You go to hug someone, but they’re trying to shake your hand, so you end up backslapping them from a foot away.
You think the person next to you overheard you whispering about how cute they are, so you confess and apologise, but it turns out they never overheard you in the first place.
Even if you’ve experienced both those situations, chances are good that you’re not nearly as socially inept as you believe you are. But simply thinking of yourself as an awkward person can sap your confidence in social situations.
To help give you the confidence boost you need, we checked out the Quora thread “What are the best ways to improve social skills?” and pinpointed some practical tips.
We can’t promise you’ll never have another awkward encounter, but hopefully this advice will help you to enjoy, instead of dread, social interactions.
Note that if social anxiety is interfering with your ability to function on a daily basis, you might consider seeing a therapist, who can give you more tools to overcome your nerves.
1. Be present
We're so accustomed to mental and physical multitasking that we might not even realise how off-putting it can be to conversation partners.
'When you're with someone, but you're distracted by other thoughts or emotions, people notice,' writes Eva Glasrud. 'Maybe your eyes glaze over, or your reactions are a little off or delayed. ... Or maybe you're being super obvious about it and using a mobile device while 'listening' to them.
'This makes people feel ... bad. Like they're not important. Or like you're not being authentic.'
The ability to focus on the here and now is a skill called mindfulness, which you can cultivate gradually through practices like focusing on your breath and the individual sensations you're feeling in a given moment.
2. Focus on the other person
'The best thing I ever learned to improve my social skills was to think of the other person/people instead of myself,' says Jennifer McGinnis. 'Instead of worrying how I was 'performing' or coming across, I would think about the other person and how they seemed to be feeling or getting along.'
Chances are good that your conversation partner is feeling just as uncomfortable as you are -- and recognising that could help you relax.
3. Act 'as if'
In other words, fake it till you make it.
'Act 'as if' you have great social skills. What does that look like? ... Pretend you are the host of whatever gathering you are in and make someone feel welcome. Smile, make brief eye contact, and say hi.'
4. Practice and reflect
Social awkwardness is something of a vicious cycle. The worse you feel, the less likely you are to talk to people, which only exacerbates your discomfort.
That's why Jeremy Mifsud recommends deliberately seeking out a range of social situations as a kind of experiment:
'The easiest ways to improve your social skills is to consciously put yourself into social situations. Afterward think about what went to your liking and what else was there that you wanted out of each situation.'
5. Take an improv class
Hari Alipuria suggests that others who frequently feel awkward in social situations follow his lead in doing improvisational theatre:
'Most social awkwardness is the result of overthinking. This overthinking is the result of fear. Improv forces you to be in the moment. ... Instead of thinking about myself, I actively listen, and build on what others have said.'
It goes back to McGinnis' idea that you should redirect your focus away from yourself, what might go wrong in the future, and the mistakes you've made in the past and concentrate instead on the current conversation.
6. Team up with someone more socially skilled
'I have found that a good way to increase my social exposure is to make a few, close friendships with people who are inherently much more gregarious than I am,' writes Ankit Sethi.
'I accompany them to social events, they help to introduce me to new people and thereby give me a social 'starting line of credit' with these folks, because by virtue of association with the gregarious friend I don't have to start from scratch with them -- I already have an implicit endorsement, of sorts.
'Another plus is that they can deal with the small talk much more easily, giving you the option to chime in whenever you have something substantial to say and stay quiet when you don't.'
Eventually, you'll feel OK talking to people on your own, without the support of your chatty pal.
7. Ask questions
Don't use every interaction as an opportunity to impose your values and beliefs on others. Consider how you can make the other person feel relaxed and give them space to express their thoughts and feelings.
'Instead of racing to insert your own point of view, ask questions,' says Karen Engdahl. 'Don't interrupt. Don't feel compelled to fill silence with chatter.'
8. Get better every day
If you really want to improve your social skills, make it a priority. Monica Khanna recommends designating a specific time every day when you'll work on them, for example by observing and analysing television personalities with stellar social skills.
9. Travel the world
Roca Yan recommends travelling for at least a few months, for three key reasons:
'First of all, you will break that cycle of thoughts and behaviours you're currently in. Sometimes the best way to handle situations like this would be to take a step back and regroup.
'You will meet different types of people. Growing up we only know life according to the environment around us. You only know a certain type of people, and a certain way people communicate with each other. When you start travelling, you meet all kinds of people, and you might just find your own.
'When you come back home, you will have so many great stories you will be the most interesting person around. When your friends will only be able to talk about the new PS game you'll have stories about beach parties in Brazil and volcano climbs in Guatemala.'
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