Find greater connection and better relationships
Most of us learned basic social skills in elementary school — how to listen attentively, how to share, the importance of using words to express our feelings. But those days were long ago for most of us. And the physical distancing and screen time of the pandemic may mean our social skills have gotten a little rusty.
Social skills matter, because improving our ability to have conversations, interpret non-verbal communication, give and receive compliments and handle periods of silence is a key way to combat loneliness. Loneliness — that feeling that no one really knows us or understands what we’re going through — is such an urgent public health concern that the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory in May 2023 to call attention to it. Loneliness doesn’t just feel bad, it’s bad for our physical and mental health, associated with increased risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.
Brushing up on our social skills has been shown to help reduce loneliness. Good social skills also improve our relationships, both personal and professional. And because these skills are abilities anyone can cultivate, we can get better at them with time, regardless of our starting point. Here’s how:
Talk to strangers
Having conversations with people we don’t know can be a daunting prospect. What do you say? What if you have nothing in common? What if it’s weird?
Most of us are reluctant to talk to strangers — we worry we won’t enjoy the conversation or we won’t like the person we’re talking to; maybe they won’t like us; or we just don’t feel confident about our conversation skills — but research finds these fears are misplaced.
Even though we think initiating a chat with a stranger will be uncomfortable, studies show it makes both parties happier. Talking with the passenger next to us on the bus or the person beside us in line boosts mood and makes the commute or wait time more pleasant. It fosters a sense of community, and it can be delightfully informative.
Every friendship begins as a conversation with a stranger. So, say hello to the neighbor you always see on the street, offer a compliment to the grocery checkout clerk or chat up the person behind you in line. This kind of social outreach is a small act of kindness, which boosts well-being and social connection, and even people witnessing such acts of kindness get a lift. Friendly outreach helps alleviate the stress of loneliness for both the person reaching out and the recipient. Overcoming a few seconds of self-consciousness can bring big rewards.
Deepen connections and keep friendships strong
One of the safest and most rewarding places to practice social skills is with people we already know and friends we already have. Friendships take effort — people who think they don’t are actually lonelier, studies show — so allow time and energy, and a teensy bit of courage, to deepen connections with friends and acquaintances.
Reaching out to a friend — even one you haven’t spoken to in a long time — boosts both people’s well-being, research finds. We tend to underestimate how much other people appreciate this contact and how good it makes us feel. A phenomenon known as “the liking gap” can also prevent us from extending ourselves to others, whether with a just-to-say-hi text or an invitation to get together. Other people like us more than we think, research shows — a fact we often overlook because our own self-critical thoughts tend to take center stage. However, no complicated action is required to stir friendly connection. A simple text to say “I’m thinking about you” is enough to stoke good feelings in the recipient and a low-stakes way to practice the social skill of reaching out.
- Reflect and connect: To build closer bonds with a family member, friend or acquaintance you’d like to know better, try asking the research-backed “36 Questions for Increasing Closeness.” These three sets of questions get progressively more personal. Experts recommend spending 15 minutes on each set, beginning with things like, “What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?” and working your way up to “If you were to die tonight, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?”
- Open up: Another way to get closer to friends is to be vulnerable with them. This takes courage, so let your gut be your guide: if you feel a sense of safety and trust with your friend, try sharing what’s really on your mind, even if it feels embarrassing. Practice asking for what you need and giving your loved ones a chance to show up for you.
- Join a group: If you’re seeking new friends, consider joining a group or class where you’ll see the same folks regularly, so the “mere exposure effect” can work in your favor. Studies show that people tend to prefer people and things that are familiar to them and being a regular member of a neighborhood walking group, book club or other community organization is a great way to cultivate familiarity. Joining a moai social group that meets regularly for potlucks, walks and other gatherings is a fun way to build connections with like-minded neighbors. Remember to summon a few seconds of courage to take the next step with people who seem friendly and interesting: ask for their phone number or make a plan to get together.
So, send that text, make that call or extend that invitation — people like you, they want to hear from you, and keeping in touch is how friendships grow and thrive.
Practice active listening
Active listening is a skill that strengthens social bonds by improving mutual understanding and allowing people to feel deeply heard. Active listening takes more than just your ears. It involves being fully present in a conversation, which makes both the listener and speaker feel more valued and connected. It works with colleagues, friends, family members and strangers.
Try these tips to be a more engaged listener:
- Give the other person your full attention. Make eye contact. Don’t just put down your phone, put it away. Studies show that simply having a phone present interferes with a sense of personal connection, reduces feelings of closeness and diminishes the quality of the conversation. Focus on what the other person is saying, resisting the urge to start formulating your response before they’ve finished talking. Let them complete their thought. Take a breath before speaking.
- Notice non-verbal cues. Pay attention to posture, body language, eye contact, facial expressions and hand gestures — both yours and theirs. Keep your arms uncrossed, lean in, nod and smile to show interest in what the other person in saying. A person’s vocal tone, volume and speaking pace offer important clues about their comfort, mood and state of mind.
- Ask open-ended questions. Instead of yes-or-no questions — or worse, changing the subject or putting the focus on yourself — try open-ended inquiries to encourage deeper conversation. “Tell me more” is a simple way to invite the person you’re speaking with to share further.
- Reflect what you’ve heard. Paraphrasing or repeating back what the other person just said ensures you’re interpreting their thoughts and emotions accurately and helps them feel validated and understood.
Cultivate emotional intelligence
To further cultivate your social skills, consider what psychologists call “emotional intelligence" — a set of personal and interpersonal skills that help us better understand ourselves and relate to others.
To boost your emotional intelligence quotient, or EQ:
- Learn the language of feelings: Human beings experience an expansive range of emotions, and it’s not always easy to find the right words to describe what we’re feeling. It can be helpful to look at a “feelings wheel” to become more fluent in the language of emotions.
- Develop self-awareness: Learning the language of feelings is one thing, identifying those feelings in ourselves is another. Recognizing what emotions we’re experiencing and how they affect us makes it easier to determine the best course of action. Do we need to cool off for a minute? Do we need to vent? Do we need a hug?
- Practice self-regulation: As we better understand our emotions and their impact, we can develop the ability to manage them, rather than being overtaken by them. When we’re familiar with what anger, sadness, excitement and other emotions feel like and how they affect us, we can act accordingly to experience the emotion without letting it compromise a social interaction. When we know what we need, we can seek it.
- Cultivate empathy: As the feelings wheel makes clear, humans have a LOT of emotions. We all have moments where we lose our temper, experience joy, feel shame or fall in love. Remembering that all human beings experience a vast spectrum of feelings helps us build empathy — the ability to recognize and appreciate other people’s emotional reactions through their words, facial expressions, body language and other cues. Empathy is the superpower of social skills. When we’re more aware of others’ emotions — and our own — we can more readily respond with kindness and understanding.