Setting Goals For Improving Your Social Skills
Goal setting is its own topic, and I won't try to cover everything about it. Here are just some of my thoughts on how it applies to developing your social skills.
Goals can be used, and be useful, in two ways. The first is when you simply sit down and write out what you'd like to achieve. If nothing else, this helps clarify and map out the areas you need to deal with. The second is when you commit to working on those issues for a certain amount of time, and you set clear goals to focus your efforts. As I'll explain in more detail below, I think everyone can benefit from the first approach. The second is most appropriate if you've got a particular mindset and motivation.
Figuring out your overall "clarification goals"
Everyone who wants to improve their social situation has goals. However, they may not have really given them a ton of thought or fleshed them out. When you clarify your goals what you do is take vaguer statements like, "I'm unhappy and lonely" and break them down.
You likely already know what your broader social goals are. You may want to make more friends, act less shy around people, have your conversations go more smoothly, or generally feel more confident. It's okay if your goals aren't even that specific. The only sense some people have of their problems is thinking, "I'm so awkward. I don't know what to do..."
Next, you can come up with some mid-level goals by figuring out what obstacles are preventing you from arriving at your overall goal. You may be able to do this fairly easily, but it's also common to not really be sure where you're going wrong. If that's the case, one suggestion is to educate yourself more. For example, you might not know why you're having trouble make friends, but if you read the site's section on that topic it may become more clear.
Another more internally-focused idea for sussing out some mid-level goals is to imagine yourself trying to meet your broader goal. Also, think back on the times you've taken real world steps to achieve it. Where are you hitting a wall? At what spots are you having fears or pessimistic, self-critical thoughts? Where are you feeling discouraged and unhappy? For example, if you reflect on how you want to make more friends, you may suddenly start feeling resentful and begin thinking about how most people are shallow jerks. What's going on there? Is that something you may need to resolve?
A list of sub-goals for making friends someone develops may be:
- "I need to get out more often and meet new people."
- "I need to become more confident starting conversations with people I don't know."
- "I need to take more initiative to make plans when I get along with someone."
- "I need to start feeling more confident about what I have to offer in a friendship."
You can break those mid-sized goals into even smaller ones. These might be specific tasks you can actually go out and do. "I need to leave the house more often and meet new people" could be split into goals related to figuring out what events you could attend, how to fit that into your schedule, strategies for how to begin conversations and to invite people out, and so on.
Along with goals that are tied into a larger objective, you may have things you want to work on that are a bit more isolated. For example, you may want to start dressing better, because you generally think it will help your cause. If it makes sense for that goal, you can go through the same process of breaking it down into more concrete items.
Once you're done, don't worry if what you've come up with isn't perfect or fully fleshed out. You can always fill in any gaps later as you learn more. Hopefully the exercise still helped clarify exactly what your issues are and how you need to approach them.
Setting specific practice goals
I think everyone can benefit from mapping out their goals. However, people will differ in how they want to take it from there. One possibility is to set aside a period of time to actively work toward your goals. For example, you may decide to devote the next three months to becoming more comfortable mingling at parties. If you do this, there are certain ways it helps to structure your goals, which I'll talk about in a second.
However, I think it's okay if you don't pursue your goals in a super-proactive, deliberate, organized way. Some people take a more casual approach. They know what issues they want to work on, but their thinking is that they'll make it up as they go and get their practice in as chances present themselves. Not everyone has a huge sense of urgency about changing either. Also, while some people find clear goals help them be focused and motivated, others feel discouraged or pressured by them.
Here are some standard suggestions for setting good practice goals:
Make the goal something you have a good shot of attaining in around two to six months
You don't want your goal to be something you can wrap up in a weekend. Something like that is more appropriate as a piece in a bigger objective. On the other hand, you don't want to aim for something that would more realistically take you a few years to accomplish. For example, if you're currently really lonely and isolated, you wouldn't want to set a goal like, "I want have a ton of amazing, lifelong friends and have plans four times a week." Depending on your starting point, a more manageable goal for the medium-term might be to start hanging out with a couple of people on a semi-regular basis.
Set a goal that's challenging but possible
You should be required to push yourself in order to hit your goal. If you set a goal that's too easy you'll just complete it quickly and have to come up with a harder one anyway. If you create a goal that's too ambitious you may feel motivated and enthusiastic about it for a while, but it probably won't be long before you get frustrated and give up.
Don't try to focus on too many things at once
Don't try to tackle all of your social problems at the same time. You may feel a palpable desperation and impatience to get your life in order, but these things take time and can't be hurried along. If you take on too much you'll spread yourself thin and may burn out. You also need a certain amount of courage, willpower, and thick skin to handle some appropriately challenging goals, and if you've got too much on your plate you won't have enough of it to go around. Of course, that's not to say you can't work on other goals here and there if the opportunity naturally comes up.
Try to make goal concrete and measurable
To put it another way, you should try to operationalize the goal, as well as any sub-tasks required of it. This is important because it helps you come up with specific tasks to practice, and allows you to track your progress. Some examples:
- Making friends - Meet two potential new friends and start spending time with them at least once every two weeks.
- Facing a fear of big events - By the end of three months, be able to attend a house party and stay for at least two hours.
- Feeling less awkward around people - Come up with a 1-10 scale for how uncomfortable and nervous you feel in social interactions. Over the next three months record how you felt during certain interactions and move the average rating down from an 8 to a 4.
- Improving conversation skills - Be able to have a half-hour conversation with someone you haven't talked to much before, and subjectively rate yourself as feeling confident throughout it.
- Making friends - Attend one event a week where there will be a chance to meet new people.
- Facing a fear of big events - Practice relaxation techniques for fifteen minutes every day.
- Feeling less awkward around people - After certain social interactions, inspect the thoughts that came up during and after it. Address the ones that are maladaptive.
- Improving conversation skills - Strike up a quick conversation with three people a day.
You may have noticed that social goals don't lend themselves as easily to being made objective and measurable, especially compared to something like distance running where you can go, "Within six months I want to be able to bring my 10K race time down to 41 minutes." One reason for this is much of social skills are subjective. Of the aspects of it that are more countable, even then the numbers don't capture the whole story. Making three new friends isn't better than two if the relationships aren't as fulfilling.
So don't agonize over questions like whether you should aim to start four practice conversations a day vs. five. Above I gave a possible conversation skills goal of being able to talk to someone for half an hour. It's not as if someone should consider that objective unmet if they only managed to chat to them for twenty eight minutes. Just come up with some sort of tangible target that gives you a rough approximation of where you want to be.
The other reason interpersonal goals are harder to operationalize is that the social world is harder to control. Someone who takes up a sport like archery can go about achieving their objectives under very orderly, controlled conditions. They can decide to practice a certain number of hours a week, and the range and equipment are always going to be where they left them. Socially, you only have so much influence over who you meet, or how they'll react to you, or what types of interactions you have. This can make it hard to work on exact goals when and how you'd like to. In the long run you may get what you want, but in the short term you're often forced to be flexible and adapt your objectives.
It's fine if you need to adjust a goal once you've started on it
When you're setting a goal it's just a rough jumping off point. Once you're actively working toward it you'll probably need to make some course corrections. Maybe you'll need to adjust the difficulty level, or you'll realize halfway in that you don't actually want to make ten new friends, and four is more than enough.
I'd advise against setting overall goals like "I want to be the most popular person on my campus" or "I want everyone I talk to to walk away thinking I'm the most awesome person they've ever met"
One last thought on developing goals: I think it's much better to focus on walking before you run. If you're socially awkward, worry about getting to the level of Contentedly Average first, and then evaluate where you want to go from there. I understand why someone would set more ambitious fantasy goals. They feel motivating and exciting. Shy, unconfident people sometimes assume their lives would be amazing if they were the Big Man on Campus.
Goals like this have disadvantages. They can cause people to put too much pressure on themselves. Rather than striving for something more modest and realistic, they set themselves up to feel like failures unless every interaction goes flawlessly. When they reach that contently normal stage, a lot of formerly awkward people realize they're perfectly happy with that kind of life, and they don't need to be a social superstar. Really lofty social goals can also be rooted in insecurity. A lonely, socially clumsy person may feel like they're a total loser, and believe the only way they can wash away that stain is if they become incredibly magnetic and popular.