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People: we’re surrounded by them, interact with them, and need them. But sometimes mingling can be a challenging experience! The good news is that the skills necessary can be learned.

The Basics

People have an inherent need to communicate and relate with one another, and if you don’t do this effectively, life can be challenging in all sorts of ways. Social skills help in school and at work, in developing friendships and romantic connections, in interviews, and in simple day-to-day interactions.

There are two types of social skills: verbal and nonverbal.

Verbal Skills 
What we say, when we say it, and how we say it are all things to consider. Do you speak clearly, at an appropriate volume, and at proper times during a conversation? If so, you’ll exude confidence. In contrast, mumbling, talking too softly or loudly, and cutting people’s sentences off may make you appear insecure or rude, or ironically, overly confident.

Nonverbal Skills
How you interact using body language and facial expressions is just as important.

Dr. Isa Engleberg, professor emeritus of communication and theater at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland, has found that 60-70  percent of all meaning in conversation is derived from nonverbal cues.

Here are some powerful yet silent means of communicating:

Listen and try to mimic the pace and tone of the other speaker, and respond to what your conversation partner is saying and doing. This helps people feel that you’re empathic and “on the same page.”

Use facial cues like maintaining eye contact and nodding your head to show you’re interested and paying attention. Having trouble looking people right in the eyes? No problem: focus on the space between their eyes. They’ll never know the difference.

Smile! Flashing your pearly whites conveys that you’re engaged in the conversation, and draws people in.

Additional Nonverbal Communication Pointers

Here are more ways to use non-verbal communication effectively:
  • Keep pace with the dialogue. Volley thoughts back and forth; try not to hog the conversation.
  • Be mindful of your stance. Keeping your arms uncrossed conveys openness and curiosity.
  • Relax your facial expressions. Many people “pull their face” unintentionally. Practice keeping a neutral (but pleasant) look on your face, even if you feel anxious.
  • Be mindful of where you stand in relation to others, as getting too close can make some people uncomfortable. Look around to figure out what other people in the situation are doing, and read your conversation partner’s cues. They are likely sending non-verbal messages, too.
  • Brush before meeting, and use breath mints if you get a dry mouth. Funky breath is an immediate turn-off.

Break the Ice

More than 45 percent of respondents to a recent Student Health 101 survey described themselves as “shy” or “anxious.” If that sounds like you, there are plenty of ways to introduce yourself in a compelling way.

Find a Common Interest
If you’re mingling with a group of people, listen to the current topic and find your way in. Are people into sports? “How ’bout that basketball game?” is a good starter.

If the group is pretty quiet, use a general topic. “Can you believe the weather?” isn’t particularly memorable. Instead, try a topic that genuinely interests you. That way, if someone takes the bait, you can actually have a conversation.

For example, if someone mentions he likes parasailing, you might follow up with an inquiry, like, “Oh, what’s that like?” If you noticed at say, a science symposium, that an attendee’s attention perked up when crustaceans were mentioned, ask her if she does research about them.

A compliment can be a terrific way to meet someone new. Who doesn’t like positive feedback? Keep it respectful by making a simple comment about the color a person is wearing or something he or she has said. Making observations about others lets them know that you’re paying attention and are interested in what they have to say.

Of course, once you’ve broken the ice, follow up with a greeting and your name, accompanied by a handshake, fist-bump, or simply a smile—whatever is appropriate for the situation.

Be a Little Zany
All that formality is great, but what about more off-the-wall ways to crack the cubes? Chaz C., a senior at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, jokes, “Use an ice pick and a hair dryer!” According to the recent Student Health 101 survey, many students use “snark.” Leanna D., a senior at the University of Tulsa, says that “making wry, observational commentary” is her favorite way to start the ball rolling. Used with charisma, sarcasm can be very effective.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

Committing a social faux pas can bring a blush to anyone’s face. Be it interrupting the conversation or not remembering someone’s name, here are some recovery strategies:

One of the best methods is to apologize and move on. It’s just plain polite, and distracts everyone from the awkward moment.

Be Quiet
Collect your thoughts, remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes, and allow people to focus elsewhere.

Laugh at Yourself
Have a sense of humor. You’ll be viewed as charming and confident, overriding the faux pas. Spill tomato sauce on your blouse? Respond with something comical, like, “In my family, it’s not a meal until someone’s wearing it!”
And here’s another tip: avoid checking electronic devices out of the corner of your eye. That makes people feel like you’d rather be someplace else.

The Higher-Ups

Speaking with peers is one thing. Talking to the Powers That Be, like your boss or a professor, can feel different. But the same rules apply: listen actively, watch for social cues, make eye contact, smile, and speak clearly. Use formal language, like “yes” instead of “yeah” and “hello” instead of “hey.” Try asking questions, too. This minimizes the number of things you have to say if you’re unsure.

Why is this so important? According to the Job Outlook 2011 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employment, social skills are crucial in securing a job. Employers rate verbal communication as the number-one skill they look for when hiring new employees.

More skills employers want

The National Association of Colleges and Employment’s Job Outlook 2011 survey indicates that employers see social skills and verbal communication as essential in new hires. Participate in mock-interviews and go on plenty of real ones for practice. Here are other traits they find attractive:
  • Teamwork skills: working and collaborating effectively with others
  • Interpersonal skills: relating well to others
  • Computer skills: surprisingly, a distant 9th in the ranking of most important attributes

Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career: 90 Things to Do Before You Join the Real World, agrees. “It’s so rare to find somebody who has that combination of technical and verbal communication skills. You will be head and shoulders above your colleagues if you can combine those two.”

If you have tried the suggestions mentioned but are still having trouble...

Many students find that despite trying various strategies, they’re still having a hard time connecting with other people. Dr. Rick Hanson, director of counseling at Rockhurst University in Missouri, explains, “Social skills groups can be a great place to pick up tips and practice talking with other people in a low-pressure environment.” Your counseling center or campus activities program may offer one. Some campuses have a chapter of Toastmasters International. To learn more, CLICK HERE.

If you feel overwhelmed by social situations to the point of avoiding them, speaking with a professional about your anxiety can help. Many people need an opportunity to sort through their feelings of fear and learn strategies for easing those feelings when interacting with peers and others.

Anxiety can turn up in different types of situations, such as friendly interactions, when speaking with “higher ups” or instructors, when presenting in public, or performing in front of others.

Anxiety is quite treatable, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, affects 40 million adults in the United States, aged 18 and older. That’s nearly 20 percent of the population.

For more information and support, consult a counselor, health care provider, or other trusted professional.

Wrap It Up

Don’t forget to close the discussion. If it feels appropriate, make plans for a get-together or follow-up conversation. In lieu of this, don’t forget to say a simple goodbye, like that you’ve enjoyed the conversation and wish the person well.

Being social is an essential part of the human experience. We all make an “oops” every now and then, but with a few tools in your pocket, making conversation can be quite simple. As Chaz C. says, “Really, just tell them [your] name and then ask theirs.” Now, isn’t that easy?

Take Action!

  • Learn the basics of verbal and nonverbal communication.
  • Listen for conversation ideas in what others are saying.
  • Be polite: smiling and making eye contact are essential.
  • Be yourself. Allow your personality to shine through.
  • Employ more formal language and gestures when speaking with professors and supervisors.
  • Use humor if you commit a social faux pas.
  • End conversations on a positive, future-oriented note.

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Get help or find out more
Toastmasters International

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, published by Simon and Schuester

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