Monthly Archives: July 2013

Why You’ll Never Have Perfect People Skills

Would you like to have perfect people skills? Would that make you happy? Maybe you haven’t noticed but unconsciously you may have a goal of perfection in the back of your mind when it comes to dealing with people. This is not a good idea. Let me explain…

It was the summer of 1991 and I was feeding coins into a phone at Victoria Station in London, England. It was hot and smelly in the station and the dread of the ongoing recession made the humidity even harder to take. I dialled the number in the job advert and tried not to sweat so much, I tasted the mint of the gum I was chewing and my anxiety built with each second of anticipation. Tony answered and asked me a few questions before wanting to know why I was the right person for the job. My mouth was dry, my heart was pounding and I did my best to sound calm and in control. It didn’t work.

“Are you chewing gum?” Tony barked down the phone.

“No, of course not!” I stuttered as I moved the gum to the side of my mouth. “It’s really hot today and my mouth is dry, that’s all.”

The phone interview went from bad to worse as I stumbled over my words, tried and failed to make a good impression and chewed gum every time nerves dried my mouth. Tony asked me one more time, “Are you sure you’re not chewing gum?” at which point I couldn’t take anymore and I hung up. I counted the change left in my sweaty palm, tasted the minty gum and decided not to phone about any more jobs until the next day.

The Cost of Demanding Perfection

How did I manage to do so badly? I can sum it up in one phrase – I demanded perfection. I needed a job, I was running out of money, I had been out of work for months and the future looked bleak. Because of all these pressures it wasn’t just a phone call, in my mind I had built it up to be the single most important conversation I would ever have. And for that reason I wanted it to be perfect, I wanted it to be the perfect job for me and I wanted to speak clearly, elegantly and so persuasively that Tony would be blown away by my brilliance.

Expecting, hoping for or demanding perfection kills self-confidence, sets you up for failure and makes you over think so much that it’s impossible to be natural and free flowing. In my case chasing perfection made me tense, afraid to make a mistake and unable to think straight in the moment. Aiming for perfection is the enemy of anyone looking to improve their communication skills.

On the other hand, setting high standards and aiming to gradually and consistently improve over time is a great approach. As long as you give yourself freedom to learn from your mistakes you can learn, grow and have fun without too much extra self imposed pressure.

The Numbers Game

Life is a numbers game and this applies in business, in our social lives and even in the fields of sport and entertainment. As I write this Novak Djokovic is the number one tennis player in the world. Think about that for a moment, of all the millions of people around the world who play tennis for fun and of all the thousands of professional players he is the best. Now, listen to this, as I write this, his career win rate is almost 80%. In other words the very best tennis player in the world, for every 100 matches played, has won 80 and lost 20 of all the professional matches he has played. He’s not even close to perfection yet he’s the best player in the world right now.

One more example. Take a look at the movie industry. Hollywood releases new movies every week and despite the huge multimillion dollar budgets, the big name actors and the crews of talented production people Hollywood can still not guarantee a winner. In fact of the hundreds of big budget movies released each year only a handful will be smash hits. Again, Hollywood doesn’t even get close to perfection.

The point I’m making is that if the brightest and best in the world can’t attain perfection and know it’s a pipe dream then you need to take the pressure off and instead have high standards, do your best, learn from your successes and failures and get better over time. Know that life is a numbers game but not a game where someone can hit 100% all the time.

When it comes to being at your very best with people here a few useful guidelines:

1. Remember What Works

Notice how you are handling social situations today, this week and recently. Are you better or worse than you used to be? Are you enjoying being with people more than in the past? If you’re improving it’s good to be aware of that so that you can decide to do more of what works.

On the other hand if you’re disimproving, be objective about it. What are you not doing that worked for you in the past? Decide to start doing it again. Often it’s simply a matter of becoming aware of your habitual patterns, get conscious of what you’re doing or not doing and you are back in the drivers seat.

2. Make Enjoyment a Priority

Pay attention to the long term trend. Over the last few months, are you having more or less enjoyment socialising? Are you becoming more or less relaxed mingling with people? Do you have a good balance between enjoying alone time and time with people you care about?

Again, it’s good to pause and evaluate your habits before deciding if you want more or less of what you’ve been doing.

3. Focus on Specifics not Generalities

One major pitfall we can fall into when it comes to perfectionist thinking is over generalising. We want everything to be perfect all the time. We go to a party and we want everyone we meet to love, appreciate and admire us and if this doesn’t happen we feel like we failed a little. Forget about having unrealistic and unattainable objectives that can only produce one outcome with certainty – stress, worry and beating yourself up.

Instead get highly specific about what you want that you can control. Take the example of a party, aim to find good matches, people you have something in common with who you can relate to. Then go and search for those people. That cloud of hopelessness and despair that follows perfection around will then float way into the distance.

To sum up, chasing perfect people skills is a sure fire recipe for failure, unhappiness and disappointment. You’ll enjoy yourself much more if you treat life as a numbers game and aim to gradually improve over time without postponing happiness until you hit 100%.


How Not to Win Friends at Parties

Many years ago, before I learned how to develop good conversation skills, I had one of those nightmare evenings only those who get lost for words can understand…

It was that lazy, relaxed time of year, December between Christmas and New Year. It was dark and cold outside, it looked like it might snow and I didn’t feel like going out but I had to.

My girlfriend, Cristine, was having a party at her house and I didn’t want to go but I had to because she wanted me to be there to meet a large group made up of her friends and neighbours, and her mother. I only knew one person who would be there, her Uncle Steven who I had met a few weeks before. He was easy to talk to and very friendly so the only thing I was looking forward to was meeting him again.

I felt nervous and unsure of myself as I stood at the front door with a bottle of wine. Cristine opened the door and invited me in, she looked happy and pleased to see me. She was smiling and animated and this made me even more nervous; I didn’t want to let her down, I didn’t want to make a bad impression but I still didn’t want to be there and there was one thing I knew for sure – I was not in the mood for meeting a bunch of strangers.

Cristine led me into the living room and proudly introduced me to a room full of strangers. Everyone looked over and stared at me to welcome me before returning to their huddles. I stood there wondering what to do as Cristine wandered off to the kitchen. Everyone seemed to be engrossed in their own private conversations, there was a gentle hum to their conversations and I stood there helpless. I didn’t see a way in, I didn’t know what to say, I put my hands in my pockets and I wished I had stayed at home to watch TV.

After a while I found Uncle Steven and locked onto him. I forgot about everyone else and I gave him no option but to have a very intense chat about whatever I wanted to discuss. At times he looked bored and every time it looked like the conversation might end I got more stressed and worried that he might walk off “to get another drink”and leave me looking foolish standing on my own with no one to talk to.

Minutes took hours to pass and I wondered how long more I needed to stay before I could politely leave. It was a painfully slow evening but thankfully it finally came to an end but not before I had to endure some abuse from Cristine. She wasn’t smiling anymore, in fact she was quite annoyed, annoyed with me. She asked me why I hadn’t mingled and talked to people. I tried to explain but she didn’t get it, she was your classic social butterfly, talkative and likeable. She loved meeting people, she could talk to anyone and was at ease in all company. She just had no idea what it was like to be quiet, stuck for words and afraid of rejection. She didn’t know how close I had come to not turning up but I did anyway for her.

I made my way home, watched TV for a while and I decided to renew my policy of avoiding parties. And, I made a mental note to be on the look out for a new girlfriend. Without even trying I had embarrassed Cristine in front of her neighbours and friends, I didn’t expect her to want to see me again.

How Not To Behave When You Meet New People:

When I look back at that evening with the benefit of what I’ve learned since I can see clearly that there was nothing random about the poor results I achieved. Back then my expectations and poor conversation skills both conspired to create the perfect storm of silence.

I used to decide that I had nothing in common with most people, that people weren’t interested in getting to know me and that if I was myself people would judge me, disapprove of me and most likely simply reject me. I now know that these were incorrect beliefs however such an attitude determines how you behave, it limits you by restricting your ability to express yourself and stops you from letting your true personality shine. And that’s what people do want to see because that’s what makes you interesting.

In terms of conversation skills I relied on a number of ineffective strategies that rarely work for anyone, it wasn’t personal. Firstly, I was reactive and I waited for people to approach me which simply doesn’t work because you often end up either alone or talking to someone you don’t really want to talk to.

Secondly, I also used to force people to talk about whatever I was interested in and I’d go deeper and deeper into those topics simply because I wasn’t so nervous if I talked about what I knew well. This too is a poor strategy for engaging people in mutually enjoyable conversations.

Finally, I also had a habit of locking onto people. If I was lucky enough to have a conversation work out I would do everything I could to monopolise that person’s attention, to make sure they couldn’t get away!

You may relate to some or all of these patterns. What’s important to recognise though is that only a few drivers create or destroy a conversation and only a few patterns create or destroy your ability to enjoy a social gathering. Once I dropped the negative habits I mentioned above, and this is important, replaced them with more positive and much more effective approaches, meeting people and enjoying their company started to seem like the most natural thing in the world.

Going to a party can be nerve wracking, something you want to avoid and a source of embarrassment or it can be something you look forward to all week because you know you’ll have a ball and meet interesting and wonderful people who are keen to get to know the real you. You can be quiet, express yourself and still have a great time with people who find you interesting and enjoyable to talk to – the key is to identify those patterns you use that don’t work and replace them with strategies that do work.