Because of the pandemic, the ways in which we’ve always interacted with loved ones and even strangers have dramatically shifted. It’s hard to engage in small talk, say thank you, or just smile behind a mask.
For many of us, it’s been months since we’ve attended a large—or any kind of—social gathering. Warm gestures like hugging, kissing, close-up conversations, and patting each other on the back have become inappropriate.
What’s more, our fear of physical proximity to others can easily turn into a fear of others, says Christie Kederian, LMFT, a therapist and relationship expert. And yet, she notes, “physical touch is a basic human need that we crave.”
In short, if your interactions feel awkward and clumsy, it’s absolutely understandable. The rules, at least for the time being, have changed, and it’s okay if you’re currently not sure how to connect.
Start by having compassion for yourself—it is tough! Then sharpen your rusty social skills with these simple tips.
1. Check in with Yourself
Before starting a conversation, it’s always helpful to tune into how you’re feeling. In fact, being self-aware is the first step in having emotionally intelligent interactions. This way, your feelings don’t unwittingly shape the conversation.
For example, if you’re tense and tired, you might mistake your spouse’s silly comment for a condescending one. If you’re anxious, you might gloss over your friend’s sadness over a work situation.
Next, regulate your emotions. Instead of criticizing yourself for your feelings, accept them and take a deep breath. If there’s time before your interaction, consider how you’ll address the emotion and move forward.
2. Give Your Full Attention
When trying to connect with someone, a simple yet meaningful gesture is to focus fully on them in that moment. This conveys to the other person that this interaction is important to you and what they have to say is important, too.
Whether you’re with someone virtually or in person, put down your phone. Better yet, put it in a drawer or another room. To reduce distractions during virtual interactions, close other browsers and applications on your computer, says Tara Guarino Fairbanks, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in relationships.
3. Strive to Understand
Empathy is vital for interactions. Because everyone has diverse experiences and responses to the pandemic, aim to validate what the other person is saying. According to Fairbanks, look for ways the other person’s feelings, thoughts, and reactions make sense based on their situation and context.
For instance, someone who lives alone might tell a friend with small kids, “That makes so much sense. I can only imagine how tough it is to care for a newborn and toddler all day by yourself.”
4. Focus on the Other Person
To further sharpen your conversation skills, try these two simple but powerful tactics based on research from Harvard Business School:
- Plan ahead: Before your conversation, think about a few topics you’d like to discuss. Research shows that when people plan two to three bullet points to talk about, their conversation feels more enjoyable.
- Ask follow-up questions: Studies show that when people are asked more follow-up questions, they feel validated, respected, and seen—and they like the other person more. Set an intention to be curious, and ask open-ended questions.
5. Create Opportunities to Practice
Since socializing is just a skill that requires practice, create regular opportunities to connect. You might start by thinking about the types of connections you’re craving right now. For example, you can set up weekly walks, hikes, or bike rides with a friend. Join a virtual book club or start your own. Attend online meet-ups based on your interests.
If interactions still become awkward, acknowledge it. You might simply say, “I noticed that there was a bit of awkwardness and I just wanted to check in with you,” notes Kederian.
As often is the case, you’re not alone in feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed, or out of practice. That’s the thing about the pandemic: All of us can relate. So, be honest, be kind, and reach out.