Social skills

We use social skills to communicate with each other every day. Here are the 3 most useful ones I know:

  • Active listening

  • Sharing feelings and asking for help

  • Deeply understanding others

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.

-Henry Ford

Active listening

Active listening means fully concentrating and understanding someone.

Here is what I do:

  • When you speak, I face you and look into your eyes. I nod my head. I don’t interrupt.

  • After you finish, I say: “Let’s see if I heard you right. Here’s what I think you said…”

  • If I’m uncertain about anything, I say: “Help me understand…”

  • After you confirm I fully understand, I have two options. If I agree, I say so. If I don’t agree, I don’t say no. Instead, I say: “Here’s my concern…What do you think?” If I fully understand and still don’t agree, I say: “Hmmm, I still have this concern. I don’t think there’s a fit right now. I’m happy to revisit in the future.”

The greatest compliment was paid to me today. Someone asked me what I thought and actually attended to my answer.

-Henry David Thoreau

Sharing feelings and asking for help

Early in my career, I had an incredible interpersonal coach named Linda Lehtonen. She taught me to share feelings and ask for help.

For example, “I’m feeling annoyed because the sink is full of dirty dishes. Would you please wash them?”

Notice I don’t make assumptions or accusations. Instead, I share my feelings. My feelings are real—you can’t deny them. Then I make a polite request. You can agree or not. If you don’t agree, I’ll use active listening to understand why.

Researchers found that most people underestimated responses to requests for help. In a study at Columbia University, students were instructed to borrow a stranger’s cell phone. They thought they would have to ask 10 people—the actual number was 6.

Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.

-Don Miguel Ruiz

Deeply understanding others

It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s hard to suspend your own thoughts and beliefs.

For me, the most effective technique is method acting. This involves fully immersing yourself in a character’s life. You vividly imagine every detail—place, objects, relationships, past experiences, current thoughts, feelings.

For example, actor Robert De Niro worked 12-hour shifts for the movie Taxi Driver. During breaks on set, he picked up passengers in New York City.

For more examples and exercises, read Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen.

One’s view of truth is always partial…I’m male, I’m white, I’m middle class, I’m rural. That shapes my view of the world. That’s going to be different from someone who is black, female, lives in Cuba, and is a Communist.

-H. Richard Niebuhr


Flynn FJ, Lake VKB. (2008). If you need help, just ask: underestimating compliance with direct requests for help. J Pers Soc Psychol. 95(1): 128–143.

  • 6 studies with 462 participants found that people underestimated the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help by as much as 50%

  • Participants estimated they would have to approach 20.5 strangers to find one to fill out a questionnaire, but the actual number was 10.5

  • Participants estimated they would have to approach 10.1 strangers to borrow a cell phone, but the actual number was 6.2

Cameron CD et al. (2019). Empathy is hard work: People choose to avoid empathy because of its cognitive costs. J Exp Psychol Gen. 148(6): 962–976.

  • A meta-analysis of 11 studies with 1,204 participants found they avoided empathy due to its high cognitive cost (effect size = 0.64)

Maio A. (2020, June 14). How the best method actors prepare for their roles. StudioBinder.

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