The month of January is not a month best known for its social highs certainly in the Northern Hemisphere. After the excess of the festive period it’s back to business, with a focus on health, wealth and escape from midwinter. So you may not feel in the best mood for exercising your social skills.
Nevertheless, January is also a time for reflection, renewal and self-improvement (as evidenced by the influx of new parkrunners giving their best at 5k on a Saturday morning). It is in this vein that I encourage you to reflect on your social skills and how you can better utilise them to achieve your aims.
While it may be assumed that the tilt of this article is towards younger generation – cue the inevitable mention of smartphones shredding Gen Z’s instincts for social interaction – one is never too young, nor too old to improve social skills. To add, we are ALL distracted by smartphones, regardless of age.
There is a body of research which suggests that social skills begin to decline in people in their late 30s and early 40s. According to Professor Heather Ferguson, a cognitive psychologist, the older we get, the less time we spend looking at someone’s face as we talk to them. The result is that we’re missing out on a plethora of cues about meanings, intentions and emotions.
Many people see social skills through the lens of having a conversation, but they run far deeper. Almost every workplace involves a disparate collection of people, united in pursuit of common goals, but defined by different attitudes, opinions and ways of doing things. Normal behaviour for one, can be extremely annoying for another – one person’s homely desk is another person’s cluttered nightmare after all.
Social skills are essential for navigating this environment, and thankfully we do a lot of this naturally. However, those who can really move people are tuned into the effective exercise of social skills, which are essentially a form of soft power.
Communication is the most obvious example of social skill use in the workplace. This aspect is often associated with good leadership, and while this is an obvious link, it overlooks the part that communication plays in the overall holistic health of an organisation. Just like the veins which move the blood around the body, oxygenating the essential organs, good communication is oxygenates workplace efficiency.
Where social skills come into play is maintaining a steady ship and a sense of direction in the myriad of small engagements we have during a working day. Let me give you an example we can all relate to, that of an email we receive which appears to have a negative tone or contradicts or disregards something that we may have already stated.
We all know that feeling, the knee jerk reaction, the brain calculating the response that your fingers are itching to fire off in repudiation and challenge. Yet what would that achieve? We’re annoyed, so we send that email. The recipient will annoyed and prompted to counter. Potentially the whole episode dissolves into a sniping match which saps energy, fosters bad feeling and scuppers productivity.
Those with heightened social skills would take a more pragmatic path. They would choose not to email but instead speak to the person directly and seek to resolve potential conflict rather than escalate it.
A high percentage of these emails are the result of misunderstanding, confusion or the other person writing an ‘off’ email which they didn’t read through before sending it. A conversation cuts through any ambiguity and, even if there are points of disagreement, usually allows for some compromise.
If you can smile, even if it’s through gritted teeth, and defer on something, even if you disagree with everything, you are exercising diplomatic soft power. The trick is to see it as a strength, not a weakness.
My final note on social skills is to always take the time to step back and see something from someone else’s point of view. Even if you don’t agree, respect their opinion and in the process acknowledge that as right as you think you are, maybe you don’t have all the answers after all.
It used to be one of the strengths of our democracy that we could debate, appreciate the views of others, and find at least a slither of common ground. That has become harder as algorithms increasingly condition us to view the world as a series of black or white, right or wrong, us or them scenarios. As a consequence, we are all guilty of making less effort to interact with our fellow human beings. So if you’re stuck for a New Year’s resolution, may I suggest giving those social skills a polish!