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Book Recommendations for social skill development?

by Teach1 min read14th Dec 201917 comments


Social SkillsSkill Building

I have come to a realisation a bit later than I should have. Although I am still quite young and definitely have time to act on this realisation now, I wish I had started sooner.

I am studying to become a teacher, and I hope to go into education policy later, with quite some large ambition in mind. And yet, my social skills are quite poor, and I have hardly any charisma. I seek to change this. I know that much of the cause of my poor social skills is never having created or found opportunities to develop them in the natural developmental path of a child/teenager.

And so I take to reading books in order to learn, and then apply what I read in life. I suppose I could just sit and think and figure out what to improve, but in the name of efficiency I want to at least start with the guidance of someone who actually knows what they're talking about.

So, any book recommendations that explicitly teach social skills and charisma? I've started working through Just Listen by Mark Goulston, which so far seems quite valuable.

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Last year, I wrote up a document of social skills resources I'd prepared for sharing with others and possibly making a post. I haven't yet made that post, so I'll dump what I've got here. Sorry for not including links and better presentation generally, I'm short on time just at the moment.

Dump of a Google Doc from June 2018.

Introductory Notes

Although this document lists the books which have helped me interact better with others, I’d attribute the bulk of any gains I’ve made in social skills to simply observing others carefully. More than any theory or recommendations, I’ve found that paying careful attention to how people say things, their body language, their responses, etc., has helped my social skill and understanding. My best guess is that if you throw enough data at your mind (at least of this sort), it will learn what do it with. So read the books in doc, but I as much advise others to pay more attention to others if want to improve. 

Also, a major component of social skills is having your own shit together. Or at least, my own ability to interact well with others has increased alongside mastery of myself. Emotions, fears, insecurities, desires, agendas, prejudices, etc., all interfere with one’s ability to interact well with others. 


Start With No by Jim Camp

This is a book on negotiation (mostly enterprise and corporate) but it drove home some crucial general lessons for me that hadn’t fully sunk-in from elsewhere: 1) the utmost importance of inhabiting the world of your “adversary” (or conversation partner), 2) the skills of listening well and asking good questions, 3) investing the effort to think about what your “adversary” really wants, 4) focusing on what you can control (actions) rather than outcomes, 5) investing the time to understand what your adversary wants, even when they themselves don’t know.

Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery

Personality Type systems aren’t always the most rigorous or predictive models, but those responsible for the Enneagram have paid a lot of attention to humans and what drives them. I’ve found Enneagram materials to be very useful for recognizing underlying patterns of motivation and behavior in myself and others; and in particular, it helped me appreciate how what’s driving other people is quite different from what’s driving me most of the time.

The Charisma Myth

It’s been a few years and I’m due for a re-read, but I liked this book. Links charisma to learnable traits/states of mind and actions which can be learned.

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity

This book is aimed at bosses and managers and does a fantastic job at describing how to set-up a two-way, feedback-rich relationship notwithstanding professional context and power asymmetries. Worth reading for most people.

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Related to non-violent communication, this book is really good for getting you to think about the emotional state and desires of your interlocutor as well as your own. It generalizes well to adults.

Non-Violent Communication

Makes for good relationships when generally adopted. The skill of learning to say things without making others defensive is definitely worth learning.

Circling & Authentic Relating [not a book, but start attending groups and sessions on these.]

Elephant in the Brain

The Gervais Principle & Be Slightly Evil: A Playbook for Sociopaths

These two books by Venkatesh Rao’s are great resources on status. While Elephant in the Brain explains why status is such fundamental motivation and shows how it explains broad macro features of society, Rao’s books analyze status in individual interactions.

While I encourage people to become more aware of status if you don’t think about it much, I strongly caution them not to obsess about it.

Books I Have Only Read Small Parts Of

  • Impro
  • Games People Play
  • I’m OK-You’re OK
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Caldini
    • Definitely the Dark Arts. I read a few chapters and it’s interesting to see the subtle tricks people can employ to get us to say yes to things. If you say yes more often than you like, worth reading.

Books I Have Collected by Not Yet Read

(Appears,  I have a habit of buying books on social skills whenever I see them and then forgetting about them.)

  • How to Speak How to Listen by Mortimer Adler
  • The Charisma Code
  • It’s Not All About “Me”
  • Superhuman Social Skills
  • The Social Skills Guidebook
  • Emotional Intelligence 2.0
  • The Definitive Book of Body Language

Books on Relationships

A General Theory of Love

You might expect a book about romantic love,  but it instead spends a lot of time focusing on Infant attachment. Still, very interesting for modeling human attachment in general.

Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) A Dismissive Avoidant Partner

Generally helpful book on the topic of Attachment Styles. Useful for understanding that different people have learnt (or deeply ingrained) different patterns of behavior in relationship and that the interaction of these patterns matters.

The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship

This is a crazy book. But has some great stuff on letting your partner be who they are recognizing that you’re not responsible for solving all your partner’s problems. 


Here's the thing though. When someone asks a vague question like "how do I learn music", to me that means they're not trying. Otherwise they'd have specific questions, like what's that chord in a given song, or how to pick across strings, or how to improve timing on the kick drum. If you have no such questions, just a vague "how to get better at social", you need to start trying and getting more specific questions, not reading ahead.

A more charitable interpretation is that they are trying to assume less, going a little more meta and explaining the general problem, instead of focusing on specifics that they thing are important, but might not really be.

A failure mode when people don't try to do this is the user that asks a software developer to "just add a button that allows me to autofill this form", when maybe there's an automation that renders the form totally unnecessary.

The reason I was not so specific is because my two overarching problems are themselves very wide: (1) having less than optimal impulse control resulting in sometimes making poor social decisions without prior thought and control, and (2) not possessing sufficient data on social knowledge/skills to know what to do in a variety of situations.

I am not yet at a stage where I could say exactly what it is that I need to learn, so I am looking for a wide variety of avenues to start down. Once I've made a solid start, I will be able to actually see the specific questions.

0cousin_it1yWell, someone who never learned music surely doesn't have enough knowledge/skills on what to do in a band, and will perform terribly on stage. Their problems, as you say, are wide. And yet, if such a person goes around asking "where do I start learning music", I just know that they're not that into the whole idea. If they were, they would've picked up a guitar and be playing already.
3Teach1yWhich, as a matter of fact, I have been doing. But when I started learning guitar, I did not already know to ask "what exercises can I do to strengthen my hand so I can play barre chords better". I started with "where do I begin", and went from there. As I played more and more, I begun to see the things I needed to know in order to improve. The same follows here.

The 3 areas in which you'll experience rapid gains to your charisma are:

1. Presence

2. Emotional Expressiveness

3. Confidence.

After that is 4:

Language expressiveness

For 1, depending on your learning style, I would look at "Practicing the Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle.

For 2, again depending on your learning style, there's a great out of print book Ronald Riggio called the "Charisma Quotient" that has a number of exercises for improving emotional expressiveness. Impro by Keith Johnstone is also a great resource.

For 3, I mostly recommend internal work (check out my sequence on here on Memory Reconsolidation), going to a Toastmasters regularly will also help with this.

For 4, Look into the work of John Antonokis et al. specifically their list of "Charismatic Leadership Tactics" and accompanying exercises to practice them.

Note that none of these are about listening/social calibration/etc, that's another skill set that's important for social skills but not as much for straight up charisma.

Patrick King has published a lot of short, accessible books that are available on Kindle. They might seem a bit lightweight but they're generally well-written and I've taken quite a bit from the books I've written.

(One tip that has stayed with me: avoid asking people what their "favorite" book/band/movie/whatever is... instead, ask them about a good book/band/movie/whatever they've read/listened to/watched/whatever recently, or a favorite - it gives people more wiggle room and doesn't push them to make a definitive statement. Little things like this are valuable to know.)

Books are useful for many things, but this area is best learn by doing. Find a master and become her apprentice for a time. You will not become a natural, but can get passable. And also meet many more people you otherwise wouldn't. And yes, learn active listening. It's pretty formulaic (listen, imagine how they feel, recap what they said in your own words, express anything positive you feel, ask an open-ended question, repeat), yet rare enough to get quick results.

Are there that many social skills mentors who take on students for that to be a more realistic course of action than finding books? Wouldn't you need solid social skills to convince one to mentor you in the first place?

2ChristianKl1yThere are different kinds of social skills. If your social skill situation is so that you appear to everyone like an asshole, it will be hard to find someone to mentor you. If you however seem like a nice guy who wants the best but has no charisma and is willing to learn, there's no barrier to finding someone to help you.

I second that having a mentor is very valuable, especially if they're able to observe you in social situations and provide feedback. Mentors point out blindspots which can be very hard to notice yourself. 

OTOH, sometimes the theory in books really helps, especially if you're a theory-driven learner like me.

I wouldn't even know where to start in looking for a mentor. Any suggestions?

2Ruby1yNot easy to do, necessarily, but managers are often both incentivized and well-positioned to do this since your overall workplace performance matters to them and they can observe you interact with others. This is where I got the most mentoring.
1Teach1yAs a uni student just finishing the second of what may be six years, I think I'm a ways away from having a manager or boss to go to for this (and most of my work/income is not in any kind of office/workplace).

I want to write up a more detailed post eventually, but the gist is that understanding Polyvagal Theory is an exceptional multiplier on all the charisma and social skill books you could read. It is the underlying *why* the tips and tricks work, what you should be aiming for, etc. It's the building block to make your own social skill tips and tricks from first principles. So,

First, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br8-qebjIgs.

To really grok it, I recommend following with listening to the Polyvagal Podcast - start from the beginning.

For the rare written resource on the topic, here's a transcribed interview with Stephen Porges, the researcher who originally described polyvagal theory: https://www.pesi.com/blog/details/967/wearing-your-heart-on-your-face-the-polyvagal-circuit

If you get this + attachment theory* you've got a good sense of how people work socially.

*I pointedly do not recommend Avoidant: How to Love (or Leave) and Avoidant Partner, as it's focused on just one attachment style, the dismissive-avoidant style. My favorite explanation might be from Stan Tatkin, in his audiobook Your Brain on Love. He has another book on attachment styles specifically, if you want to read with your eyes, called Wired for Love, though I haven't read it.

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