What Are Social Skills? (Definition, Examples & Importance)

You’ve probably read loads of articles about how important social skills are. It can be difficult to improve social skills when you don’t really understand exactly what they are and how to work on them.

Something that makes social skills difficult for people to learn is that there can be an expectation that we just “know.” Lots of our readers feel like there was a class they missed in high school where everyone else learned social skills and they were the only ones who didn’t.

Obviously, there wasn’t a class like that, and you’re not the only one who struggles with understanding social skills. In this article, we’re going to look at what social skills are, why they’re important (and difficult), and how to improve them.

Sections

  1. What are social skills?
  2. Why are social skills important?
  3. Examples of good vs. bad social skills
  4. How to improve your social skills
  5. Causes of low social skills
  6. Common questions

What are social skills?

Social skills are ways of interacting with others that make it easier to succeed socially. They allow you to communicate effectively and understand what others are trying to communicate to you, both verbally and non-verbally.

This definition is a bit vague, but that’s because social skills cover lots of different aspects. You might be surprised to realize that even psychology researchers struggle to agree on a definition of social skills.[1]

One approach breaks social skills down into 5 components; cooperation, assertion, self-control, responsibility, and empathy.[2]

  • Cooperation is how well you work with other people to achieve a task, including negotiation and persuasion.
  • Assertion is how well you are able to initiate social interactions, for example introducing yourself to others.
  • Self-control skills allow you to deal with your emotions constructively, for example not losing your temper.
  • Responsibility is about recognizing the impact of your actions on others and making prosocial decisions.
  • Empathy is being able to understand what others might be feeling and being able to put yourself in their shoes. It’s a measure of social perceptiveness.

One difficulty with social skills is that there aren’t many hard-and-fast rules. Unlike in math or physics, doing the same thing repeatedly won’t give you the same result. Social skills are often based on accurately understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling.

It might be helpful to think of social skills in three basic parts; understanding feelings (including your own), understanding the social environment, and being able to carry out the right social behavior.

For example, if you see someone crying, your empathy lets you realize that they might be upset and want to be comforted. Your understanding of the social environment lets you judge how well you know them and whether they might welcome comfort from you. Being able to carry out the right social action might be offering them a hug or handing them a tissue.

Important facts about social skills

When you’re thinking about social skills, here are some important facts to bear in mind.

1. Social skills can be learned

We call them social skills because they are just like any other skill. You can learn new social skills, and you need to keep practicing them.[3]

2. Social rules are flexible

When we talk about social rules, they’re mostly guidelines. The more socially skilled you are, the more you can break the rules.

This means that you can’t always use other people’s behavior as a guide. If they’re more socially skilled than you, they might be responding to social cues that you haven’t seen.

3. You can’t opt out of social skills

There are lots of skills that you can opt out of learning. If you’re not musical, you might decide not to learn an instrument. Interpersonal skills are different. Even sending an email at work uses social skills. We all use social skills every day.

Why are social skills important?

Social skills can impact every aspect of your life; finding a romantic partner, how much money you earn, and even how healthy you are. Here are some of the most important benefits of improving your social skills.

1. More and better relationships

Social skills are key to building good relationships. Our social skills let us understand how our friends, family, and co-workers are feeling and what they are looking for from us.

Improving your social skills will help you build close, trusting relationships with others.

2. Better communication

Social skills are all about communication. Socially skilled people can read someone else’s body language and understand more of what they are communicating. They are also able to create rapport, which makes it easier for others to be honest with them.[4]

3. Advancing career prospects

People with better social skills also have better career prospects. Studies show that socially skilled people have more successful careers.[5] They feel more satisfied with their lives and their careers and find it easier to stay motivated.

Social skills are especially important for entrepreneurs. Being socially skilled lets you convince others of your trustworthiness and judge how trustworthy other people are.[6]

4. Being happier

People with good social skills are generally happier than those with poor social skills.[7] This is mostly due to the number and depth of friendships that socially skilled people are able to build.[8] These friendships help fulfill your emotional needs and can offer support when things are difficult.‌

5. Better academic performance

Children with better social skills typically get better grades in school.[9] Teachers may expect socially skilled children to do better, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.[10] Socially skilled children also often have fewer disruptive behaviors, which gives them more time and energy for learning.[11]

6. Decreased loneliness

Having better social skills helps to protect you against loneliness. Great social skills don’t just help you form closer friendships. They also give you the confidence to reach out to people around you when you feel lonely.[12]

We also have a full guide on how to feel less lonely.

7. Better health

Having better social skills doesn’t just improve your emotional wellbeing. It can help your mental and physical health as well.

For example, studies show that patients with bulimia have lower social skills and weaker support networks.[13] It is suggested (though not yet confirmed) that strong social skills help people to build support networks, which can protect their mental health.

Having strong social skills can also help you get better treatment from doctors.[14][15] This can include getting an urgent appointment when you need it, being able to communicate your symptoms, and having doctors trust your assessment of your needs.

Examples of good vs. bad social skills

People with poor social skills can find themselves in social situations that they don’t fully understand and don’t feel equipped to handle. If you’re not sure how good your social skills are, here are some signs of low social skills:

People with good social skills… People with bad social skills…
Feel confident in social situations Often feel lost in social situations
Recognize other people’s emotions Struggle to understand how others are feeling
Understand where they make social errors Often say or do the wrong thing, but aren’t sure why
Can express their emotions in a socially aware way Struggle to express negative emotions, such as frustration or anger, or you express them too strongly
Can identify social cues around humor, sarcasm, and irony Can’t tell when someone is joking or being sarcastic
Balance honesty and tact Can be tactless and struggle to understand the difference between social responses and deceit

How to improve your social skills

When you realize how often you use social skills, it can make improving them more intimidating. Some people worry that improving their social skills means that they can’t be themselves anymore.

Building social skills is actually about making it easier to be yourself. Here are our top tips for improving your social skills

1. Get feedback

There are loads of different social skills. You might be great at some, even if you struggle with others. Your first task is to find out where you struggle.

This isn’t usually something you can work out alone. You need to be interacting with someone else to use social skills. In order to learn, you need to have a good idea of how you came across to the other person.

Try to find a friend (or several) who can help you to understand how good your different social skills are at the moment. Often, asking for feedback comes across as asking for reassurance, so explain why you’re asking for their help.

Try saying, “I’m trying to improve my social skills, but I don’t always know when I’m doing well or badly. Could you give me some honest feedback about how I come across, please?”

2. Identify areas for practice

Social skills are such a huge topic that you can’t work on all of them at the same time. Instead, try to find a couple that you want to work on first.

Where you focus your efforts will usually depend on where your weaknesses are and what will make the most impact on your life.

For example, you might find it difficult to read other people’s facial expressions. If you work in an office, that might cause problems for you, so you could prioritize improving your ability to read other people’s emotions. If you mostly work from home, however, struggling to read facial expressions might not be a problem. In that case, you might prioritize something else.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider focusing on active listening and learning to read other people’s emotions from their facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, such as eye contact and gestures.

3. Make a plan

Improving your social skills can be difficult. Make it easier with a plan. Try setting yourself achievable goals to help you work on the priorities you’ve identified.

Your goals should be specific and focused on what you want to achieve, but here are some ideas:

  • Smile at 3 new people each day
  • Ask the cashier how their day is going when you shop
  • Read one new article or post on social skills each week – bonus points for discussing it with a friend
  • Spend at least 20 minutes at a social event you’re nervous about

Make sure to include reviewing progress and making new goals in your plan. Recognizing your progress is key to keeping you motivated, even when it feels awkward.[16]

4. Consider therapy

Lots of people struggle with social skills because of deep insecurities or having learned unhelpful coping strategies throughout their lives. Finding a great therapist can help you deal with underlying issues and practice your social skills in a safe and supportive environment.

We really like BetterHelp for a fast and affordable way to get in touch with the right therapist for you.

These are just a few of the ways that you can become more socially adept. For more ideas, check out our complete guide to improving your social skills.

Causes of low social skills

Lots of people have difficulty learning social skills. Here are some factors that can lead to low social skills.

Autism spectrum disorders

Autism spectrum disorders and Asperger’s can lead to the development of poor social skills. People with autism spectrum disorders communicate in a slightly different way from those without.[17] This can make it difficult for them to form connections and learn social skills.

People with autism spectrum disorders can still learn social skills successfully, but they may respond better to different teaching methods.[18]

‌Social anxiety

Most of us learn social skills by practicing. Having social anxiety can lead you to avoid groups, making it harder for you to learn. You may also find making mistakes to be traumatic, meaning that you’re too upset to learn from your errors.

ADHD and hyperkinetic disorder

People with ADHD and related disorders can suffer from “social naivety” and have social skills that are less advanced than their peers.[19] Their impulsivity, in particular, can make it difficult for them to form close bonds with others.

Depression

Just like social anxiety, depression can make you avoid social events. It can also lead you to evaluate your social skills very harshly, which makes it difficult for you to see what you have learned or accept that you do some things well. Skills such as confidence and assertiveness can be particularly difficult if you are suffering from depression.

Antisocial behaviors

People, especially young people, who display antisocial behaviors typically have poor social skills, especially empathy.[20] They don’t think about the impact that their actions have on the people around them or their social network.

Social skills training can help improve social skills and decrease antisocial behavior. This helps create a virtuous cycle, where increased social skills allow for more social interaction, which further improves social skills.[21]

Alcohol misuse

People with a history of alcohol misuse or who have grown up with a parent with addiction issues often struggle to develop social skills. They may rely on drinking to reduce their anxiety around social situations, never having the opportunity to learn new, healthier coping strategies and skills.[22]

Common questions

How can I tell if my child has problems with social skills?

Teachers will often alert you to problems with your child’s social skills. They’re well-placed to know whether your child is performing well for their age. If you’re unsure, consider whether your child can understand the emotions of others and communicate their own feelings appropriately.

Why are social skills important in early childhood?

Good social skills in preschoolers help children develop the self-confidence and positive experiences that they need to allow them to succeed throughout their lives. Teaching your child how to interact well with others allows them to learn, play and grow in a social world.

Are there any social skills disorders?

Many disorders have an impact on social skills, including autism spectrum disorders, depression, ADHD, anxiety, schizophrenia, social communication disorder, and more. Even when social skills aren’t part of diagnosis (for example, schizophrenia), social skills training can help alleviate symptoms.[23]

What are the most important social skills at work?

Which social skills are most important at work partly depends on the work you do. Good communication skills and the ability to cooperate well with others are helpful in most roles. Self-confidence can also be important for leaders or those who have to work independently.

What type of therapy is recommended for social skill difficulties?

Different types of therapy can help develop your social skills. Which is right for you depends on your personality and specific challenges. Research shows that finding a therapist you trust is more important than the type of therapy they offer.[24] Social skills training can be offered with therapy.

What is social skills training?

Social skills training is a form of behavioral therapy and can be effective for children with behavioral problems.[25] It involves understanding which skills are lacking, teaching the theory behind them, and giving you the opportunity to practice them in a safe space. It is also used for adults.

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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