How To Get Feedback On Your Social Skills And How You Come Across
Some people's social lives aren't where they want them to be. They might not be outright rejected, but they have a nagging sense they're not as warmly received as everyone else. They wonder if they're doing something off-putting they're not aware of.
If you're in this situation you might want some objective outside feedback on your social skills and the impression you make. The thought of learning what people really think of you would make anyone nervous, but you may be at a point where you feel it's more important to find out what your blind spots are.
Below I'll go over the pros and cons of different ways of doing that. I'll stick to avenues for learning about your everyday interpersonal skills, not work-related stuff like how good you are at interviewing or running meetings. But first, let me point out:
It's tricky to get a thorough, impartial assessment of your social skills
As useful as it would be to know exactly how you come across to everyone, it's not that easy to get that information. There are several barriers to getting good feedback:
- We all act differently depending on the situation. Someone may be fine chatting to a long-time co-worker at the office, but feel awkward and withdrawn at a meet up full of strangers. Someone else may make a good first impression, but have some annoying habits around their old friends. For any one person to give you the best possible feedback they'd need to observe you in a variety of settings, over a period of time. Most can't do that.
- A lot of people's social tastes are subjective. One person may think you're opinionated and corny. Another may love your sense of humor and that you're comfortable sharing how you feel. If you get a mix of conflicting feedback it can be hard to know what to make of it all. Some of the evaluations you get may not be about your social skills at all, but your style, tastes, and hobbies.
- Your anxiety around getting feedback can influence the kind of it you get. For one, you may be too scared to ask about areas where you don't think you could handle certain answers. Also, if you ask someone for feedback and give off, "I really don't want to hear what you actually think. I couldn't take it" vibes, people may pick up on it and hold back their full opinion.
Even if you get quality feedback on your social skills, you may not be open to hearing it
- First and most obvious, many people find it hard to learn negative things about themselves. They may think they're up for some constructive criticism, but when they receive it they get upset and defensive, and dismiss or deny what they've been told.
- Some of us also aren't open to hearing positive feedback if it goes against our self-image. Plenty of people who worry they're awkward and unlikable have perfectly good social skills. When you tell them that they don't quite believe you. On occasion insecure people will even seek out feedback and unconsciously want it to be cutting. They'll ignore any positive comments, but latch onto the mean ones. They "know" deep down they're flawed, and take an unhealthy kind of comfort in having their view of themselves confirmed by others.
Methods of getting social feedback
So it's not super-easy to get feedback, let alone accept it. Also, as I'll get into below, there's no one foolproof way to get an appraisal of your people skills. Still, even if there isn't a perfect method, if you use a few of the approaches below you should still be able to learn some useful things about your blind spots.
Ask people you know like your friends, family, partner, classmates, or co-workers
This is what most people think to do first. You could approach them and say something like, "Lately I've been working on my communication skills. One way I'm doing that is trying to find out if there are any areas I could improve on that I may not know about. I'd appreciate it if you could share any feedback you have for me regarding that. It's no big deal if you don't want to do it, or can't think of anything, but I wanted to ask."
Try to use a casual, matter of fact tone when asking. In other words, do your best to seem as if you'll accept whatever response they give. If you come across like you're bracing yourself to go on the counterattack, or you're preemptively wincing at what they might say, you're less likely to get a straightforward answer.
- Your friends, family, and colleagues have known you for a while, and have likely seen how you act in a mix of settings.
- There are several of them you can ask, allowing you to get a variety of opinions.
- Asking them is free.
- You may be too anxious to ask the people you know. You might worry about looking insecure or needy in front of them. You may not think you could handle it if you found out your good friend has been put off by one of your habits the whole time you knew them.
- Many of your friends, family, or co-workers may not want to give you social feedback. They might worry they'll hurt your feelings or make you mad, which could strain the relationship. They may not want the responsibility of helping you figure out your interpersonal issues.
- Their feedback may not be complete or totally honest. They don't want you to get upset, so they leave out their harshest criticism and sugar coat the things they do tell you. They may feel uncomfortable with the conversation and just say you're not doing anything wrong to get it over with.
- They may not know how to explain or articulate what, if anything, you're doing wrong. They may say something vague and unhelpful like, "You just need to be yourself."
- They may be too close to you, and unable to see you objectively. Family members in particular are known for not noticing when you've changed. They may give you feedback that says more about their baggage and what you were like ten years ago.
- They may not have good-enough social skills themselves to give you a useful critique. Like your self-absorbed co-worker who's a poor listener and routinely talks over everyone isn't in the best position to weigh in on your conversation abilities.
- They may word their feedback poorly or insensitively. Aside from stinging, it may give you a false or overblown idea of what your weak points are.
The next three points are about mental health services. As I always say, they're not just for "weak" or "crazy" people. They're simply one type of resource that's available to help if you need it.
Ask a one-on-one therapist
You could make an appointment with a counselor specifically to get feedback on your social skills, or you could ask one you're already seeing for other reasons. There's plenty of things they can pick up about your people skills even as you tell them what brought you to counseling at the start of the first appointment. They can also do a few conversation role plays to get a better sense of what you're like in certain contexts. Some therapists will go outside the office with their clients so they can observe them in real life (e.g., as they ask a clerk for help at a store).
It should only take a session or two if you want their quick feedback on the initial impression you give off. However, if you see a therapist over a longer period, they'll also be able to spot behaviors and tendencies that you don't show until further into your relationships. (Hiring a therapist isn't the same as having a friend, of course, but often patterns from a client's real-life relationships also show up in the one they have with their counselor.)
- A therapist is an impartial, non-judgmental third party. They're not a part of your day-to-day life. They'll keep what you talk about confidential.
- Especially if they have experience working with clients who have social anxiety or communication skills difficulties, they'll know what to look for. They may be able to spot subtle social errors regular people would miss.
- They'll word their feedback for you in a sensitive, constructive way. If you still get defensive, they'll help you work through it. Unlike a friend or colleague, they won't think, "Well, if they're going to get touchy I won't bother giving them the rest of my thoughts."
- They'll have suggestions for what you can actually do about any problems they identify. They won't give you unhelpful advice like "Just have fun and put yourself out there."
- Therapy, especially if it's longer-term, can be pricey. A session or two of feedback is relatively inexpensive, but even that doesn't fit into everyone's budget. Some people can access counseling through their insurance, workplace benefits, university, or practitioners or agencies with sliding scales, but not all.
- Talking one on one with a counselor is its own social context, where not all of your blind spots may reveal themselves. You may be totally capable of speaking with a supportive professional in their private office. It's only at parties that you make your unknown social mistakes. If you tell a good counselor about a party you went to, they may be able to suss out some of those errors based on what you recount to them, but there are limits to that.
- Role play conversations have limits too. You may do better than usual in them, because you know they're not for real. Or you may be more nervous than normal, because the situation is unnatural and you feel on the spot to do a good job.
A similar option is to hire a life coach or trainer who focuses on communication skills. There are some knowledgeable ones out there. Overall though, anyone can sell their services as a life coach or communication skills instructor. You have to be more careful. If you want to work with one, do some research on their background and qualifications. (Do the same for "real" therapists as well. Even if they have a degree and license, they may not be that experienced in working with clients who have social issues).
Attend group therapy focused on social anxiety or social skills
There are different types of group therapy. Some are closer to taking a class. They have fixed members, run for about 8-12 weeks, and are focused around a counselor or two teaching a specific set of skills. Others are open-ended peer support groups. I'll talk about the more-structured type of group in this point, and cover the looser peer support ones in the next.
- These groups are specifically about improving social skills, so the therapists running them know the topic.
- Every group is a bit different, but they usually involve a fair amount of practice and role playing with the other members (e.g., people will pair off and practice inviting each other out for coffee). The role plays usually cover a mix of situations, like small talk, self-disclosure, assertiveness, and so on. Group members can say what their trouble spots are and ask to do one about that. There are also parts where everyone sits around in a circle and talks. In other words, the facilitators have plenty of chances to see how you interact with people.
- Since the groups take place over a dozen or so meetings, everyone can get some sense of how you act around people you've known a while.
- The other group members will be able to give you useful feedback as well. Because of the context they'll be encouraged to share it in a counstructive, supportive way (e.g., "So when we were doing the role play, I thought you were really good about asking me follow up questions and seeming interested in what I had to say, but a few times you cut in and didn't let me finish."; "I've got to say, for the past few weeks you've been talking about how awkward and uninteresting you are, but I don't find that at all. To me you come across as very friendly, and always have a lot to say.")
- If you're just looking for some quick feedback on how you come across, you may not feel like going to a group that runs over three months, and may cover skills you already know or which aren't relevant to you at the moment.
- This kind of group may not be available in your area. Social skills groups for adults are rarer than ones aimed at kids and teenagers.
- Again, this option may not be affordable to you. The only groups in your city may cost several hundred dollars to sign up for the full 8-12 weeks.
- There are other people in the group, so you can't expect a ton of personalized attention. The facilitators can certainly help, but there may be times where you wish they could focus on you more.
- Role plays are usually a good enough approximation for real life, but they're still a bit artificial.
Attend a peer support group
The group could be specifically for social anxiety, but a more general one focused on mood disorders or coping with stress could work too.
Peer support groups are more open-ended and focused on the members talking to each other. They usually run every week or two all year. Anyone can drop by a meeting when they feel like it. Many are facilitated by mental health professionals, but their role is to keep the conversation productive and on track, not teach a twelve-week curriculum. Others are run by members of the public who have taken on that role.
These groups aren't specifically about giving feedback, but if you go to a few meetings, then explain that's what you're looking for, you may be able to get some opinions.
Give peer support groups a few chances. Sometimes you'll go to your first meeting and not feel like it's the right fit for you. You may click with everyone in another group. Or you could go to the same group two weeks later and find there's a mix of members you feel a better connection to.
- Peer support groups are usually free
- They're a safe, supportive environment. Members are expected to keep what they hear in the group confidential. The other members have their own struggles, and lean toward being empathetic. The facilitators also make sure the vibe stays positive and helpful.
- Like with other mental health services, interacting in a support group is its own context that won't show what you're like in every setting. Some people are more closed-off and nervous in them. Not everyone's comfortable sharing about themselves to a bunch of strangers, after all. Others feel safe in them and are more open and outgoing than usual.
- The group members are regular people, so like with asking your friends or colleagues, the quality of the feedback you'll get will vary.
Take a class for a performance-based social skill like public speaking or improv comedy
The purpose of these groups isn't to give you a breakdown of your day-to-day social skills, but you'll be given feedback on your performances, and may still learn a useful thing or two. For example, after giving your first speech at Toastmasters you may be told that you tend to speak too quickly and not make as much eye contact as you think you do.
- The instructors are knowledgeable about the type of performing they teach, so they'll be able to give you solid feedback in that area. Hopefully you'll learn something you can carry over into your day-to-day life.
- I can't speak for every class, but usually they're geared so students are given feedback in a supportive, constructive way.
- Obviously the scope of the feedback you can get is limited.
- It's not a very time or cost-effective way to get feedback. If you want to learn public speaking or take an improv class anyway, getting some social pointers could be a nice bonus though.
A few iffier options
These are still ways of getting social feedback, but are less-reliable or have other downsides. I'm including them for the sake of completeness though.
Ask one friend what other people say about you
This lets your friend give you feedback, but they're not on the hook for it being their own. This option is free, and you might learn something. Though your friend may be reluctant to say anything, or only want to share the good things they've heard. They may not want to hurt your feelings, or seem gossipy.
Ask random strangers how you come across
For example, you could go to a nightclub or public square, approach people, and politely explain you're looking for some opinions on the impression you make. You might get some superficial feedback from this method, but it's not a typical thing to do. Many people will be taken aback and not want to answer, or give you a quick, generic response.
Ask for anonymous feedback online
You could film a short video of you talking about nothing in particular, then post it on a group or forum asking what everyone's sense of you is. You'll only be able to get feedback on how you seem at a glance, but that may be useful enough for you.
- A fairly quick and easy way to get some opinions on how you come across
- In theory the opinions will be impartial, since the people replying don't know you personally
- As we all know, people can be huge jerks online, so some of the feedback may be way too harsh. Other responses may be watered down. Depending on the culture of the site or forum you go to, the replies may slant toward being overly mean or nice.
- You have little to no idea who each person giving the feedback is, and whether their views are worth considering.
- You'll likely create a permanent record of yourself asking for social feedback on the internet. You may be fine doing that at the time, but feel embarrassed about it later, even if it's likely nothing will ever come of it.