselves with others, getting a rich supply of opportunities to observe interactions and to improve upon their own social behaviors.
You need to do the same. Stop turning down party invitations and start inviting people to visit you at home. Plan outings with close friends or acquaintances you’d like to know better.
2 Think Positive
Insecure people tend to approach others anxiously, feeling they have to prove that they’re witty or interesting. But self-assured people expect that others will respond positively–despite the fact that one of the most difficult social tasks is to join an activity that is already in progress.
3 Engage in Social Reconnaissance
Like detectives, the socially competent are highly skilled at information gathering, always scanning the scene for important details to guide their actions. They direct their focus outward, observing others and listening actively.
Socially skilled people are tuned in to people’s expression of specific emotions, sensitive to signals that convey such information as what people’s interests are, whether they want to be left alone or whether there is room in an activity for another person.
To infer correctly what others must be feeling, the socially confident are also able to identify and label their own experience accurately. That is where many people, particularly men, fall short.
Good conversationalists make comments that are connected to what is said to them and to the social situation. The connectedness of their communication is, in fact, one of its most outstanding features. Aggressive people actually make more attempts to join others in conversation but are less successful at it than the socially adept because they call attention to themselves, rather than finding a way to fit into ongoing group activity. They might throw out a statement that disrupts the conversation, or respond contentiously to a question. They might blurt something about the way they feel, or shift the conversation to something of interest exclusively to themselves.
“You don’t have to be interesting. You have to be interested,” explains John Gottman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington. “That’s how you have conversations.”
4 Enter Conversations Gracefully
Timing is everything. After listening and observing on the perimeter of a group they want to join, the socially competent look for an opportunity to step in, knowing it doesn’t just happen. It usually appears as a lull in the conversation.
Tuned in to the conversational or activity theme, the deft participant asks a question or elaborates on what someone else has already said. This is not the time to shift the direction of the conversation, unless it comes to a dead halt. Then it might be wise to throw out a question, perhaps something related to events of the day, and, if possible, something tangentially related to the recent discussion. The idea is to use an open-ended question that lets other participate. “Speaking of the election, what does everybody think about so-and-so’s decision not to run?”
“People admire the person who is willing to take a risk and throw out a topic for conversation, but you have to make sure it has general appeal,” says Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Then you are in the desirable position of having rescued the group, which confers immediate membership and acceptance. Once the conversation gets moving, it’s wise to back off talking and give others a chance. Social bores attempt to dominate a discussion. The socially confident know that the goal is to help the group have a better conversation.
5 Learn to Handle Failure
It is a fact of life that everyone will sometimes be rejected. Rebuffs happen even to popular people. What distinguishes the socially confident from mere mortals is their reaction to rejection.
They don’t attribute it to internal causes, such as their own unlikability or inability to make friends. They assume it can result from many factors–incompatibility, someone else’s bad mood, a misunderstanding. And some conversations are just private.
Self-assured people become resilient, using the feedback they get to shape another go at acceptance. Studies show that when faced with failure, those who are well-liked turn a negative response into a counterproposal. They say things like, “Well, can we make a date for next week instead?” Or they move onto another group in the expectation that not every conversation is closed.
And should they reject others’ bids to join with them; they do it in a polite and positive way. They invariably offer a reason or counter with an alternative idea: “I would love to talk with you later.”
6 Take Hold of Your Emotions
Social situations are incredibly complex and dynamic. One has to pay attention to all kinds of verbal and nonverbal cues, such as facial expression and voice tone, interpret their meaning accurately, decide on the best response for the scenario, and then carry out that response–all in a matter of microseconds. No one can pay attention to or correctly interpret what is going on, let alone act skillfully, without a reasonable degree of control over their own emotional states, especially negative emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety–the emotions that usually arise in situations of conflict or uncertainty.
Recently, studies have found that people who are the most well-liked also have a firm handle on their emotions. It isn’t that they internalize all their negative feelings. Instead, they shift attention away from distressing stimuli toward positive aspects of a situation. In other words, they have excellent coping skills. Otherwise, they become overly reactive to the negative emotions of others and may resort to aggression or withdraw from social contact.
7 Defuse Disagreements
Since conflict is inevitable, coping with confrontations is one of the most critical of social skills. It’s not the degree of conflict that sinks relationships, but the ways people resolve it. Disagreements, if handled well, can help people know themselves better, improve language skills, gain valuable information and cement their relationships.
Instead of fighting fire with fire, socially confident people stop conflict from escalating; they apologize, propose a joint activity, make a peace offering of some kind, or negotiate. And sometimes they just change the subject. That doesn’t mean that they yield to another’s demands. Extreme submissiveness violates the equality basic to healthy relationships–and a sense of self-worth.
As people gain social competence, they try to accommodate the needs of both parties. Managing conflict without aggression requires listening, communicating–arguing, persuading–taking the perspective of others, controlling negative emotions, and problem-solving. Researchers have found that when people explain their point of view in an argument, they are in essence making a conciliatory move. That almost invariably opens the door for a partner to offer a suggestion that ends the standoff.
8 Laugh A Little
Humor is the single most prized social skill, the fast track to being liked–at all ages. Humor works even in threatening situations because it defuses negativity. There’s no recipe for creating a sense of humor. But even in your darkest moments, try to see the lighter side of a situation.
READ MORE ABOUT IT
Shyness: A Bold New Approach, Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D. (HarperCollins, 1999)
The Shy Child, Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph.D., Shirley L. Radl (ISHK Book Service, 1999)