Are you someone who effortlessly navigates even the most testing of social situations without even breaking a sweat?
If this sounds like you (or someone you envy), try to put your finger on exactly what contributes to your successful social-butterfly status.
It’s probably not one single thing, but many things, some of which you may not even be able to describe.
Our social interactions are dynamic, multi-layered, and fast paced, and we often have to juggle nonverbal and verbal forms of communication simultaneously. Such a challenging and complex task requires an equally complex set of social skills, which some children find easier to learn and apply than others.
In this article, we’ll delve into what exactly social skills are, some specific social skills to develop, and some insight into why they’re so essential.
This Article Contains:
- What Are Social Skills & Competencies?
- Social Skills to Develop: 23 Examples
- Why Are Social Skills Important? 7 Benefits
- Socio-Emotional Intelligence Explained
- The Role of Communication in Social Skills
- Is There a Social Skills Disorder?
- PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Are Social Skills & Competencies?
There have been many definitions of social skills put forward over the years, but in general, most agree that social skills are socially appropriate learned behaviors that facilitate positive communication and interactions with other people (Little, Swangler, & Akin-Little, 2017).
Sounds simple enough, right? Clearly, it’s not always that easy, even for the highly socially skilled among us. We all make the odd social faux pas from time to time, whether it’s speaking over someone, not listening properly, or making an inappropriate joke.
Social skills can’t be easily defined as a single thing you have or don’t, but rather, consist of a constellation of abilities and behaviors (Little et al., 2017).
It’s what we say, how we say it, and how we express ourselves through gestures, facial expressions, and body language. And while we’re doing all that, we’re monitoring what the other person is saying and doing, and weighing up the appropriate responses in specific contexts.
For parents and teachers, children’s social skills are often a matter of great importance. So, how exactly can we tell if a child is socially skilled?
Gresham (1986) suggested three ways we can define social skills:
- Behavioral: the particular behaviors that increase the likelihood of positive social interactions and reduce the likelihood of negative ones
- Peer acceptance: popularity or acceptance from friends or peers
- Social validity: social behaviors that lead to relevant and significant social outcomes
Social competency refers to the judgments of others about how good people are at putting their social skills into practice. Essentially, social skills are all the behind-the-scenes abilities and behaviors that lay the foundation for socially competent conduct (Little et al., 2017).
To make this distinction a little clearer, consider baking a cake. You may be able to execute all the steps involved in a delicious-looking cake recipe, such as mixing, weighing, and timing (social skills). But, when determining how competent a baker you are, the proof will be in the pudding. Other people only taste the outcome of your efforts (social competency), but the skills required to get there may be less apparent.
Social Skills to Develop: 23 Examples
If you’re supporting someone to develop their social skills, it’s useful to have some concrete behaviors to aim for.
In general, measures of children’s social skills typically capture skills in communication, such as responding and relating to others, and how well an individual understands and manages the expectations placed on them in social contexts and acts in line with social norms (Little et al., 2017).
The Social Skills Improvement System – Rating Scales (Gresham & Elliott, 2008) is a widely used social skills assessment tool for children up to 18 years old. It measures the ability to perform seven key social behaviors:
- Communication, e.g., using eye contact and pleasantries like “please” in conversation
- Cooperation, e.g., sticking to rules and going about activities without disturbing others
- Assertion, e.g., letting someone know when you need help
- Responsibility, e.g., good behavior in the absence of supervision
- Empathy, e.g., resonating with the feelings of others and trying to make others feel better
- Engagement, e.g., making friends and actively including others in activities
- Self-control, e.g., regulating emotions in difficult or upsetting social situations
Our social skills develop as we grow, which is why children are often the focus of social skills interventions and research. But these social skills are just as useful throughout our adult life as we develop and manage more complex relationships and social situations.
For teens, certain social skills may become increasingly important in their relationships, such as:
- Intimacy: developing emotional closeness with others
- Social confidence: asserting yourself in social situations
- Conflict management: the ability to resolve arguments and disagreements effectively (Hair, Jager, & Garrett, 2002).
Of course, finessing some of these more complicated social skills can be tough, and depending on the individual, it may be useful to focus on developing and fine-tuning foundational social skills first.
Below, we’ve listed a few examples of basic social skills versus more “complex performance skills” suggested by Spence (2003, p. 90) that may be helpful to consider.
|Basic social skills||Complex performance skills|
|Tone of voice and speed of talking||Beginning a conversation|
|Facial expressions||Inviting people to things|
|Active listening||Asking for help|
|Eye contact||Saying ‘no’|
|Gestures and body posture||Giving and responding to negative feedback|
|Clarity of verbal expression||Negotiation and conflict management|
|Romantic dating scenarios|
Why Are Social Skills Important? 7 Benefits
We’re inherently social creatures, hard-wired for connection with others. If we’re unable to communicate well, make friends, or get help when we need it, it makes sense that this would have a significant impact on our wellbeing and ability to succeed.
Here are seven important ways we benefit from social skills.
1. Close relationships
Perhaps the most important benefit of being socially competent over time is the development and sustainment of meaningful social relationships, which drives many other positive outcomes (Milligan, Sibalis, Morgan, & Phillips, 2017).
2. Physical health
Having solid social skills increases our chances of having more high-quality social relationships, which benefits our physical health in many ways, such as reducing our risk of heart disease and cancer, and even reducing our risk of mortality (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010).
Social relationships can support positive health behaviors and boost mental health, which is intimately tied to our physical health (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010).
3. Mental wellbeing
Socially withdrawn behavior and social skills problems have been linked to symptoms of depression in children (Perren, Forrester-Knauss, & Alsaker, 2012).
Getting social support from others is crucial for our mental health for a variety of reasons. Supportive relationships help us deal with stress, increase our sense of meaning and purpose, and boost personal control (Umberson & Karas Montez, 2010).
4. Decrease loneliness
Adolescents who are more likely to take social risks, such as introducing themselves to a stranger or initiating conversation with people at parties, report lower levels of loneliness (Moore & Schultz, 1983).
5. Reduce victimization
Kindergarten children with social skill deficits are more likely to experience peer victimization in early adolescence (Perren et al., 2012).
Conversely, children who are more cooperative and prosocial are more likely to step in and help others being bullied (Perren et al., 2012).
6. Academic performance
In addition to academic ability, higher levels of social-emotional competence and greater improvements in social-emotional competence over a school year predict better academic outcomes in reading and math among children in disadvantaged communities (Elias & Haynes, 2008).
7. Job performance
Social skills positively predict job performance in workplaces where people experience low levels of support from their organization. Social skills are believed to be especially useful for employees who need to seek cooperation and resources to perform well (Hochwarter, Witt, Treadway, & Ferris, 2006).
Socio-Emotional Intelligence Explained
Socio-emotional intelligence is a multi-faceted set of abilities that combine aspects of emotional and social intelligence.
Emotional-social intelligence (ESI) is “a cross-section of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and facilitators that determine how effectively we understand and express ourselves, understand others and relate with them, and cope with daily demands” (Bar-On, 2006, p. 14).
Bar-On (2006) highlights how an awareness of our inner world and an ability to communicate emotions and thoughts in a way that is not harmful to others is fundamental to socio-emotional intelligence. On the people skills side of things, ESI is about being aware of other people’s feelings and thoughts, and building and sustaining cooperative and meaningful relationships with others.
Exploring another definition from Devis-Rozental (2018, p. 1), socio-emotional intelligence is “the ability to integrate feeling, intuition and cognition to acknowledge, understand, manage, apply and express our emotions and social interactions at the right time, for the right purpose in the right context and with the right person.”
In essence, high socio-emotional intelligence helps us manage the dynamism of social interactions, simultaneously balancing our own needs with the needs of others. Our choice to listen, react, comfort, or de-escalate in our conversations will be better timed and more appropriate if we have a greater understanding of our own needs and emotions and those of others.
The Role of Communication in Social Skills
It is almost impossible to talk about social skills without talking about communication. Clear, well-timed, and socially appropriate verbal and nonverbal communication is a social skill (Little et al., 2017).
That being said, communication is only one slice of the social skills pie. For example, Constantino, Przybeck, Friesen, and Todd (2000) identify five components of social skills:
- Social awareness — Picking up on social cues, such as when it’s your turn to speak in a conversation
- Social cognition — The capacity to understand and make sense of social cues
- Social communication — Reciprocal expressions of communication, verbal and nonverbal
- Social motivation — Drivers or inhibitors for responding in socially appropriate ways, such as empathy or social anxiety
- Autistic mannerisms — Behaviors typical of autism spectrum disorder (e.g., repetitive behaviors and restricted interests)
As you can see, social awareness, social cognition, social motivation, and autistic mannerisms could all influence social communication. Communication is the stuff we see out in the open, but this could be influenced by many other interweaving processes happening below the surface.
For example, if you have low social awareness, this may hamper your ability to communicate at appropriate times or respond to other people’s expressions in socially acceptable ways.
If you have high levels of empathy, you may be particularly skilled in the art of communication because you’re acutely sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others and well equipped to respond to them in appropriate ways.
Is There a Social Skills Disorder?
Social skills difficulties can result from the following (Gresham, Elliott, & Kettler, 2010):
- Acquisition problems (i.e., a lack of understanding or knowledge of social skills and/or how to apply them)
- Difficulties in performance (i.e., an individual does not use their social skills adequately or at all, even if they know how
However, deciphering the origins of social skills problems can be a complex task, and social skills problems are not limited to one clinical disorder. In fact, many disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) mention problems with social behavior or social skills on some level. Here are some examples.
1. Social (pragmatic) communication disorder
This includes a range of issues with social interaction and understanding, and using language in the correct context (i.e., changing how you speak with different people or in different places).
These problems may be seen in both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication (Little et al., 2017).
2. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
Persistent problems in social communication in numerous contexts are a core aspect of ASD. A diagnosis of ASD is based on an evaluation of the following (Little et al., 2017):
- Social emotional reciprocity (i.e., the usual flow of a two-sided conversation)
- Nonverbal communication (e.g., eye contact and body language)
- Forming, sustaining, and understanding relationships
3. Social anxiety disorder
Unlike ASD and social communication disorder, social anxiety disorder is normally diagnosed in slightly older children. Here, the issue is not thought to be rooted in a lack of social skills, but impairments in social skills that are linked to fear and anxiety in social situations where the person may be judged by others.
This can negatively impact the performance of social skills in these situations and motivate the individual to avoid these situations (Little et al., 2017).
4. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity are three core symptoms of ADHD that negatively affect someone’s ability to function daily.
Although social skills are not explicitly mentioned as a symptom, behaviors associated with ADHD, such as being noisy in the classroom or speaking over people in conversation, may undermine children’s learning and performance of social skills that benefit their relationships (Little et al., 2017).
PositivePsychology.com’s Helpful Resources
The Positive Psychology Toolkit contains over 370 tools, exercises, and assessments for mental health practitioners who are interested in applying the latest tools.
If you’re working with people to develop their social skills, these selected resources and activities from our toolkit could be a useful focus for your sessions:
- Small Talk to Build Connection
This is a short exercise to get people feeling more comfortable initiating small talk with strangers to enhance feelings of social connection.
- Asking for Support
Asking for help is an important social skill to get your needs met and get support in challenging times. This short exercise can help people understand what’s stopping them from asking for help and asks them to experiment with help-seeking behaviors.
- Giving Negative Feedback Positively
The ability to give negative feedback in a way that feels constructive is a tricky task. Use this tool to help your client understand how to offer negative feedback in a way that is considerate of the receiver’s wellbeing and learning.
- Mindful Speaking
We all put our foot in our mouth and speak without thinking sometimes. In this reflective group exercise, members practice speaking mindfully with a conversation partner about a topic of their choice to build the skill of speaking with intention.
- Fast Friends
This group exercise helps people get to know someone on a more intimate level. Conversation partners are provided with several lists of thoughtful questions to learn about one another through the sharing of thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
- 17 Positive Communication Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others communicate better, this collection contains 17 validated positive communication tools for practitioners. Use them to help others improve their communication skills and form deeper and more positive relationships.
A Take-Home Message
It’s not always easy to make friends. At any time of life, we may struggle to connect with others or feel like we’re struggling to deal with the demands of certain social interactions. Fortunately, just like any other skill, our social skills get stronger the more we practice them.
Social skills are a complex combination of abilities and behaviors. While some people may struggle with the basics of social communication, others may wish to boost their ability to handle more complex social situations.
When supporting people to develop their social skills, it’s important to identify where exactly the issue lies. Are there barriers to the performance of social skills, or do they lack the knowledge and understanding to use social skills appropriately?
Ultimately, the goal of using social skills is to develop and maintain close relationships with others, which, as we’ve seen, can benefit us in a multitude of ways. As this timeless Turkish proverb elegantly states,
“No road is long with good company.”
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, our Positive Relationships Masterclass© is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Author.
- Bar-On, R. (2006). The Bar-On model of emotional-social intelligence (ESI). Psicothema, 18, 13–25.
- Constantino, J. N., Przybeck, T., Friesen, D., & Todd, R. D. (2000). Reciprocal social behavior in children with and without pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 21(1), 2–11.
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