One of the factors that I think people tend to ignore when it comes to the idea of social skills is the world “skill”. If you want to get better at dating, you have to treat social skills like any other skill – and that means that you only improve with practice. The problem is that the idea of practicing the skills associated with dating can be intimidating. When we talk about practicing social skills, it’s only natural to imagine getting dressed up, having to go out to bars and clubs and make dozens of cold approaches every night. The mental image of pushing past your initial approach anxiety and courting rejection over and over again is enough to make anyone want to “Nope” so hard they leave a human-shaped cloud in their wake on the way to FuckThatShitville.
But while practice is important, improving your social skills doesn’t mean that you have to go hit the clubs. In fact, there are a number of small, simple ways that you can practice and improve your social skills every days without having to spin game or set foot in a loud, smokey bar.
5) Work On Your Eye Contact… With Yourself
One of the first things you want to do is start getting very familiar with your mirror.
One of the most powerful and versatile tools you have in your social skills toolkit are your eyes. Your eyes are one of the most potent forms of non-verbal communication you have – and frequently they’re also one of the most underutilized. Eye contact, when used properly, can be inviting or intimidating. Your eyes tell somebody whether you’re interested or if you wish they’d go away, if you’re lying, afraid or aroused. If you know what you’re doing, strong eye contact can even create an incredibly intense intimate connection between two people. But before you can use your gaze to it’s fullest potential, you have to master it first.
A lot of people have issues with making eye contact. Some people hold it for too long and end up being creepy by accident. Others have a hard time meeting people’s eyes at all and may seem nervous, arrogant or disinterested. Neither of these is terribly helpful when you want to meet new people…. but at the same time, it’s a difficult skill to practice without coming across as the weirdo at the Starbucks.
That’s where the mirror comes in.
You’re going to practice meeting your own gaze in the mirror. It’s very simple: you’re going to face the mirror head on and look yourself straight in the eyes for as long as you can. This is going to be harder than you might expect; you’re going to feel uncomfortable and weird. First you’ll feel absurd for doing it at all, then you’re going to get oddly intimidated at looking at yourself for that long and you’ll want to look away. Resist it. You’ll want to do little things to make it more comfortable, like letting your eyes go out of focus; resist this too. Part of the point of this exercise is the discomfort. You want to be familiar enough with it to recognize it in others, without necessarily feeling it as keenly yourself.
Hold your gaze for as long and as steadily as you can, then look away – either looking up or to the side. Give yourself a minute, then try again. The more comfortable you get with meeting your own gaze, the more comfortable you’ll get meeting other people’s eyes when you meet them while you’re out and about. That discomfort you feel is the same discomfort that other people feel when someone’s giving them the hairy eyeball.
Once you’re comfortable making eye contact with yourself, it’s time to practice strategic eye contact. Hold your own gaze, and when you start to feel the first stirrings of discomfort, look away (again, to the up or the side) and then reengage. Meet your eyes and give a slow smile. Look in your eyes, then give an eyebrow flash. Hold your eye contact for a beat too long and then break contact.
All of these little exercises can feel strange – after all, you’re practicing things that seemingly come natural to others – but there’s a point to it: you’re learning to become more aware of your face and how you use it. The more aware you are of your expressions and your face and the more comfortable you get with eye contact, the more you’ll be able to give off the vibe that you want – that you’re someone cool, approachable and good to get to know.
But while we’re speaking of awareness:
Record Yourself Talking To Yourself
Doing some mirror-work is only the first step in working on your social skills. Now we’re going to take it to the next level… with video. You’re going to have a conversation with an imaginary person. Sit down in front of your laptop, prop up your smartphone or tablet or just set your camera to record, then talk with someone as though you were having a conversation with somebody.
It can go as well or as badly as you want, as friendly, flirty or confrontational as you care to make it… all that matters is that you make it as natural and realistic as you can. Carry it on for at least five minutes before calling it quits.
Now, play back the video.
Yeah, it’s not going to be terribly comfortable. For the first time, you’ll be aware of what other people see when you’re talking to them and that’s going to be weird. You’ll see the times when you’re talking absurdly fast and all the nervous laughs. There will be any number of facial tics, habits and unconscious gestures that will make you feel even more self-conscious than you may have been before you hit record. That’s a good thing.
You see, until you’re aware of those tics, you can’t change them.
To give a personal example, I have a habit of what I call “chasing my thoughts around the room”. When I’m talking to somebody, you can actually see my thought process by the way my eyes bounce all over the place, especially if I’m talking about things I’m passionate about. This has the tendency to make me look either distracted or nervous. Even now, I still have to be careful to keep my gaze steady when I get worked up about a subject. But until it was pointed out to me, I had no idea that I was doing it – and until they did, that meant I couldn’t control it.
Recording myself was a critical part of learning to notice these habits, so I could be more conscious of them. Once I became more aware of when I did them, I was able to start practicing getting them under control.
So, as uncomfortable as it may be, record yourself talking and review the video. Take note of little idiosyncrasies – speaking too fast, twitchy movements, inconsistent eye contact, use of vocal fillers like “umm”, intimidated body language, speaking in a monotone – and try to remember how you felt at those points of the “conversation”. Then press record and begin again, trying to be more aware of yourself. As you improve, enlist a friend to help you out. Have them sit across from you and your camera and just talk with you as you record. See how much things change between talking with an imaginary stranger and someone you know.
You’ll have a little harder time keeping it natural at first – you’ll be dividing your attention between what you’re saying and self-awareness. That’s fine; it takes time to iron out these habits and commit the new ones to muscle memory. The more you do this, the easier it will become, until that awareness and control becomes second nature to you.
Write Out Your Stories
Part of being an interesting, charismatic person is having interesting things to talk about. For some people, this comes naturally; they have an instinctive grasp on social interaction and understand how to keep an audience entertained. Other people have to work at it… the secret is that they know how to make it feel natural. So if you feel like you never know what to say, then it’s time to plan it out in advance.
Yup. I’m suggesting you plan out your questions and your stories before you ever actually head out to a party or a networking event.
Weird? A little. But not as much as you think. See, while there’re are many people who are fast on their feet and incredibly inventive when it comes to asking good questions or dropping humorous bon mots… like something you drop a lot1 most people who are telling their stories have told them before. Many times. As many a comedian can tell you, one of the keys to being funny is to hone your jokes over time until they’re just right.
So you want to do your own prep work. Start with your stories. Pick three or four of your best stories and write them down. Not sure which ones are your best? Test them out; how do people respond? Do they laugh? Do they say “awww?” or “that’s so cool?” No? Then it’s not a great story.
You want to hone these stories to their essence. Too long and too elaborate and it becomes a shaggy dog chasing it’s tail – running around in circles and never getting anywhere. Your stories should be like an angry drunk Tyrion Lanister: short and punchy.
Once you’ve written them down, you want to practice telling them. If you want, you can fold this in with recording yourself; hearing yourself read the story back allows you to practice your cadence and your timing. Through time and repetition, you’ll get to the point that you’ll be able to tell these stories on autopilot. This is when you workshop them in front of an audience. Tell the story one way to one group, then another to a different one. Which group responds more positively? Incorporate this into your story.
The same applies to questions. Just as you have three or four stories that you know work in your back pocket to pull out as needed, prepping some questions before going out helps ensure you don’t have to worry about what to say. Interviewers don’t just ask whatever comes to mind; they know what they want to ask and where they want to lead the conversation long before they ever sit down with their subject. You can follow the same guidelines Just follow the guidelines for making small talk: avoid questions that have binary answers and ask questions that prompt openings for follow-ups.
Practice Making Small Talk
The Internet is screwing with your social skills. Stick with me here, this isn’t going where you think it is.
I’ll be the first to admit: I’m an Internet addict. I spend far more time than I’m proud of with my attention focused on some Internet-enabled device, whether it’s my laptop, my phone, my watch or my book.
(Can we just stop and appreciate the absurdity of that sentence? The future is weird, ya’ll.)
I’m not alone in this. A lot of us spend more and more time communicating through text than we do in person – whether it’s via conversations on Facebook, texting, emails, instant messages, SnapChats or any of any number of communication apps.
The problem is that this means that we start letting our in-person social skills get rusty. We’ve got dozens of ways of getting in contact with people, but in doing so, we start losing our ability to connect with strangers in the flesh. You see this all the time; people who’re chatty and verbose on Facebook are frequently the ones you can’t drag conversation out of with a crowbar and pliers. The key to getting more comfortable with connecting in person is simple: you’re going to practice making small talk.
Every day, we come in contact with dozens of people, whether it’s your co-workers, your barber, the barista who serves you your coffee, the waiter bringing you lunch or the person bagging your groceries.
(Well, unless you literally never leave the house and, I dunno, get your food delivered by drones or something.)
Each of these people represents a chance to practice your social skills by having a brief conversation. Simply ask something innocuous; how’s their day going, man that local sports team huh? Have a brief exchange or two, then say “thanks” and go about your day. Your goal here isn’t to make a new BFF; you are just working on getting into the practice of talking with strangers. Not only does this make it easier to initiate conversations when it counts, it helps get you out of that bubble of social isolation that so many of us live in.
Plus, it never hurts to develop a reputation the friendly regular at your usual haunts.
Pretend To Be Confident
People tend to assume that confidence is a binary: it’s something that either you have or you don’t. What they don’t realize is that not only is confidence something that you develop over time, it’s something you can practice. Sound weird? It’s less unusual than you think. If you behave as if you were confident, you become more confident. This is the core to “fake it ’till you make it”.
See, humans are bad at acting. The more we act in a particular manner, the more that behavior becomes natural to us. Our brains takes their cues from our bodies; we base how we feel on our behavior and come up with the rationale for it afterwards. Part of why actors and actresses playing couples fall in love so often is that they’ve spent months pretending to be in love with each other. All of that lovey-dovey behavior ends up sending the signals that say “well, I’ve been acting like I’m into her; must mean that I’m in love.” It’s so deeply ingrained into our brains that knowing that we’re faking it doesn’t make a difference. At the end of the day, we become who we pretend to be.
And you can become more confident by pretending to be confident.
It’s very simple. Just go about your day as you normally would… but doing so in a way that projects confidence. Keep your back straight and head level. Hold your shoulders back but relaxed with your chest out and your arms loose at your sides. When you walk, walk slowly but with purpose, as though you were hunting the Holy Grail. Move with careful, deliberate movements. Give the people you meet a smile and strong eye contact. Every once in a while, stop and adopt a “power” pose – stand up straight, tilt your chin up and put your fists on your hips for a moment or two.
Now, observe how you’re feeling over the course of your day. As weird as it may seem, these little changes make a difference. It’ll be small at first – you’ll realize you’re not as nervous or worked up as you might otherwise be. You’re playing a role – giving yourself permission to be someone else for a little while. But as the day goes on, you’ll realize that you’re feeling more at ease. Practicing your social skills will feel more natural – starting those conversations won’t feel quite as weird, because you’re acting a though you do it all the time. You’ll feel more comfortable talking to others and making eye contact with them.
These are all little things, but little things build up quickly. These little tricks can provide the boost to developing your social skills and giving you the confidence to taking the next step towards greater social success.
- See, should’ve planned this one in advance [↩]