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

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.”

“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 becomes 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.”

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

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.”
Francois Fanelon

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

“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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About the Author

Henrik Edberg is the creator of the Positivity Blog and has written weekly articles here since 2006. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Gothenburg and has been featured on Lifehacker, HuffPost and Paulo Coelho’s blog. Click here to learn more…

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mimi

    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

    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,

    • 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. :)

  • Gene

    Great post! :)

  • 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

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

  • Julian

    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.

  • Priscillah Amburo

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

  • 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

  • Naeem

    Nice one….

  • Melody Kapanda

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

  • rach

    This is really wonder full,