Are your own social skills holding you back from making friends?
Are you authentic in how you show up to first impressions?
Not sure how to have impactful conversations and go below the surface?
From understanding non-verbal cues to keeping the conversation going, having a strong set of social skills is key to communicating, relating to, and connecting with people effectively.
Even if you consider yourself adept at social skills, there is always room for improvement! Social skills need to be practiced and used regularly or they get rusty. Understand how your brain decides if you like someone or not and ways to be in control of other’s perspectives of you.
3 Hindrances to Making Friends
Shyness / Fear
Shyness is a feeling of discomfort around people, especially in new situations or when meeting new people. Shyness varies in strength from person to person and is a neurological response to fear.
Scary thoughts about making new friends:
- What if I ask them to hang out and they think I’m flirting with them or a stalker?
- What if I put effort into doing something with them and I don’t end up liking them?
- What if I can’t think of anything to say?
- What if they don’t like me and then I have to do all the work all over again with someone else?
- What if they ghost me?
- What if they are not who they say they are?
- What if they are just taking pity on me?
There have been several studies on the subject of shyness:
- A 2016 British study found a correlation between social roles and level of shyness, for example males who were employed showed the lowest level of shyness while females who were unemployed showed a higher level of shyness.1
- This study analyzes the effects of biology and experiences on childhood shyness and determines shyness is largely experienced based though some children may be more susceptible to shyness than others.2
- Another study found shyness can influence loneliness and after a semester of university students who were shy reported higher levels of loneliness than students who were unshy.3
- Shyness has been linked to internet addiction in youth: this study found a significant correlation to “loneliness avoidance” with internet usage in shy adolescents.4
Shy people favor easier connection techniques such as connecting online. Because shyness tends to stem from our past experiences and upbringing (no one is born shy), we have the power to control our reactions to social situations.
The Spotlight Effect
The Spotlight Effect – Social Psychology: People are not paying as much attention to you as they are paying attention to themselves, even though when we do silly things we may feel like everyone is noticing us. Building up social skills can help ease some of the fear felt with social interactions and help with shyness. Having an idea of quality questions to ask, how to keep a conversation going, or understanding people are not paying as much attention to you as you may think can all help with shyness.
Busyness is consistently listed as a top reason when people are asked what holds them back from making new friends. People often choose not to prioritize friendships over family, jobs, and dating.
What if I put all my effort into a new friend and then it doesn’t work out and I have to start all over with another person? I already do that with dating and it’s exhausting!
Unknown factors can make jumping into a friendship challenging if we do not know our investment of time will turn out results.
What the busyness factor really boils down to: we need making friends to be easy so they can fit into our busy lives.
Building up confidence and social skills can make awkward first meetings easier, and turn making friends into something we enjoy and choose to prioritize.
Keeping an open mind when making friends can be really challenging, especially when our brain is analyzing everything the other person is doing and making snap judgments.
Check out the section on Compassionate Communication to learn your way around judgment.
Do Your Assumptions Affect How You Treat People? | Reverse Assumptions
SoulPancake asks two strangers to have a conversation back to back and then make assumptions about the other person after the conversation. If you couldn’t see someone when you first met them, would you change how you treated them?
The brain decides if we like someone in the first few seconds of meeting them.
When we meet someone for the first time, a very primitive part of our brain is triggered. Within seconds (actually 100 milliseconds according to this study), our brain is summing up whether the other person is a threat or not.5 The brain makes conclusions about trustworthiness, competency, friendliness, honesty, and morality in any new acquaintance. These conclusions are largely based on our own past experiences and are often out of the person’s control.
While judgments are a neurological response to meeting someone new and are a sign our brain is trying to protect us from threats, these judgments can cause us to put up walls which quickly block off connections.
This Is Your Brain On Friendship | Invisibilia | NPR
This Is Your Brain on Friendship: A short animation explains how one friendship study used an FMRI machine to study the neuro response we have to other people, and if who we befriend can be predicted based on our responses. The study found:
- There was often a difference between who people said they liked (in a survey) and who people’s brains showed they liked in the scan.
- The neuro responses were a better predictor of future friends than the survey responses.
Studies show there are some qualities we can’t easily control dictating first impressions, such as attractiveness, facial structure,and vocal inflection.5 6 7 8 Even blinking too much can make an impression that we are nervous or uncomfortable and affect how others act around us.
When trying to meet new friends, it is important to understand how the brain works against us sometimes and to recognize the judgments we might be holding in order to open ourselves up to new connections and experiences. Read more about friendship hindrances and enablers on the Looking Inward page.
Take Control of First Impressions
There are some factors we can control which can help make a good first impression. Authenticity, engagement, and vulnerability can override the brain’s snap judgments and help make a good first impression.
Trying To Make Friends
Comedy actor Chad Lebaron takes on a socially awkward character and tries to make new friends at a college campus.
Article: How To Make a Good First Impression
The psychology and science of first impressions, further explained.
- It takes 7 seconds to make a first impression
- Those who believe they are viewed positively by others tend to have higher self esteem.
- A common mistake at a first meeting is revealing too much about yourself (coming on too strong)
One of the most common lessons taught in childhood — BE YOURSELF.
Be Yourself – Audioslave
Be Yourself – Frank Ocean
Just Be Yourself – Cameo
Authenticity is embodying your own personality, values, and spirit. Instead of putting on a happy mask to seem “normal,” authenticity embraces the true, genuine self. When we focus too much on impressing others and trying to gamify making friends, we lose sight of our true selves.
In short, be you, be real.
And expect authenticity from others.
Who am I?
“So…What do you do?” “What got you into this?” “Where are you from?”
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever been to a social event or met a stranger and started a conversation, you’ve probably been asked one of these questions. You likely have a rehearsed (surface level) answer about your job history, which might lead to follow-ups, touching on deeper subjects. When we ask someone “What do you do?”, we are trying to get to know them, and are likely wanting the answer to “who are you?” or “what is your story?” The answers to these being vastly different to the question we actually asked. In general, it seems easier (and more socially acceptable) to ask “what do you do?” or “where are you from?” since these are questions we are used to being asked.
If you haven’t already, spend some time getting to know yourself on the Looking Inward page.
Then, use the “Who Am I?” Worksheet to start writing your story.
“I guess I’m a freelance writer from California…” turns into “I’m passionate about helping people connect and find intimacy in friendships, so right now I write self-help articles for a website and I hope one day to publish a book on the subject” and you become much more compelling and open the door for conversation.
Also, check out the Discovery section to learn more about discovering oneself.
Born This Way – Lady Gaga
This is Me – The Greatest Showman Cast
I Am Who I Am – Lara Fabian
Brave – Sara Bareilles
Come As You Are – Nirvana
Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves
Medium writer, Weylie Li, offers a few tips on how to remain authentic. Set your principles, be vulnerable, and follow your heart.
The “liking gap” explains why you should feel upbeat after meeting new people.
Studies show people underestimate how much their conversation partner “liked” them due to a failure to read the signs the partner was giving off.
Listen, seek similarity, and celebrate.9
People want to spend time with people who are interesting and more importantly, interested. Spend more time asking about them than you do talking about yourself.
Having empathy, listening, and finding common connections or interests will make a great first impression and keep the conversation going.
Vulnerability builds deep connections. When we meet someone new, if we share too much too soon, it could be overwhelming for the other person if they are not ready to be that deep and reciprocate the vulnerability.
As Shasta Nelson points out in her book Frientimacy, sharing too much too soon can be coming on too strong.10 Coming on too strong will create an imbalance in the friendship triangle. Relationships need to start with a positive base and then build vulnerability as consistency rises.
Ease into sharing more and more by going through the five levels of conversation.
The five levels of conversation can act as a guide to know how much to share. Generally, when asked a level 1 question, people expect a level 1 response. To give a level 4 response may be overwhelming to the other person. Inversely, if asked a level 4 question deeper into the relationship, the other person would expect a level 4 response. Reciprocating the level of depth the other is putting out will allow a deeper connection.
Level 1: Surface Level Clichés
Level 1 is the shallow level of conversation you can have with anyone. The “small talk.” Nothing personal is shared and pleasantries are exchanged.
Level 1 Questions
- “How are you?”
- “What do you have planned for today?”
- “Beautiful weather today, isn’t it?”
Level 1 Responses
- “I am well, thanks, and you?”
- “I am running some errands”
- “The weather is so nice today!”
Level 2: Factual
Level 2 shares information — what the camera sees. Information you wouldn’t necessarily share with the grocery store clerk but in a longer conversation would be the first few things to share. Facts are necessary for communication but do not necessarily build deep connections.
Level 2 Questions
- “What do you do for a living?”
- “Where are you from?”
- “Do you have kids?”
Level 2 Responses
- “I work at the bank.”
- “I grew up in France.”
- “Yes, I have 3 children.”
Level 3: Sharing Ideas and Opinions
Ideas and opinions share a bit more about us, how we experience the world, and what we are thinking. There starts to be slightly more risk with level 3 because the person you are talking to may or may not agree with your opinions. Level 3 gets deeper into who are you? Going beyond occupation and hometown.
Level 3 Questions
- “Would you like to grab drinks sometime?”
- “What do you think about the city?”
- “ Why don’t we hang out at the beach today?”
Level 3 Responses
- “I would rather go out for coffee than to a bar”
- “I enjoy living here — the city has too many people for me”
- “I don’t really like the beach, can we go for a hike instead?”
Level 4: Sharing Feelings and Needs
Sharing feelings and needs can be vulnerable and out of the comfort zone.
Level 4 Questions
- “You seem upset, what’s coming up?”
- “What are you needing right now?”
Level 4 Responses
- “I am feeling lonely.”
- “I need play and to have some fun”
- “I love you”
Level 5: Vulnerability and Truthfulness
Vulnerability and truthfulness are essentially sharing feelings and needs, but on a deeper level than Level 4. Level 5 builds intimacy. When we share things about ourselves few people know, it can be scary, and it can build deep connections as well.
Level 5 Statements
- “I am feeling sad and need reassurance that I am doing well”
- “I am struggling to keep my head above water and could really use some support”
- “What you are going through must be really hard. I can’t imagine. Know that I am there for you if you need anything.”
For some people, small talk comes easily. For others, small talk could be the seventh circle of hell. Regardless of where conversing may sit for you, everyone can stand to brush up on communication skills.
Be a PAL
Complaining cuts off connection, especially when we are getting to know someone new. If we complain about something the other person supports, we are instantly putting up a wall, limiting the depth of the connection.
When meeting new people, try to keep things positive. Following the levels of conversation outlined above, we would share facts before sharing opinions. Instead of saying “The weather sucks today” try “It’s been raining for hours!”
Approachability starts before you even say hello.
As our brains are assessing if someone is a threat or not, someone who doesn’t seem approachable is likely to send warning messages to our brain.
An approachable person is someone who is easy to go up to, meet, and talk to.
Body language plays a huge role in seeming approachable.
Smile. Make eye contact. Turn towards the other person.
For an in-depth look at listening, click here to go to the Listening section of A Meaning of Life.
Research shows people love talking about themselves. When we talk about ourselves, our brain lights up and releases dopamine.
According to Scientific American, “implicated areas of the brain are generally associated with reward, and have been linked to the pleasurable feelings and motivational states associated with stimuli such as sex, cocaine, and good food. Activation of this system when discussing the self suggests that self-disclosure, like other more traditionally recognized stimuli, may be inherently pleasurable—and that people may be motivated to talk about themselves more than other topics.” 12
It may seem counterintuitive, but the way to build comfortability with someone, and make conversations a pleasurable experience, is to get them talking about themselves and LISTEN.
Never Run Out of Things to Say
The Ford Method
The FORD method helps keep a conversation flowing by providing “safe” subjects to bring up in any conversation.
- “Where are you from? Is your family still there?”
- “Are you close with your family?”
- “Tell me about your family and growing up.”
- “I’d love to know more about your background.”
- “What do you do?”
- “What do you think about your job?”
- “What did you want to do when you were a kid?”
- “What do you do for fun?”
- “What are some of your hobbies?”
- “Have you ever tried … (hobby you like)”
- “You would love … “
- “What are your plans for the future?”
- “If money were no object, what would you be doing right now?”
- “What is your dream?”
In any conversation, there are multiple ‘threads’ you can pull on to steer the conversation in any direction.13
Here is an example:
Without Conversation threading
Person A: “Do you have any fun plans for the weekend?”
Person B: “Yes, I am going fishing with some friends!”
A: “Oh, cool.”
Person A: “Do you have any fun plans for the weekend?”
Person B: “Yes, I am going fishing with some friends!”
Three ways the conversation can go using conversation threading…
A: “That sounds like fun, where is your favorite spot to fish?”
B: “I like to go to the reservoir because the fish are really big there”
A: “I like to take my kayak out on the reservoir sometimes. Have you ever tried the diner near there?”
A: “Wow, I’ve always wanted to try fishing. Where should I start?”
B: “There is a great fishing shop near here that has all the gear you need, and they even have lessons.”
A: I should have guessed, you seem like someone who enjoys relaxing in nature.”
B: “Of course! It is the only way to clear my mind! How do you like to relax?”
Even if you have no interest in fishing, conversation threading gets person B talking about themselves and can produce more commonalities. Avoiding yes/no questions or one-word answers and adding commentary like “I like to take my kayak out on the reservoir” makes the thread smoother, and less like a one-sided string of questions. There is an art to getting the other person to talk about themselves without it turning into an interrogation.
That Reminds me of…
Similar to conversation threading, using “that reminds me of…” keeps the conversation going and can steer it in any direction. It builds relationships because you are making connections between what the other person is talking about and your own life.
Accomplishments and Aspirations — able to get anyone talking. As stated above, people love talking about themselves, especially their successes. When we get people talking about their accomplishments we get them to open up more and can also make connections to ourselves. Aspiration is similar to speaking about dreams using the FORD method.
- “What are some of your greatest successes?”
- “What is your most interesting accomplishment?”
- “What have you accomplished? And, what do you wish to accomplish?”
- “What are your aspirations for the future?”
- “Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?”
Deep Questions for Connection
45 Conversation Starters to Bolster Your Bond with Your Friends and Family – A solid (free) list of questions for any situation.
“Get curious about your loved ones, their thoughts and dreams, their perspectives on the world and life. Ask these questions tonight at dinner or tomorrow at lunch. Ask them during a date with your partner.”14
— Also check out the Listening page for more questions
Names are Important
Remember first names. Say their name a few times while chatting and when you part say “nice meeting you _____(name)!” When you walk away, try to remember the name for the next time you meet. This will make them feel more comfortable.
Make other people remember your name. Say your name a few times throughout the conversation. If you have a funny joke or story to remember your name, use it! The joke will break the tension and will help them keep you in mind.
Mastering Social skills is like learning to swim. You can read about swimming or watch videos of other people swimming, but you’ll never master it unless you jump into the pool and practice. So get out there and try it!
Use everyday interactions to your benefit
TRY THIS — Talk to 5 strangers this week. In real life. Grocery store bagger, neighbor, Uber driver, coworker, whoever you find!
Use the FORD method, conversation threading, or the extra tools to go beyond small talk and learn something new about who you are talking about. Don’t focus on if this person will be your friend or not, focus on being a positive, approachable listener and the rest will follow.
- Be you, be real, and expect authenticity from others.
- Listen, seek similarities, celebrate.
- Ease into vulnerability with the five levels of conversation.
- PAL — Be a Positive and approachable listener.
- FORD — Start conversation by talking about family, occupation, recreation, and dreams.
- Acknowledge anything that may be holding you back from making new friends and commit to taking action towards deeper connections.
- Practice on everyone you meet so good social skills become a habit.
Resources for Improving Social Skills
|Websites||Improve Your Social Skills||A comprehensive, practical guide to social skills.||The site contains a treasure trove of free social skills training, as well as premium books and courses to help you gain mastery.|
|Books||How to Make Friends as an Introvert||Practical advice at different stages so you can choose your confidence level, start with very manageable activities and gradually work up to other ideas as you gain in social experience, familiarity and conversational skills.||Change your beliefs about introversion.
Learn what makes introverts good at socializing.
Pick an area to work on.
Put the advice to use in the real world.
|We Should Get Together||Combining expert research and personal stories pulled from conversations with hundreds of adults, We Should Get Together is the modern handbook for making and maintaining stronger friendships.||For social skills, at the end of the book (p.263), there are hundreds of conversation starters that are useful in any situation.|
|Articles||This Is How To Make Friends As An Adult: 5 Secrets Backed By Research||Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree shares wisdom and tips for making friends as an adult.||Touch base with old friends and leverage your super connectors.
Don’t be interesting, be interested.
Check in every two weeks, minimum.
Start a group.
|Adults Guide to Social Skills||It’s a shame so few of us are taught the basics of how to interact constructively with each other. If you never were, we’re here to help.||Social skills are often skipped in education, though it is one of the most important life skills.
The foundation of social skills is emotional intelligence.
|Small Talk Practice||In our everyday lives, we routinely spend time around strangers but don’t always strike up conversations with them. The exercise invites you to make a connection rather than remaining in solitude.||Although people are probably more willing to talk than you expect, it’s important to be sensitive if you sense that your conversation partner doesn’t want to engage.|
|Videos||The Bee Friend Course||The BeeFriend Course teaches you how to become more likable and befriend people||Friendship = Proximity + duration
+ frequency + intensity
|Simple Social Skills||Useful in explaining 3 key social skills to help develop the art of conversation and build new relationships.||The deserving factor — We need to work for (deserve) what we want.
The Inverse Rule — Use the inverse of your goal to find how to reach your goal.
The FORD method (Family, Occupation, Recreation, Dreams)
- Van Zalk, N., Lamb, M. E., & Jason Rentfrow, P. (2017). Does shyness vary according to attained social roles? trends across age groups in a large British sample. Journal of Personality, 85(6), 830–840. https://doi.org/10.1111/jopy.12291
- Schmidt, L. A., Polak, C. P., & Spooner, A. L. (2005). Biological and Environmental Contributions to Childhood Shyness: A Diathesis-Stress Model. In W. R. Crozier & L. E. Alden (Eds.), The essential handbook of social anxiety for clinicians (pp. 33–55). John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
- Cheek, J. M., & Busch, C. M. (1981). The Influence of Shyness on Loneliness in a New Situation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7(4), 572–577. https://doi.org/10.1177/014616728174008
- Chin-Siang Ang, Nee-Nee Chan & Cheng-Syin Lee (2018) Shyness, Loneliness Avoidance, and Internet Addiction: What are the Relationships?, The Journal of Psychology, 152:1, 25-35, https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2017.1399854
- Willis, J., & Todorov, A. (2006). First Impressions: Making Up Your Mind After a 100-Ms Exposure to a Face. Psychological Science, 17(7), 592–598. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01750.x
- Olivola, C. Y., Funk, F., & Todorov, A. (2014). Social attributions from faces bias human choices. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(11), 566-570. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2014.09.007
- Mcaleer, P., Todorov, A., & Belin, P. (2014). How Do You Say ‘Hello’? Personality Impressions from Brief Novel Voices. PLoS ONE, 9(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090779
- Jones, B. (2019, February 26). How Do Faces Shape First Impressions? Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/face-facts/201902/how-do-faces-shape-first-impressions
- Barker, E. (2018, August 05). This Is How To Make Friends As An Adult: 5 Secrets Backed By Research. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2017/02/how-to-make-friends-as-an-adult/
- Nelson, S. (2016). Frientimacy: How to deepen friendships for lifelong health and happiness. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.
- Boothby, E. J., Cooney, G., Sandstrom, G. M., & Clark, M. S. (2018). The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think? Psychological Science, 29(11), 1742–1756. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797618783714
- Ward, A. (2013, July 16). The Neuroscience of Everybody’s Favorite Topic. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-neuroscience-of-everybody-favorite-topic-themselves/
- Handel, S. (2020, August 01). Conversation Threading: How to Never Run Out of New Things to Say. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://www.theemotionmachine.com/conversation-threading-how-to-never-run-out-of-new-things-to-say/
- Margarita Tartakovsky, M. S. (2015, March 22). 45 conversation starters to bolster your bond with your friends and family. Psych Central. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/45-conversation-starters-to-bolster-your-bond-with-your-friends-and-family/.