How to Improve Your Social Skills

What are social skills and how can they influence your interpersonal relationships? Moreover, how can you improve them? In the following article, we'll give you some guidelines.
How to Improve Your Social Skills
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by the psychologist Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 10 April, 2023

The concept of social skills is multifaceted. In fact, being socially skilled can refer to a multitude of behaviors that are appropriate in certain contexts (such as having a conversation with a friend), but inappropriate in others (like initiating a conversation at a funeral). However, how do you distinguish between them?

Being socially skilled implies adapting your behavior in highly changing situations. Sufferers of certain clinical disorders experience deficits in these skills. Such is the case in autism spectrum disorders, more specifically, autism or Asperger’s syndrome (Moya, 2023).

“Being socially savvy is the first step to building strong, lasting relationships.”

-Stephen Covey-

Social skills: a complex concept

As human beings, we all possess aptitudes for relating socially. Therefore, the aptitude or ability to be socially skilled is there. That said, depending on rather diverse factors, such as the individual’s personality, attachment style, or environment, they may be more or less adept from a social point of view.

So, what are these abilities? Cognitive psychology and learning theories claim they encompass a set of behaviors and cognitions that have been, are, and will be, learned throughout our personal histories. Consequently, there are certain pathways and mechanisms that account for both their acquisition and maintenance (Díaz et al., 2017). Let’s take a look at them:

Social skills

  • Interpersonal feedback is key. When communicating, you receive signals that tell you if your way of interacting is well or badly received by others. For instance, gestures, posture, and eye contact.
  • You might display or inhibit what you’ve learned based on what you observe. For example, a child may learn that, to communicate, they must shout (because their father does so), so when talking to their own peers, they shout.
  • Reinforcement in its positive or negative modality. This is the mechanism that explains why, throughout biographical history, certain social skills originate and are maintained to the detriment of others. It argues how such skills are executed and maintained, based on whether they’re reinforcing or aversive for the individual.

Another key aspect to highlight is the expectations that we have about what it means to be socially skilled. These expectations can be high and frustrating because they’re impossible to meet (for example, to communicate like Oprah Winfrey) or unrealistic (to initiate communication or tolerate pauses and silences).

Albert Bandura explained this in his concept of self-efficacy expectations. These allude to ‘how effective the person feels in the middle of a conversation’. For instance, “I feel comfortable talking about this topic”, “I feel I’ve been able to contribute a different point of view around this issue” or “Can I really face this social interaction?”.

“Being socially skilled is not just a matter of emotional intelligence, but also having the ability to read the body language and nonverbal cues of others.”

-Malcolm Gladwell-

Conversation between women on a terrace
Communication is essential to being socially skilled. This also implies knowing how to listen.

Keys to being socially skilled

Experts have described a  multitude of forms, conduct, and behaviors that gravitate around the concept of social skills. In fact, the psychology expert, Arnold Goldstein, classified them into six large groups that we’re going to detail below.

1. The beginning of the social universe

To be skilled from a communicative point of view, you have to know how to listen. However, listening involves different behaviors. One of them is being able to start a conversation, but also to maintain it and tolerate pauses.

To do this, it can be useful to make a small mental script with different basic and simple questions that are feasible to ask. They constitute the formulas of courtesy that you tend to use in a pre-established way. For example, “How are you?”, or “What a day!”. Introducing yourself is also important. For instance, “Hello! I’m Paul, nice to meet you”.

Another important aspect of social interaction is the act of gratitude. You can say thank you for many things. For example, a really interesting conversation or the fact that who you’re talking to is interested in what you’re saying. Indeed, being able to compliment other people is important. It’s also normal and valid to feel a little embarrassed when doing so.

2. Assertive communication

Here, we move from basic to advanced skills. Many people have difficulties with ‘help-seeking’ behaviors or in apologizing. Therefore, techniques that seek to train assertive type communication are useful.

One key aspect of skillful social behavior is being able to give instructions or assertively asking someone to do something in particular. For example, Claudia tells her friend, Alice who’s driving, “Please, when you get to the next intersection, look at the sign.”

3. Emotional expression

Participating in a conversation and trying to get the other person to change is something that many of us try. The art of persuading the person in front of you to do something implies knowing what emotions you’re experiencing at the moment of interaction, what you think, and what you want.

In fact, it means putting empathy into practice and putting yourself in their shoes. As a matter of fact, the ability to empathize is another basic ingredient for socially skilled behavior. That said, you need to know from which emotional cosmos you’re starting and how you express it.

Before understanding the feelings of other people, you must be skilled in understanding your own. You should give yourself a reward when you manage to label your emotions and the emotions of others. For example, “I feel irritable” or “Alice feels irritated”.

Group of people in social therapy
Therapeutic intervention is a resource that promotes social skills.

4. Anger issues

On certain occasions and as a result of anger or irritability, you might communicate aggressively. It’s important to use self-control when communication turns hostile.

In fact, everyone’s rights should be defended and respected without entering into destructive discussions. Avoid communication that gravitates around anger. Instead, share what makes you feel this way, how you’d like to feel, and what you can modify to avoid reacting in this way to a specific stimulus.

5. An antidote to stress

If you’re socially skilled, knowing how to say no to something that causes you discomfort, pain, or is simply something you don’t like, will be a maxim for you. Moreover, you know that, to succeed in any social interaction, you also have to know how to set barriers or boundaries to certain messages and behaviors that have the potential to harm you.

The fact of knowing how to respond to messages that are antagonistic or to the criticism of other people is really important. It’s easier to respond to these kinds of messages if you train yourself in breathing techniques. These methods contribute to the reduction of activation and help you better cope in aversive contexts.

6. Executive skills or the art of being better organized

Being socially skilled means being organized. In today’s society, behaviors such as taking the initiative in a conversation or seeing what could be the cause of a certain problem are important. Based on this, your social skills also have an impact on knowing how to set a goal and implement behaviors that allow you to achieve it.

As you can see, being socially skilled is an extraordinarily complex concept. There are effective interventions for increasing these skills. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and, more specifically, social skills training. In fact, being able to initiate, maintain, plan, and defend your own point of view are all essential elements for succeeding in your social universe.

“Being socially skilled does not mean being a manipulator, but rather having the ability to understand others and respond effectively to their needs and desires.”

-Zig Ziglar-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Goldstein, A. P. (1989). Habilidades sociales y autocontrol en la adolescencia: un programa de enseñanza. Martínez Roca.
  • Ishak, N. M., Abidin, M. H. Z., & Bakar, A. Y. A. (2014). Dimensions of social skills and their relationship with empathy among gifted and talented students in Malaysia. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 116, 750-753.
  • Mikami, A. Y., Jia, M., & Na, J. J. (2014). Social skills training. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 23(4), 775-788.
  • Díaz. M, Ruiz, M, Villalobos, A. (2017). Manual de técnicas y terapias cognitivo conductuales. Desclee De Brouwer.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.