We all have hundreds, perhaps thousands of skills: communication skills, leadership skills, work skills, self-help skills, study skills, time management skills, sports and recreation skills, decision-making skills, conflict-resolution skills, reasoning skills and lots of others. Although aptitude for learning these many skills varies greatly, each of us must learn every skill we acquire. No one is born with them. Unfortunately, some people falsely believe they can't learn a particular skill, e.g. "I'm too old (or young) to learn to date." Other people believe they have already mastered a skill, e.g. I've heard hundreds of psychology students say, "Oh, I know how to be empathic," when, in reality, they (and all of us) could learn to be much more effective. The truth is that each of us could probably learn much more about each of these skills. The learning continues throughout old age. Thus, learning the skills we need isn't just spending an hour skimming a long, marginally interesting chapter; it is a life-time of learning the basics and sharpening useful skills.
Knowledge and skills are the mark of an effective, sophisticated, educated, capable, responsible person. The more skills you have, the better (so long as you are moral). You can simply select one of the skills below that you want to improve and get to work on it. Or, you can first read more about your major problem (see chapters 3 to 10); those chapters will help you decide which skills will benefit you the most. Many books elaborate on each of the following skills but only a few books cover a wide range of communication methods (McKay, et. al., 1996; Bolton, 1979; McKay, Davis & Fanning, 1983). Dorothy Rich (1991) provides exercises for teaching 4 to 12-year-olds a variety of skills, such as confidence, perseverance, empathy, problem-solving ability, etc. Elgin (1996) helps adults talk to kids.
Role-playing and behavior rehearsal
One of the best ways of learning how to handle a situation is to practice with a friend. The two of you pretend to be interacting in the troublesome situation. You try out different approaches and perfect your comments. Your helper shows you several ways the person (whoever he/she is pretending to be) might react to your statements. The friend also makes suggestions and gives encouragement. Your skill at handling almost any interaction could be improved using this kind of practice and feedback. Several methods discussed in this chapter utilize role-playing to acquire other skills. General suggestions about role-playing will be given here and not repeated with each subsequent method.
Role-playing should not be confused with deception, being a phony, presenting a false front, impression management, conning someone, putting your best foot forward, etc. Role-playing is learning how to best handle a situation, usually that is honestly, skillfully and as you really are. We all must learn these skills by doing, by practicing new social skills over and over. Of course, some us require more practice than others.
- To figure out exactly what to say--when meeting a special person, when interviewing for a job, when asking parents for permission to do something, when asking the boss for a raise, etc.
- To gain general social skills--how to initiate conversations at a party, how to tell interesting stories, how to terminate conversations, how to express opinions about social issues, etc.
- To build self-confidence while interacting, reduce anxiety, etc.
STEP ONE: Overcome your reluctance, if any, to role-play.
Most people are hesitant to role-play. It exposes our weaknesses; it requires us to confront unpleasant situations; it puts us to repeated tests and that's embarrassing. Consequently, we are likely to come up with lots of excuses to avoid role-playing: It isn't real, so how can you learn anything? I feel so silly, this can't do me any good. Of course, learning a new way of interacting isn't "natural," it is stressful. But it needs to be done--and the new skills will become comfortable and part of the real you.
There are things you can do to help you get started: (1) Select a fairly easy situation to start with and prepare well before inviting a friend to work with you. (2) Role-play by yourself before working with others. Practice out loud and record your comments. Then listen to yourself and note your skills, don't tell yourself how awful it sounds, look for the good specific points--nice voice, loud enough, good grammar, cheerful, etc. Later, you can look for specific ways to improve your responses. (3) Use desensitization to reduce the fears associated with role-playing (see method #6 in chapter 12). (4) Some people find it easier if they pretend to be someone else--a successful person, a movie star, a smooth-operating friend or a psychologist who is helping shy people. (5) Occasionally, it is helpful to begin by goofing around and exaggerating your weaknesses, e.g. act out all the terribly embarrassing dumb mistakes you could possibly make. This can "break the ice."
STEP TWO: Have in mind some desired way of interacting--probably a more effective or smoother approach--with a specific person in a specific situation.
Ordinarily, you know what outcome you want to achieve, e.g. to get a date or a promotion, to be funny and fun to be around, to sound as though you have a brain and so on. What you don't know is how to pull it off. So, you need to figure out exactly what to say and do that will be intelligent, smooth, clever, appealing, persuasive or whatever. There are several ways of acquiring ideas about how to approach a troublesome situation:
- One of the best ways is observing a successful, skillful person. Carefully note what he/she does, such as phrasing, body language, tone of voice, timing and so on. Modify what he/she does to fit your own style.
- Ask an "expert" to teach you. He/she can demonstrate what he/she does, explain the rationale, warn you of pitfalls, suggest modifications depending on the circumstances, help you develop your own approach, and so on.
- Read how others have handled similar situations. Characters in novels are clever--learn from them. Watch successful persons on TV and in the movies. Throughout this chapter are references to many books about improving communications, they provide many ideas about how to handle a wide variety of situations. Highly useful skills in many social situations are empathy responding (method # 2), "I" statements (method #4), assertiveness (method #3), and self-disclosure (method #6).
- It isn't necessary to have access to an expert or a book. In fact, one of the best ideas is to work with someone who also wants to improve in the same ways you do. Mutual helpers are more likely to be comfortable together, to devote the necessary time, and to be honest with each other. You don't have to be an expert to tell someone how he/she is coming across. One can even learn from bad examples.
- You can do this step all alone, just by imagining what a skillful person would say and do. Be sure to think of several approaches, not just one clever comment. Think about how each approach should be modified, depending on the circumstances and what the other person says. Write down your ideas.
STEP THREE: Practice handling the specific problem situation. Get feedback. Practice until confident.
Make the role-play situation as similar to the real situation as possible. Examples: Wear clothes similar to what you would be wearing in real life, talk into a telephone if you will be calling someone, practice in an environment similar to the real one. Tell the friend who is helping you what role to play, i.e. what kind of person you will be interacting with in the "problem situation." Your partner (helper) should play the role as realistically as possible. If you have no helper, you can simply practice in fantasy. This is quite effective (Gambrill & Richey, 1985) if your imagination is detailed and realistic.
Start with easy-to-handle situations and work up to more challenging ones. For instance, it may be easier for you to introduce yourself to someone your age and sex, than to someone older or of the opposite sex. So, first pretend walking up to a person your age and sex who is alone and looks like he/she may need help. Then practice more difficult situations: meeting an older person working in a bank, approaching an attractive person of the opposite sex at a party, etc. If you are practicing asking for a raise, first practice with an understanding, gentle boss, later with a gruff, nasty boss. The idea is to have some success experience and to build your confidence. Even when role-playing very difficult situations, your partner should not give you an unnecessary "hard time." We need reinforcement.
Use the ideas developed in step 2 and practice each scene over and over, maybe 5 to 10 times, improving your comments until you are comfortable and satisfied. Then practice handling a more difficult situation. Have your helper respond in a variety of ways, such as eagerly accepting your invitation, hesitantly considering it, postponing deciding and sharply rejecting your proposal, so you have practice coping with many different real-life interactions.
After a few attempts to handle a specific situation, get feedback from your helper and evaluate your own performance. Attend to what you did well and to your mistakes. Make a mental or written list of the things you need to improve. Be constructive, always looking for specific behaviors or comments that would improve your effectiveness. Don't move on to a more difficult situation or quit until you feel good about your performance.
Feedback from your friend is especially valuable if: (1) it is very specific, e.g. "you looked nervous" doesn't tell us much that is useful. On the other hand, "you didn't smile, your lips were tight and you never looked at me" makes it very clear what you need to practice. Likewise, "you turned me off" or "I felt threatened by you" is specific feedback (in terms of the helper's reaction but not the cause). It is crucial that he/she identify your specific behaviors that produced those responses, so you can try something different. (2) Generous praise should be mixed with constructive suggestions. No blame or criticism is needed. (3) The focus should be on how to improve. The suggestions must be do-able (with practice); we must accept our limitations.
Valuable feedback can also be gotten from recording your practice via audio or video. Check out your overall manner of speaking. Note your good points as well as weaknesses. Do you speak loudly and clearly? Do you have good inflection or is your voice flat? Do you sound nervous and hesitant or calm and prepared? Do you look at the other person? Does your body language convey interest and positive feelings towards others? Of course, by listening and/or watching your interaction, you are likely to see many ways to improve your words and delivery.
As you get more skillful, you will feel more confident. As you overcome your anxieties, you will actually be more able to use all your skills, you will become more flexible, quicker, and more clever. Although you start off with easy-to-handle situations, eventually take on the really tough, challenging problem situations. Have some success there too.
STEP FOUR: Make use of your new skills in real life.
If you don't use it, you lose it. Don't say, "I'll try this sometime," rather say, "I will _______ in two hours." Have in mind specific actions you can take in specific situations that will be occurring in the near future. Place these assignments on your To-Be-Done-List or daily schedule. Otherwise, you may never find a chance to use the new skills. Pace yourself, not too slow nor too fast. Praise and reward your progress even though good skills produce their own rewards.
Start with the easier things to do. Work up to more difficult situations. If you have one or two experiences in which the other person doesn't react as you had hoped, keep on trying the same approach you worked out in role-playing. If, however, you have a string of four or five failures, you must reconsider what you are doing. Are you saying the wrong thing? Are you approaching the wrong people? Do you need different skills? Try a different approach. Learn from your mistakes, don't get down on yourself.
If you have practiced interacting in a certain situation and feel your skills are adequate, but you still won't use these skills in real life, you need to deal with the fear. Try desensitization or try covert rehearsal (practice in your fantasy) and imagine being successful. Either should reduce the anxiety.
Focus on how others are responding to you, rather than constantly observing and evaluating your own behavior. Example: rather than concentrating on your eye contact, note how much others disclose when you self-disclose, ask them questions, lean towards them, look in their eyes with interest and nod your head. You can lose your own self-consciousness by tuning into what the other person is saying--and into their moods and reactions. You can observe your impact on others. That will make you feel good.
Developing skillful approaches to major problems, like interviewing for a job or learning to meet the opposite sex, may take several hours. You might observe others for 2 or 3 hours, then role-play with a friend for 2 or 3 hours, then fantasize about taking some real-life action for a couple of hours and, finally, try out your wings (another two or three hours).
Most of us are reluctant to openly expose our weaknesses, so we avoid role-playing, as discussed above. Likewise, helpers are often reluctant to tell us our weaknesses, especially things like "your handshake is weak," "your voice is shaky," "your grammar is poor," "you need to brush your teeth," etc. Yet, honesty is important. Finally, some of us reject frank feedback about our weaknesses. That, of course, defeats the purpose of role-playing.
Effectiveness, advantages, and dangers
There is no doubt that role-playing is a direct, effective route to new behavior. It can be carried out with a friend or alone. With just a little imagination, a variety of circumstances can be created in our minds, then we can practice handling the situations. It works better with another person, however. It is a safe way to reduce our social anxieties. The feedback from a friend or an expert helps us see ourselves realistically. The emphasis on practical skills and success makes it a positive experience, although stressful at times. There is no known danger.
In a small mutual-helping group of college students, Harley talked about his difficulty getting a date. He said he was "scared to death of women." Yet, he was a senior, bright, tall, just a little over weight, good-looking, and seemed confident. The only indication of a problem in the group was his seriousness, formal language and big words. In fact, his part of a conversation sounded like a short lecture. The other students encouraged Harley to role-play asking for a date over the phone. It was scary, but he agreed. First, he pretended to call a girl in the group. He hardly introduced himself, then blurted out "would you go out with me?" The other students gave him several suggestions: take more time, make it clear who you are and say more about yourself, ask the girl questions, suggest something specific and fun to do on the date and so on. He got better as he practiced over and over.
Casual conversation was hard for Harley. Other men in the group showed him how they would ask for a date. He pretended to call several different girls a total of 10 or 12 times, then the group suggested he try it in real life. He did and reported back to the group that all three women had rejected him. The group asked lots of questions about what he said and who he called. They gave more suggestions, especially about selecting a person to call, and asked him to try again. He did and this time he was successful. He and the date had a fairly good time, but he told the group that he realized there were lots of skills he still had to master beyond getting a date. The group felt good about helping Harley and he felt he was "on his way."
Goldstein, A. P. (1973). Structured learning therapy: Toward a psychotherapy for the poor. New York: Academic Press, Inc.
Yablonsky, L. (1976). Psychodrama: Resolving emotional problems through role-playing. New York: Basic Books.