Your 20s bring about a lot of change—including a massive change in social situations.
After spending all of high school understanding exactly where you fit in (or don’t fit in), you graduate, and your entire world opens up.
Let’s say you go to college. You make new friends, get comfortable with debating fellow students in discussion groups, and might even live with roommates. You meet people from different backgrounds and walks of life and rebuild your social circle—sometimes from scratch.
When you join the workforce, you have to do it all over. And this time, the game has changed again.
Whether you’re working a desk job, undertaking work as a laborer or anything else, you have to navigate a whole new set of unspoken social rules, from learning email etiquette to giving presentations or managing other people.
It’s overwhelming to take in and even more overwhelming to adapt to—especially while you’re also trying to figure out who you really are, what you really want, AND how to pay the bills. But it’s much easier when you have the right social skills to help you navigate all the different situations you’ll be exposed to.
As someone who’s recently cleared her 20s, I’ve made my fair share of blunders in social situations: at work, with friends, and in relationships. Along the way, I’ve learned that if I had spent as much time developing my social skills as I did on YouTube, life would have been a hell of a lot easier.
To help you avoid making the same mistakes that I did, here are seven social skills I wish I had developed in my 20s.
Let’s start this list off with a true (and embarrassing) story.
When I was in college, I was constantly undertaking internships to try and get a foot in the door of the media industry. One of these was an internship at a PR firm, where I was helping to organize packages of beauty products to send to the media.
I was recently sifting through my old emails and found one from my manager gently reminding me not to take too many personal calls at work.
Guess what 20-year-old me’s response was?
I’m pretty sure I haven’t done any majorly long calls, and when I have taken a call, it’s been a minute or two (except when I was in the stock room on a phone call, but that was cos I was organizing stuff, and I was a bit bored, haha). Oh well, I will know for next time, sorry.
Yep, I cringe too.
Here’s the thing: As you get older, you’ll be writing a lot of emails, messages, or even articles. And unfortunately, tone doesn’t come across very effectively in text, so you have to learn to express yourself well using just the written word.
If you want to improve your writing skills, here are four tips to help you on your way:
1. Think about context. Are you writing an email to a colleague or a public-facing announcement? If so, use a more serious tone and keep the emojis to a minimum. On the other hand, you probably shouldn’t be replying to your friends with one-word messages too often (unless you don’t want to be friends for long!).
2. Have a clear objective in mind. What’s the main thing you want to say? Keep this in mind when you’re writing, then go back and review it to make sure that point comes across.
3. Read it out loud. Re-read what you have written out loud (or use a tool like Natural Online Readers). This is a great way to gauge how your writing will be received by others and reveal any sentences that might not make sense.
4. Proofread your work. Typos are awkward at the best of times, which is why it’s important to check your writing for mistakes. Grammarly is a great one that I use to triple-check that all of my writing is clear, concise, and error-free.
However, as I progressed through my adult life, I realized that I might not be as good as I thought—just like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. I was listening just to speak. I was nodding along and agreeing, but I’d often lose track of what the other person was saying (or worse, think of how it related to what I wanted to talk about).
Honestly, it’s tough to actively listen. But it’s an important skill to learn if you want to avoid misunderstandings, reduce conflicts, and improve your relationships with the people you love.
So how do you actively listen? These six tips are a great way to start:
The key thing to remember here is that this skill doesn’t come overnight. It’s likely that you’ll take years and years to hone your active listening abilities, but it’s absolutely and totally worth it.
Some people love public speaking; some hate it. However, very few people I know have never had to speak in front of others after graduating from high school.
I’m not the best public speaker. I get nervous and uncomfortable, and I speak too quickly. But I found very quickly in college and at work that I’d have to get used to it—and I only wish I had started developing these skills sooner.
Improving your public speaking skills boils down to one thing: practice. While it feels uncomfortable, try to volunteer yourself for as many speaking opportunities as possible, whether at local events or at work. Another option is to join your local Toastmasters community and use it as an opportunity to improve your speaking skills.
Some of the most successful people I know are the ones that understand how to network like a boss. If this skill is locked down in your 20s, you’ll open up more doors for the future and have more control over your career trajectory.
PSA: being good at networking doesn’t mean that you have to attend 1,000 networking events a year and have more LinkedIn followers than Ariana Huffington. It means understanding how to connect with the right people and building a strong reputation that will support you as you grow your career.
The most valuable advice I can give about networking is to just go out there and speak to people whenever possible. For example, if you have a meeting with a new person at work, you could always suggest that you grab a coffee together so you can learn more about what they do. Another option is to join an industry association that organizes conferences or after-work drinks because you’ll already have something in common with the other attendees.
Another key tip: no matter who you approach, don’t come in with an agenda or dismiss someone because their title isn’t CEO. I can’t tell you the number of times someone who has been at the same level as me (or been a contractor working with me) has gone on to do great things at some pretty cool companies.
Managing conflict isn’t the most exciting topic, but it’s one that you’ll need every year for the rest of your life.
Disagreements with colleagues. Arguments with friends. Spats with your partner. All of these can be damaging to your relationships, particularly if you don’t know how to handle them well (or how to say sorry).
Improving your conflict resolution skills starts with accepting that conflict is completely natural. When you realize it’s unavoidable, it’s easier to stop running away from conflict and start embracing it as an opportunity for change and growth.
So what do you do when you inevitably come across conflict? Try these three things:
Use neutral language. Nothing escalates conflict quite like the use of aggressive or emotionally-charged language. When communicating with someone, choose your words carefully and try to be as objective as possible to avoid fanning the flames.
Move past the blame game. Blaming is hurtful, counterproductive, and (in most cases) both parties have a role to play in the conflict. Rather than being focused on the past (“you did…”), focus on the future (“moving forward, it would be great if you could…”).
Take a step back. One of the biggest things I had to learn about conflict resolution is that not all conflicts get sorted out straight away. Sometimes people need a little space to reflect, think through the problem, and gain new perspective.
Throw in your newfound active listening skills, and you’ll be in a much better position to handle conflict with others in the future.
Yes, you read that right: saying no is a fundamental social skill you need to lock down as soon as possible.
Over the course of your 20s, you’re going to be presented with a ton of different opportunities. Your friends will always want to hang out. Your colleagues will always want you to help them with stuff, even if it’s not in your scope of work. You’ll be asked to do a lot—but if you give your time up for everyone else, it’s a surefire recipe to crash and burn.
It’s a counterintuitive social skill, but learn to say no when you don’t want to do something or when you need time for yourself.
Here are some tips that helped me build up this skill:
Practice, practice, practice. The first few times you turn something down, you’ll probably feel like the other person hates your guts. But over time, you’ll quickly realize that it isn’t as big a deal as you think—and if the other person judges you for your decision, they’re probably not worth having in your life anyway. Trust me: the more you say no, the easier it gets.
Communicate clearly. When I first started saying no, I would constantly do it in a wishy-washy way (like, “oh sure, maybe later?”). Needless to say, I’d still find myself roped into things simply because I wasn’t communicating my decision clearly. If you do want to say no, keep it simple and direct. Don’t embellish; otherwise, you may just confuse the other person with your indecision.
Thank the person. Saying no doesn’t mean you have to be rude. Even if it doesn’t sound like something you want to do, try to express gratitude with a line like “Thanks for thinking of me” or “I really appreciate you inviting me to do that.”
Don’t feel guilty for saying no either. After all, if you don’t look after yourself, nobody else will.
I first picked up a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” when I was 21, and it blew my mind.
This isn’t to say that anything in this book was groundbreaking. Far from it, actually. But what it did do was highlight tips on how to be more persuasive—techniques I still use at work to this very day.
When you’re in your 20s, you’ll inevitably get other people looking down on you at work or thinking that you’re the “baby” of the office. If you can learn how to effectively communicate your point of view and bring others around to your way of thinking, you’ll have a much easier time navigating your career in these early stages (and reaching your end goals).
Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there if you want to improve your persuasion skills, from Dale Carnegie’s book to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Riya Maglani’s TED talk:
Start incorporating these into your daily life, and you’ll be a master of persuasion before you know it.
Finally, a word of caution: don’t get persuasion confused with manipulation. Getting good at the latter might serve you in the short run, but it’s a surefire way to break down all your social relationships in the long run.
Improve your social skills, improve your life
Your 20s are an opportunity to learn, develop and grow—and they’re arguably the most formative years of your adult life. By locking down these social skills early, you’ll set yourself up for better relationships in the future, both personally and professionally.