Have you ever wondered how some people seem to flow effortless through friendships, social situations, have loads of friends, and are well thought of? Even if they aren’t the brightest bulb in the candelabra or aren’t physically attractive enough to be Hollywood stars? I often have wondered how they do it.
How some people can walk into a tense situation and end up with everyone laughing and getting along? Or why after talking with someone you walk away feeling great about yourself and have a new uplifted outlook on life? Some people you just come to love.
It has to do with social skills. For some this comes as naturally as breathing. For others, like me, it’s about lessons hard won. It has to do with basic politeness and manners. Not all of us were brought up this way. If your household when growing up was about competition, about trying to get in a word edgewise, trying to get the attention of your parents or siblings, or just a toxic situation all together, this might not have been a household built around even basic civility. It could have been long term war.
We call this a dysfunctional family and it doesn’t teach harmony. Yet even then some people have risen above this and find themselves very likeable and good to have around.
When you have had to be aggressive to get what you wanted even for little things, it may be that in conversation, you feel like if you don’t forcefully put your point across, and hammer away at it, you don’t stand a chance.
This kind of atmosphere doesn’t come just from family; it can come from a neighborhood, a cultural atmosphere, argumentative and antagonistic. If everyone you know comes from this kind of lifestyle, then it’s accepted and within that framework you can survive and maybe you do have to be forceful about your beingness to even survive. But can it be turned off? Can it be recognized as a style rather than a beingness native to life?
Another style is the covert cutting kind of atmosphere where if you don’t get that emotional jab in there swiftly and quickly off the tongue someone else will ‘get you’ and you are left looking like a fool. Where the degrading, unkind, belittling kind of comment is a kind of art. This is a suppressive environment and we often are subjected to it from early school – kids and teachers – from family or neighborhoods, or the workplace later. This is the kind of environment where you are under attack all the time and kindness is rewarded by jabs or being made wrong.
Someone in that kind of environment is a toxic personality and the best way to survive it is to get out! Disconnect, find your way someplace else if you can’t handle it or turn it around. If you can’t, and you can’t handle it, maybe social skills can help and maybe not. The point with that kind of environment is it causes constant stress and problems not of your own making. It’s bad for the health.
But if you aren’t in that kind of environment but once you were, if you don’t notice that that set of attitudes and social survival styles carries over to your present lifestyle, you are spreading that kind of cultural toxicity into your current life and this doesn’t make friends or create harmony. So first take stock of how you handle difficult or awkward situations. Just spotting these carry-overs can go a long way to help you do better with others.
The majority of people are well intentioned and will warm to friendliness, honesty, respectful and kindly communication and dealings. So, firstly be trustworthy, and honest (not brutal honesty which is hurtful, but use some tact if something needs to be discussed which will obviously offend or be hard for the other person to confront). The old time tested saying “Do to others as you would wish to be treated” goes a long way.
I had a friend who was one of the nicest and well loved people I ever knew. Nobody hated or disliked this girl. She achieved amazing things and was tremendously creative and productive yet she rarely ran into difficulty with people. The ones she had trouble with were only the toxic ones or people who were taking on the attitude of one of these toxic people, causing trouble. She had a huge circle of people who just loved her.
I was so admiring of her skill that I sat back and watched how she did things. Firstly, she laughed a lot and made others laugh. She found things to say that were funny and humorous but always benign, never at the expense of others. Being around her was so much fun. She worked at making life fun and aesthetic. And she acknowledged that in others, finding things to admire about them and making them feel special. It’s amazing to see someone come out of their shell when they know someone finds them admirable.
Long ago I realized that how one treats your communication is exactly and IS how they are treating you (and of course vice versa). Communication isn’t some separate thing about a relationship; it is at the heart of it. If in communicating you don’t admire it’s a dead kind of communication and probably won’t actually arrive and be understood or appreciated or acted upon.
The person who has to be the center of attention, who talks non-stop, who considers (and you can tell by the body language) you are less in some way than they are, may dominate a conversation, but they build walls up between their audience and their point. You may find yourself walking away from someone like that thinking “What a jerk”. Not a basis for friendship or happy dealings. If you have to deal with someone like that you do so warily and probably resentfully but you probably have to hide that fact. This is a kind of disconnect.
My friend listened. She really respected what you had to say. And if the conversation lagged, she had a knack for asking the kind of question that got you to keep talking. She was a keen appreciator of what was being said, why, and how. And if she was conveying something, she’d outflow her thoughts only so long, then she’d turn the conversation back so you had a chance to comment or contribute. She made sure the conversation was balanced between her contribution and yours. This gave you a chance to ask questions, add to the thought, or disagree so no backlog of thoughts occurred making you sit there thinking of what you wanted to say while she was trying to send her message across.
Do you ever find yourself in a conversation not listening but working up how you want to say something instead? This isn’t really a two way conversation and builds up negative energy in a conversation. It’s one thing to be in an audience listening to a speaker, and another thing entirely having a repartee with someone. This is a critical and very important part of social skills. If you want to be listened to, you must be willing to listen.
There are some people who are like an open faucet. You can’t turn it off. It’s like being beaten by non-stop hammering, even if it seems quite benign.
I have had to actually say to someone who can’t shut it off – stop, stop talking for a minute my friend. I need to interject something. If they don’t shut up, this isn’t conversation; this is talking to a machine, a kind of automaton. You may actually have to say “I have to go now. Or I’ll let you go now, I have to hang up or go someplace” – or whatever excuse you can manufacture. You aren’t actually in communication. You are being used as a sounding board. If that is OK with you, fine. If you don’t want to be the recipient of it, don’t be. You have that right. Only give or receive it if you desire it yourself. If not, don’t. Just be as tactful as you can be. This is also a valuable social skill.
There is a real skill in interjecting in a communication for a comment, question, or thought. If you are impatient and just cut someone off mid sentence, it is disruptive and can act as disrespect. It says ‘my communication is more important than yours’. But if you aren’t letting someone naturally be part of the two way exchange, it will happen, especially if what you are trying to convey takes some explaining. Then it’s a good idea to just shut up and let them have their say. Then when they take a breath, say something like “Thank you and I understand’, smile, and say ‘Did you want to add to that or say more?’. If so, let them finish. Then say “I appreciate that (or similar acknowledgement). I had a bit more to say to finish my train of thought.’ Usually if you were respectful of their say, they will be towards yours back.
If you are in a large crowd, a good acknowledgement goes a long way. It tends to help the person end cycle on their communication and adds that bit of admiration. You can say “I’d like to add….” And say your piece. But if it’s a lot of people trying to speak at once, even holding your hand up with a big smile can create a bit of a break so you can say something. But realize you probably won’t have a long time to say it. Everyone will want to get their piece of the pie.
Other social skills include respect for the other person’s time and attention or energies. If you have made an appointment and are running late, find some way to communicate letting the other person know. That gives them the option to cancel and reschedule or move some things around so they can use the time well. Busy people don’t have time to waste and by wasting their time you are wasting their energies, and setting yourself up for resentment. In this day and age of the need to multitask and use every minute, manners are critical. Don’t blow people off and not give them a chance to respond to you. Be on time and even a bit early if possible if it’s a business thing, or be exactly on time if it’s for a private meeting. I have had people show up half an hour before a morning visit and still be in PJs, without a warning. So it works both ways, early or late.
If you are meeting someone for the first time and they have made a special effort for you, bring some kind of little kindness gift. For me, with my big herb garden often it’s a little bag of herbal tea or some fresh greens. Not everyone has a garden. Depending on that person’s reason for meeting with you, take a few moments and find something aesthetic or useful that would bring a smile. It’s an ice breaker. If it’s business, also give them a business card with contact information so they can get back to you easily.
Sometimes you will meet or have to deal with someone who represents something you detest or find objectionable. Keep in mind that maybe at some future time you will mend your difference with them or their calling. I keep my objections to myself and see what transpires before quick judgment. I have found that just respecting them for who they are, including hidden things that may turn out to be wonderful. This is granting them to be who they are irrespectful of their – from your viewpoint – misguided or unforgiveable state. It may be that you confirm your original impression at which time you can back off. But it also may be they can be a beneficial part of your life and you can likewise help them. Sometimes this is how bridges are built. Our world is full of bridge busters.
Dealing with children can be important. People are protective and cognizant of how you treat their kids (and pets). If you are impatient with them, even if they are being annoying, handle it gently. If you are afraid of dogs and you are expected to pet one, just tell your host that you like animals but had a bad experience with one and could they please set them away while you are there? Apologize for the inconvenience. Screeching and hiding in the bathroom doesn’t count. Yelling at the child or telling them to shut up likewise doesn’t work and causes resentment. Even though sometimes you’re ready to give them a flying lesson out the window.
If a child is being a brat, interrupting every couple of minutes, demanding, and making your visit impossible, you have a couple of choices. You can say that you understand little Billy needs his mom time and would there be a better time when you could talk with the mom (or dad)? Or you can try making friends with the kid. If it’s really important that you have the parent’s undivided attention, you can ask them if they need to handle the problem and you can wait. And you can tell the child that you need to talk to mom for a couple of minutes then they can have their turn. And make sure you then turn to the child after a couple of minutes of quiet and thank them for letting you talk to their mom. Then ask them if they wanted to say anything to you or the mom. This also shows a good example to the child, and shows them respect. Often children are ignored and they get anxious and demanding because of that. It makes them aggressive and annoying. But it’s the only way they get attention. So, give them attention. J
There are some people who are not bad or toxic, just terribly annoying, self absorbed, selfish, neurotic, or otherwise hard to be around. It is often just a lack of social skills but can be much deeper than that. It’s inevitable; you live in a society full of this kind of behavior. Often I have found this kind of personality can be a terrific drain on energy and time, and be disruptive of forward movement on your own accomplishments. So you have to choose to get locked into this or gracefully bow out.
But the same social skills apply. Listen, be attentive, use good acknowledgements of their communication, guide the conversation with good questions, and when you are ready to move on, thank them for all they have told you and give them something about themselves you admire. It can be a tough thing to find, but just find something. After all, it’s probably all they wanted in the first place, a little admiration. It’s what we all need now and then. And a bit of warmth.
This may seem manipulative or deceitful but it really isn’t. It’s understanding people and what they need and want. It’s a kindness to give your attention and care how they receive your communication. What you leave them with – kindness or tension – will determine future connection. And people are watching usually to see how you handle others. The nice comment to a waiter, being polite upon entering thru a busy doorway, letting someone ahead of you in line at the grocery store with a crying child or just a couple of items spreads calm and makes life nicer all around.
Another friend who has grown from the founder of a small women’s group, into now a national movement, once showed me by example how to be a good leader, which brought to her from me immense respect.
I had been my usual California self (aggressive) early on in this group in the Deep South. I didn’t know I was causing upsets. So, instead of chiding me she asked if she could come see my garden. While we were walking around me showing her the garden, she asked me gently what my plans were, what I was trying to accomplish and how I saw myself in regards to this group. She drew out of me my long term plans to help people by giving them the skills to be self-reliant in food and plant medicine, and other long term goals.
Then after giving me a chance to lay out what I was doing, she told me she had had complaints about me in the group. She wouldn’t say who. I asked her how I should handle it differently, what I was doing that was causing this problem, and would she help me. She gave me some tips about how it was different in the South (she was from the Northeast and had had to make the transition 12 years earlier), to be interested in the activities of others, welcoming others into the group, taking time to just chat up members, and not promoting myself quite so much. I was doing it to help but it wasn’t being received that way.
The point is that instead of jumping down my throat and making me feel guilty or bad, she gave me the respect of a fellow educator, expert, and person of good will etc. and let me reach for solutions. It has been a long term friendship and my respect for her tact and good strategy has made a lasting impression and lesson. She listens to me too, when I offer advice because she understands where I am coming from.
I’m certainly not an expert in these things and I am learning all the time how to be more gentle and take the other person’s viewpoint before reacting or being aggressive in trying to handle things I see need correcting or fixed. My friend above let me see how I first have to see where the other person is coming from. It often isn’t anything like first impressions.
The biggest lesson living in the South has been huge. In California people are busy, don’t have time for the niceties unless you have some special connection, and there are a lot of wackos who don’t want what’s best for you but only for themselves. This isn’t always true, but it’s a high paced lifestyle. So, coming to the South was a shock. I’d go into a store and someone would ask me if I need help, walk over to the right aisle to show me where the item was, and ask me if there was anything else. I felt like I had stepped into 50 years ago. Young children called me Miss Diann, and teenagers were respectful. People even offered me help, total strangers, when I told them I was new in the area.
But over and over again I was taught the best lesson. People here first before anything else establish friendship and cordiality. Total strangers say “how you doing today?”, and the old south tradition of asking “How’s your mama’n’em?” (the family) or “You doing alright?” is heard all the time, in stores, on the street, from friends and neighbors. In other words, a connection is made first – to see if you are ready to talk or just see if you are OK.
One would never just walk up to someone and start stating their case, their need, their agenda, and their point. If you have something you want to bring up, you first establish that link of affinity and caring. It may entail listening to someone talk about their sciatica or mom had a stroke, or just talk about the weather. But time is given to that first. Then, you work into what you want to talk about. It may be their agenda first. It takes more time, but it in the long run produces better results in the real connection with people.
It helps to be humble and let the other person win. People, when you treat them with respect and kindness, form their own opinion about you and you don’t have to convince them you are a good guy. Lead by example. How would I like to be dealt with? Then do that. I only tell people my accomplishments if I think it will help them in some way. Otherwise it just seems like bragging and that steals beingness from them. It works better to get them to tell you about their accomplishments. People after all are most interested usually in what they are doing or who they are. When you acknowledge them, they can then look at you.
I have learned to laugh at myself too. Gosh, those mistakes with people could fill a book. It wouldn’t sell, but it would help to get it off my chest.
4-15-19 Diann Dirks