An Overview of Social Skills Training

Social skills training (SST) is a type of behavioral therapy used to improve social skills in people with mental disorders or developmental disabilities. SST may be used by teachers, therapists, or other professionals to help those with anxiety disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders and other diagnoses. 

It is delivered either individually or in a group format, usually once or twice a week, and is often used as one component of a combined treatment program.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety can have an impact on social skills in a variety of ways. People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) are less likely to engage in social interactions, giving them less opportunity to build skills and gain confidence.

SAD can also have a direct impact on social behavior regardless of skill level. For example, you may know that eye contact is important but feel unable to maintain it during a conversation because of fear.

SST has been shown to be effective in improving social skills for those with SAD regardless of the social issue. If there is a skills deficit, you can learn how to better manage social interactions.

If social anxiety is masking your social ability, practice and exposure during SST can help improve your confidence and self-esteem and reduce your anxiety about social situations. For those with social anxiety disorder, SST is often used in combination with other treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication.

Training Techniques

SST generally begins with an assessment of your specific skill deficits and impairments. Your therapist may ask you which social interactions you find the most challenging or which skills you feel could be improved. The goal of this process is to identify the best targets for social skills training for your particular situation.

Once specific target areas are identified, techniques for improving social skills are introduced. Usually, changes are made in one area at a time to ensure you don't get overwhelmed.

A therapist may describe a particular skill, explain how to carry it out, and model the behavior. Complex behaviors like how to carry on a conversation may be broken down into smaller pieces such as introducing yourself, making small talk, and leaving a conversation. Therapists will also discuss both verbal and nonverbal behaviors.

SST Techniques

  • Instruction is the educational component of SST that involves the modeling of appropriate social behaviors.
  • Behavioral rehearsal, or role play, involves practicing new skills during therapy in simulated situations.
  • Corrective feedback is used to help improve social skills during practice.
  • Positive reinforcement is used to reward improvements in social skills.
  • Weekly homework assignments provide the chance to practice new social skills outside of therapy.

Research and Evidence 

Research on the use of SST in treating SAD shows that it is effective whether executed alone or with another form of treatment. SST has also been shown to increase the results of group CBT for SAD. 

In general, SST is most effective when used as part of a comprehensive treatment program involving multiple components. Therefore, if you have severe social anxiety, social skills training may be helpful for you—both for your social skills and anxiety about social situations.

Areas of Development

Social skills are the building blocks of social interaction. If you have SAD, you may have missed out on developing some of these important skills. However, you can always learn them no matter your age. 

Assertiveness helps you relate to others in a way that balances the needs of everyone. If you have a tendency to defer to others, it can feel uncomfortable when you first start asserting yourself. However, in the long run, assertiveness will help to reduce anxiety and make both you and the people around you more comfortable.

Nonverbal communication, also known as body language, plays a large role in communication. People with social anxiety disorder tend to have "closed" body language that signals to others that you are unapproachable or unfriendly. While this is a natural result of anxiety, it is possible to work on having more open and friendly nonverbal behaviors.

Verbal communication is another skill. The art of conversation may seem like a puzzle if you have social anxiety disorder. You probably have trouble knowing what to say or feel uncomfortable talking about yourself. But, conversations are foundational to building relationships and knowing how to better navigate them will help you get acquainted with those around you.

  • Conversation Tips
  • 10 Good Topics for Small Talk
  • 10 Topics to Avoid During Small Talk
  • How to Join a Conversation
  • How to Leave a Conversation
  • How to Make Introductions: Introductions are a way of making people feel comfortable. Whether you are called upon to make introductions or you are being introduced, it is important to know the rules of these social encounters. Knowing how to confidently make introductions is a very useful social skill.
  • How to Practice Active Listening: Active listening involves paying attention, asking questions, and reflecting on what someone says. When you practice active listening, the other person in the conversation feels heard. If you are coping with SAD, practicing active listening may actually help you focus more on others and less on yourself. 
  • How to Get Over Telephone Phobia: While the telephone is part of communication, it has its own peculiarities that can make it difficult for those with social anxiety disorder. You might be afraid to answer the phone, make calls, or even record a voice greeting. If you have a phobia of using the phone, there are a number of tips and tricks that you can use to overcome your fear. In addition, you can practice exposure therapy on your own to gradually desensitize yourself to using the phone.
  • How to Accept Compliments & How to Give Compliments: If you live with SAD, you probably have trouble gracefully accepting compliments and may not give compliments easily. Learning these two social skills is important. Compliments are a way of initiating and deepening relationships. They are also great conversation starters and a good way to show appreciation for others.

A Word From Verywell

Building and improving upon your social skills is an important component of treatment for social anxiety disorder and is crucial to better negotiating social situations. If you find yourself severely lacking social skills, talk with your treatment professional about training or other methods for improving your abilities.

If you have not yet been diagnosed with SAD, the first step is to visit your doctor. From there, you can work together to design a treatment plan that meets your specific needs.

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Article Sources

  • Beidel DC, Alfano CA, Kofler MJ, Rao PA, Scharfstein L, Wong Sarver N. The impact of social skills training for social anxiety disorder: a randomized controlled trial. J Anxiety Disord. 2014 Dec;28(8):908-18.
  • Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders. Social Skills Training. Accessed July 26, 2016.
  • Greene JO, Burleson GR. Handbook of communication and social interaction skills. New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum; 2003.
  • Herbert JD, Gaudiano BA, Rheingold AA, Myers VH, Dalrymple K, Nolan EM. Social skills training augments the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral group therapy for social anxiety disorder. Behavior Therapy. 2005;36:125-138.
  • Scaini S, Belotti R, Ogliari A, Battaglia M. A comprehensive meta-analysis of cognitive-behavioral interventions for social anxiety disorder in children and adolescents. J Anxiety Disord. 2016;42:105-112.