How to Improve Your Social Skills: 8 Tips from the Last 2500 Years

by Henrik Edberg

How to improve your social skills

Image by nogoodphotography.

One source for pretty reliable advice is what has been repeated. Not what’s been repeated throughout your life but throughout history. Time-tested advice, advice that has survived and been rediscovered over the centuries often has a good deal of practical value.

I think this applies to tips on improving your social skills. Society may have changed but people are people. So what worked a couple of hundred or thousand years ago can still be useful today. Here are eight tips on social skills that have been told over and over. Maybe you’ll find them helpful.

1. Listen

“Nature gave us one tongue and two ears so we could hear twice as much as we speak.”
Epictetus

“The less you speak, the more you will hear.”
Alexander Solshenitsen

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
Ernest Hemingway

This is probably one of the most underappreciated social skills. People are often centred on themselves. Nothing surprising really, but it doesn’t mean that they are selfish jerks either. But because of this a lot of people are just used to talking about themselves or waiting for the other person to finish so they can start talking again. I know I have done this many times and still do from time to time.

How do you get past it?

One useful way that I have found is to just forget about yourself. Focus your attention outward instead of inward in a conversation. Place the mental focus on the person you are talking and listening to instead of yourself. Placing the focus outside of yourself makes you less self-centred and your need to hog the spotlight decreases.

If you start to actually listen to what people are saying it also becomes easier to find potential paths in the conversation. By asking open-ended questions – the ones that will give you more than a yes or no answer – you can explore these paths and have better and more fun conversations.

And this ties into the next tip…

2. Actually be interested in the other person.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming really interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. Which is just another way of saying that the way to make a friend is to be one.”
Dale Carnegie

“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”
Henry David Thoreau

If you become more interested in people then you’ll naturally become a better listener since you are actually interested in what’s on their minds.

And it beomes easier find out what someone is really passionate about and to dispel negative assumptions that can mess up the communication.

If you listen to what someone has to say then you may find that s/he for instance isn’t as boring or different from you as you may have guessed when you were first introduced.

And as Carnegie says, it’s a lot easier to create and improve relationships if you focus on the other person than on yourself. Why is that?

Well, for one, as I wrote just a few paragraphs ago, people often don’t listen that much. So you’ll be a pleasant exception among the others that are waiting for their turn to talk again.

But the big reason is simply that you make them feel good because of your attention, validation of them and their interest and the connection that is made.

3. Don’t listen too much to criticism.

“If evil be said of thee, and if it be true, correct thyself; if it be a lie, laugh at it.”
Epictetus

“When we judge or criticize another person, it says nothing about that person; it merely says something about our own need to be critical.”
Unknown

Well, Epictetus got this one down. Listen to criticism. If you feel that there is some relevance to it explore how you can change yourself. But also recognize that lot of the time criticism is mostly about the other person.

Maybe s/he has had a bad day. Maybe a pet or child is sick. Maybe s/he is jealous of you or angry at someone else. Since people often are centred on themselves it’s easy to make a mistake here. Someone may criticise you but is actually focused on something in their own life. And you are probably also focused on yourself. And therefore you draw the conclusion that the criticism must have something to do with you.

But the world doesn’t revolve around you. Which is bad if you want more attention and validation from others.

On the other hand, it can be liberating since people don’t seem to care that much about what you do. The big problem of not daring to do something because you’re afraid of what people may say becomes a smaller obstacle.

4. Don’t babble on and on.

“The less people speak of their greatness, the more we think of it.”
Sir Francis Bacon

“The more you say, the less people remember.”
François Fénelon

This one’s connected to listening. If you talk and talk there will be little time, energy or focus for listening. But if you start to focus outward then your mind will become more focused and you’ll spend less time babbling for too long about something. If you want more reasons to stop babbling and start simplifying check out 5 Reason to Simplify What You Say, and How to Do It.

5. Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

“The people with whom you work reflect your own attitude. If you are suspicious, unfriendly and condescending, you will find these unlovely traits echoed all about you. But if you are on your best behaviour, you will bring out the best in the persons with whom you are going to spend most of your working hours.”
Beatrice Vincent

“It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind.”
Morrissey

The Law of Reciprocity is strong in humans. As you treat someone else s/he will feel like treating you. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But over time these things have a way of evening out.

One of the most important things in relationships and conversations is your attitude. It determines a lot about your interactions and how you treat other people.

The attitude you have, the lens you hold up and view the world through determines what you see. And the thoughts you keep in your mind control how you feel. Your thoughts and feelings direct how you say something and what your hands, eyes, posture etc. says through body language.

So even if you say nice words you may create an different feeling in the person you are talking to because your thoughts, feelings, voice tonality and body language aren’t aligned with your words. And words are only 7 percent of communication. So the attitude behind your words is absolutely crucial.

6. Keep a positive attitude.

“I am convinced that attitude is the key to success or failure in almost any of life’s endeavors. Your attitude – your perspective, your outlook, how you feel about yourself, how you feel about other people – determines you priorities, your actions, your values. Your attitude determines how you interact with other people and how you interact with yourself.”
Carolyn Warner

“Two men look out the same prison bars; one sees mud and the other stars.”
Frederick Langbridge

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust and hostility to evaporate.”
Albert Schweitzer

If your attitude is so important then what can you do about it? One good tip, that has worked for very long, is simply to keep a positive attitude. And by that I don’t mean that you should just react in a positive way to events in your life that may be seen by society as positive. For instance, getting a raise in salary, an A on an exam or winning a competition.

But before I continue with that train of thought I’d just like to say something about negativity. I wouldn’t say that it is all bad. I wouldn’t say that people want to get away from negative people all of the time. Sometimes you can find camaraderie in complaining about your boss, job, salary and the government. But overall and long-term I think that going positive is the more useful and fulfilling approach.

Now, what I mean with adopting a positive attitude is choosing to stay positive regardless of your external circumstances. You may not be able to do this all the time, but being positive is habit just like eating well or doing your daily exercise. It can be hard to get started and slow going at first. But when your mind gets used to this new behaviour it becomes almost automatic. Your mind just starts to interpret reality in a different way than it did before.

Instead of seeing problems everywhere it starts to zoom in on opportunities and what’s good about just about any situation. Instead of sighing and feeling like you’re working in an uphill rut you’ll find reasons to be grateful and happy.

Yeah, I know, it might sound like wishful thinking. But it really works. The problem is just that it is difficult to see this – and to realise that you can actually change – from a current worldview and attitude that may be a bit more negative.

If you’d like to read more about this, have a look at Take the Positivity Challenge for some more reasons to change your attitude – they include making better first impressions and becoming more attractive – and how to do it.

7. Use silence.

“A good word is an easy obligation; but not to speak ill requires only our silence; which costs us nothing.”
John Tillotson

“Be silent, or say something better than silence.”
Pythagoras

“It’s good to shut up sometimes.”
Marcel Marceau

There are several good reasons to learn to be more silent. It will help you to develop your listening skills. And instead of saying something you wish you didn’t you can learn to keep your piehole closed. This can help you avoid unnecessary arguments and reduce the hurt you do unto others by, for example, criticising.

Sitting in silence day in and day out while your inner pressure builds up is of course not good. Then you may need speak up, take charge and change whatever it is in your environment that causes the problem. But often a great deal of negative things can be avoided just by calmly staying silent.

8. Communicate with more than your words.

“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Carl W. Buechner

“I speak two languages, English and Body.”
Mae West

“We often refuse to accept an idea merely because the tone of voice in which it has been expressed is unsympathetic to us.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

The words you use are just a small part of communication. How you use your tone of voice and your body language is over 90 percent of what you are communicating.

To become a better communicator these two areas are ridiculously important. You can for instance improve how you say something by loading your words with more emotions. If you use tip # 6 – Keep a positive attitude – this often improves kinda automatically. You’ll naturally convey more enthusiasm and positive emotions through your voice.

Your attitude, as mentioned before, also has big impact on your body language. If you feel relaxed, open and positive this comes through in how you use your body.

You may want check out these additional 17 body language tips though. Just to be on the safe side. And to not repeat and reinforce some old and ingrained body language habits.

Manually correcting your body language can be useful. When you for instance are listening, you can lean in and keep eye contact to reinforce that you are actually listening. If you keep your body language interested you’ll also be able to keep your focus and interest longer since emotions can work backwards. As your body is “interested” your mind becomes interested and focused on what is said.

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{ 46 comments }

Jason November 16, 2007 at 12:20 am

This is one of my favorites of all the posts I’ve read from you since I subscribed (which has been quite a while, now). Thank you.

My favorite quote, by the way, is:
“Two men look out the same prison bars; one sees mud and the other stars.”
Frederick Langbridge

Life is all about whether you look at your victories or your losses, your potential or where you “could have been”.

wendy April 15, 2010 at 10:11 am

Life is all about whether you look at your victories or your losses, your potential or where you “could have been”.

Love that line.
Know it’s an old post, but love that line.

Dave Willison November 16, 2007 at 12:27 am

Closed mouth, open mind.

Has so many benefits one of the more important is that when you are listening (or just silent) you have the opportunity to analyse what the other party is communicating or feeling.

Imagine a dog with its head cocked to one side, trying to understand. If only humans did this more often.

If we were able to instantly sense what another person is really FEELING then we would have no use for words.

Love this post :)

Henrik Edberg November 16, 2007 at 11:36 am

Thank you very much, Jason. That’s one of my favourite quotes in the article too. And you’re right, what you focus on makes all the difference.

Thats’s true, Dave. Listening and silence can really open up our understanding. Thanks for the comment and for your encouraging words.

Don Schenck November 16, 2007 at 5:34 pm

RE: #4, Martin Luther’s advice to preachers was:

Get up.
Speak up.
Shut up.

Henrik Edberg November 16, 2007 at 5:38 pm

Great quote, Don. Thanks for sharing.

Chris November 17, 2007 at 4:57 am

Good article, made me think of a general point I’ve been thinking about. I naturally mull over this topic a lot since I have a whole site devoted to it…

Almost every quickie article on social skills repeats the same few points: be a good listener, have good body language, be interested in other people, get the other person talking, etc.

I have this weird beef with these points because, while they’re good, solid, core fundamentals, you see the same handful of ideas come up over and over, and hardly ever any original ideas. The topic of social skills is way more complicated and extensive than this.

Also, sometimes the power of these points is overemphasized because they’re ‘classics’. Good social skills is a combination of a million little things. e.g.) Just becoming good listener won’t magically make everyone like you, and sometimes people want to be entertained by a chatty outgoing person.

Henrik Edberg November 17, 2007 at 9:30 am

Thanks for the comment, Chris. I totally agree, these are solid fundamentals but there is more to social skills.

I must say that I’m glad that you have devoted your whole site to social skills since there is more to say about them and very few personal development sites or books seems to explore them in depth. Compared to productivity there is very little information about improving your people skills.

I hope that I may be able to explore them more deeply too in the future.

Chris November 17, 2007 at 3:25 pm

Yeah, I hope you do explore this topic more. A while ago I posted some links from sites that I thought had good advice on making conversation.

In my opinion it was you and Scott H Young who had written some of the best new stuff on the topic. Most of the other articles I came across were the same ideas from How to Win Friends and Influence People just quickly rephrased and recycled. You two came across as having given the topic actual thought.

Mark November 17, 2007 at 6:04 pm

You wrote:
“And words are only 7 percent of communication.”
“How you use your tone of voice and your body language is over 90 percent of what you are communicating.”

As a librarian/student looking at the failures of orthodox linguistics to provide a communicationally-relevant view of language for my (or any) field, I was wondering if you can provide any citations for these figures.

Clearly, words are not by a long shot the entirety of our oral communications. I particularly like the Nietzsche quote, as I have, and still do, often faced this issue of others not listening to the message because they do not like the way it is couched.

Nonetheless, I am having a hard time accepting a bare 7% figure. This cannot be a constant, but must vary along many features of the specific communicational context. My guess would be that this figure is at the low end also. Once we retreat to written language this would change in dramatic and myriad ways, e.g., all issues of body language are removed from the equation, although tone and phrasing remain.

Anyway, this is intriguing in the context of my current work and could prove useful if you could provide any citations.

Thanks in advance, and for an interesting post.

Henrik Edberg November 17, 2007 at 7:24 pm

You are right, Mark. These figures vary with context and with what the conversation is about. I got the figures from Albert Mehrabian who studied communication. You read about it on this wikipedia page.

And as the pags says, the results of Mehrabian’s studies was for communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). So the figures should probably be taken with a grain of salt (but I think they are good indicators of the importance of non-verbal communication in face to face communication).

But they can vary a lot depending on, as you say, which form of communication you are using (face to face, phone, written text etc).

Henrik Edberg November 17, 2007 at 7:41 pm

Chris: Yeah, Scott Young has written some interesting stuff on the topic. You may also be interested in this recent, somewhat controversial post by Tim Ferriss. It certainly feels kinda new and original to me.

Andrew November 18, 2007 at 12:07 am

Great Post, one thing I would add is to “offer value” to others. An easy way to do this is to keep up to date on interesting news stories and bring those up in conversations. Here is an example story:
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071113/ap_on_fe_st/india_man_weds_dog
Another way to “offer value” is to share with other things you have been learning in your personal life. This will keep conversations fresh and also attract others to you. Of course if you build an exciting lifestyle all of this will take care of yourself.

My Blog – http://personalhack.com would appreciate any comments thanks.

Mark November 18, 2007 at 11:58 pm

Thank you for the link. The numbers make more sense in context, but I agree that much more goes into communication than simply the words or text.

Thanks again!

Leo Piccioli November 19, 2007 at 1:19 pm

Excellent post, thanks.

GUNNY HARTMAN November 19, 2007 at 6:54 pm

Some good insight here, especially about the silence and not babbling, so I’ll leave it at that!

Fawzy Tawfik December 6, 2007 at 1:05 pm

Very powerful report
Thanks so much

Jeff Milincheck December 11, 2007 at 6:49 pm

This is great! Another good book on this topic is “how to have power and confidence in dealing with people” by Les Gibblin. If this made sense to you at all this is a must read!

Amit December 22, 2007 at 1:25 pm

Most of the tips you have written are for an outgoing person who likes to talk. I am an introvert and don’t speak much. I already practice most of the tips you have given. What I need is something to help me interact with people by talking. I’m already tired of listening and nodding at what they have to offer. I hope you understand. How can an introvert socialize better?

john bush January 17, 2008 at 11:44 am

i want to know how an introvert can sociallize better

Joseph January 23, 2008 at 1:42 pm

What are the people who listen too much and cant find anything to say supposed to do?

Joseph January 23, 2008 at 1:47 pm

I’ve been following these rules my entire life and I’m still a horrible conversationalist; now what?

Nicko August 30, 2008 at 11:51 am

I’m introverted by nature – sometimes conversation comes naturally, sometimes it doesn’t, depending on the company.

What works for me is for 2 minutes every morning, create a cheat sheet of topics for conversation. Try to bring them in to conversation. Consolidate topics that generate interest into a super cheat sheet – and review it now and then.

Often I only need to bring in one or two topics, and I get a natural flow from there.

If you’re a deep thinker, try to keep the cheat sheet mundane (eg. a quirky thing you’ve seen on tv, or some kind of weird experience, or something you’re really looking forward too) – otherwise, your unitial conversation may be too intense, and turn people off.

The deeper, more intellectual conversation will come as the conversation develops, but you first need to be engaging.

Its a matter of practice.

May sound artificial, but works for me.

rob September 23, 2008 at 9:14 am

COmmunication improves with practice not with sum BS rules that are numbered out. Just talk the way ur comfortable with talking, stop thinking so much and just do it the way u do it. Soon enough ur communication skills will improve. Its just like any other thing, practice makes perfect.

justin October 28, 2008 at 3:06 am

its was good

justin October 28, 2008 at 3:07 am

it was fully sic mate

thomas November 23, 2008 at 11:47 am

How am I supposed to implement Tip #2 (Actually be interested in the other person)? If I’m not interested in them, I’m not interested in them, period. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not, nor pretend to be interested in people I find boring.

I’m sick and tired of hearing tip #6 (Keep a positive attitude). That may work if your an average person and your life is average with little ups and downs, but not if you’re under extraordinary circumstances (like a major health problem, or being very smart to the point that you can see the world doing nothing about problems that you can’t fix alone but drive you crazy).

For example, without going into the details of the research and analysis I’ve done, it’s conclusive that women, actively demanding equality and respect for the last 40+ years and getting it to certain degrees here and there, refuse to accept responsibility for how they treat men who agree with them. I.e., they demand, and rightly so, that culture change so that they be treated equally -despite- their sex, yet they expect us men to behave according to traditional culture and pursue them, while they sit on their asses and retain all control in initiating relationships.

I’m a good, very smart, attractive, educated man, and not one woman has ever struck up a conversation with me in my entire life. Yet they want me to be FUN! They want men who are emotionally available. Well, how do you think it feels, women, to be almost ignored my whole life while you get showered with attention and dating opportunities? Guess what: it ISN’T FUN!!!!

My research is thorough, and my analysis is complete. Women have destroyed fun, ruined romance, and shattered my hope. (And I’m not the only man who wants to be pursued by women.) Women have destroyed my life, but I’m supposed to keep a “positive attitude”? Screw you!

I’m sick of being expected to lower myself to comply with this kind of pathetically average advice just to make it in this society. And I’m sick of actually being insulted by average-intelligence people, just because I’m not enthusiastic and dumb. I say the smart people start bashing the average people, and start rigging things so THEY don’t make it in society unless THEY comply with extraordinary advice.

Keep a positive attitude? Screw that. How about ‘Keep a realistic attitude’?

Anonymous October 10, 2009 at 10:11 pm

how about… suck it up? you sound bitter, and mistrustful fo women- perhaps that’s the reason why they don’t bother talking to you?

Anonymous March 16, 2010 at 5:40 am

It just sounds like you never took the initiative to actually TALK to these women in the first place, and expected them to be magically attracted to your evidently wholesome and magnetic personality. Did you know that women don’t appreciate men who think they are better than them?

Hey, I am all about honesty and frankness myself, but I actually took the time to learn how to engage myself in others’ businesses. Believe it or not, it is an actual skill that your oh-so high IQ cannot grasp.

Lisa January 1, 2009 at 8:18 am

Thomas, people are usually able to find something interesting in the most mundane of things, the most ordinary of people, if they give them a shot. That ability is highly related to intelligence actually. Once you develop a raw curiosity for the world, it and the people in it will surprise you in ways that you can’t imagine. Regardless of their IQ. Try it. About your feelings on women, all I can say is get some counseling. You sound like you need it.

Vincent February 1, 2009 at 4:20 pm

I’m more or less with Thomas regarding keeping it real.

If it were as simple as being a good listener and all of the usual tips, how do you explain why there are so many self-centered, unpleasant jerks and bitches who have tons of friends, and are often the most popular people?

And if it really came down to all of these basic niceties, why aren’t more people following them?

The answer is that they don’t work, unless you’re selling used cars to lonely old ladies. The real tips are much more dark and sinister, and have to do with status, manipulation, control, head games, etc. Go to any high school, workplace, or cocktail party and see for yourself.

Mimi April 26, 2009 at 9:07 am

Hey, Thomas,

With your attitude no wonder women don’t pursue you.

Heck, they surely also would run 1000 miles away from you if you initiated the pursuit.

Funny how something so obvious to us women is way above the head of someone as smart as you seem to think you are.

Pamela June 23, 2009 at 8:39 pm

Hey I am looking for a book for my son (18) who struggles with social skills but is very intelligent, disciplined, has had a job since he was 16, bought his own car, involved in ROTC, intends to go into the military, has a girlfriend, is a 2nd Degree Black Belt and is about to enter his Senior Year in High School but has very few friends. Socially he is one of those guys that if he is in a social environment and someone or a group is willing to listen he will ramble stories that don’t always make sense or jokes that he has heard and the punch line is ineffective.
I had suggested a Communications Course for the Summer and he wasn’t all that excited about the idea because of work. So I told him I could find a book or two for him to read and he could write an essay on each and he liked that idea.
He is aware that he struggles and he is very much open to help and that is what brought me to this site. I was just looking hoping to find a book that he could read. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?
Thank you,
Pamela

Henrik Edberg June 23, 2009 at 9:05 pm

Hi there,

I don’t know about that many books about social skills. You could try Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. It’s an old book but it’s still a good one. :)

Training Connection June 23, 2009 at 9:45 pm

“The less people speak of their greatness, the more we think of it.”
Sir Francis Bacon

Great Quote! I loved this article. 1-8 can never be touted enough! I will definitely pass this on for others to review. Read Dale’s book but this article slam dunks it!

Gene August 23, 2009 at 11:37 am

Great post! :)

Anthony September 12, 2009 at 2:31 pm

If you check out some Wayne Dyer stuff he’s got some really good books. A lot of getting good with social skills is not being in your head. Be in the moment.

sam October 10, 2009 at 10:12 pm

thomas- perhaps women do not bother to speak with you because your bitterness is apparent at ten paces?

Julian December 28, 2009 at 9:52 am

Hi. Thank you so much. I needed to read something like this now more than ever. I’m going to try the “positivity challenge” starting now. I surround myself with negative energy and my poor social skills are hampering the progress of the talents I do have. I love people but I do things that counteract with how I feel. I no longer care about my ego as it has ruined so much of the past. I actually want to start experiencing other people and they’re feelings. Again, thank you so much for bringing this ray of light to us and I hope your Holidays were joyous.

Rodney James January 18, 2010 at 3:07 am

I noticed that this whole blog post is focused on listening and I have to agree that this is the most powerful social skill you can have. You are right that too many people are too focused on their own interests and thoughts that they have no desire to truly listen to others. If we take time to listen to others, we are taking the time to get to know them which is great for building a strong friendship. Great post, I really enjoyed it

Priscillah Amburo March 23, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Avery neccessary piece of reading for all.You made my evening

Ed - computer repair los angeles April 5, 2010 at 8:35 am

nice post. I suck at human communication. it wouldnt be so bad, I wouldnt really care that much, if it wasn’t for me wanting to succeed in business. I have lots of technical knowledge in several fields and I am working to make it on my own, however my results suffer merely because I do not know how to relate/connect or even talk to people.
I wouldn’t say I am shy. however I don’t like sharing things about me to others. I avoid talking to people. and situations usually get awkward when I do stand in front of someone and talk to them. it usually leads to no where. Ive read books and other stuff similar to what you writing, but it feels like there is something more missing on a more fundamental level. whether its my self esteem or fear of critisism, or fear of success, which is disguised in some shape or form that I can not really put my finger on it.
I also sense I am somehow getting closer to it everyday, but still not quite there yet.
in a usual conversation I often find myself not knowing what to say. It seems like I am afraid of getting into conversations to deep where emotions are involved. I am quick to avoid them by changing the subject.
I guess I rationalize (rational lies) it like this: if it starts getting emotional, I don’t want that person going through it, so I quickly change subject.
as I write this now. it gets clearer. I can not handle emotion in the conversation. even my closest friends are not so close after all. its like they want to help me, but I keep running away from it.
I dont know what to do. I need help with this. any suggestions? thanks
Ed

Naeem June 17, 2010 at 11:33 am

Nice one….

Melody Kapanda July 16, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Joshua you are wonderful. I enjoy your articles. Keep it up!

rach August 17, 2010 at 8:21 pm

This is really wonder full,
thanks

PCWiz August 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Good post thanks.

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