Missing Social Cues

Missing Social Cues

By Kerry Patterson

Dear Kerry,

I’m faced with the challenge of training people who are rather low self-monitors. That is, they don’t read social cues particularly well and as a result often annoy or offend others. They tend to push too hard or talk about topics that others are no longer interested in or simply hang back and don’t offer their ideas when they should. Many are skilled professionals in their field but since they don’t come off well in social interactions, they are being discounted. Our company can’t afford the luxury of not hearing from or discounting the opinions and ideas of some of our best thinkers.

Here’s the problem: when I work with this particular group, many are blind to the fact that they have a blind side. They view social skills training in general as a waste of time and the fact that they are in particular need of it often escapes them. How can I deal with this sensitive situation?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

First of all, it’s important to make sure those you’re training understand that using crucial skills in the workplace isn’t about looking pleasant or making people happy. Effective employees don’t charm people into their good graces. If anything, they’re tough on infractions, violations, and failed promises. They confidently step up to problems and hold the other person accountable.

Honest, complete, and effective communication is about getting the results you want and need. Interpersonal skills matter because you work in a social environment made up of small groups and teams. People who “don’t work and play well with others” cause companies fits. Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Companies can’t afford that.

Not what to do and say, but when to do and how to say it

That said, the challenge here lies in first helping people realize that they aren’t reading the cues well, and second, helping them apply high-level reasoning to an activity that most people do intuitively (picking up on social cues). It turns out that the first challenge isn’t all that great. Most people who stumble in social settings are well aware of the fact that they aren’t doing well. They’ve been given more than enough feedback over the years to realize that they don’t always shine in complex social interactions. They know this in general, but still struggle in the moment. Many also realize that the typical training they’ve been given or books they have been asked to read haven’t given them much help. This is often because the material deals with what to do and say but offers little to no help when it comes to when and how. This is where they struggle. They don’t know when because they aren’t reading the cues and the often don’t know how because they aren’t reading the responses well enough to then make subtle adjustments to their behavioral attempts.

We’ve all missed the cues

What’s a person to do? We all need help in reading social cues, some just more than others. If you’re offering social skills (influence, accountability, communication) training for those who have been tagged at risk, spend as much time talking about the entry condition or cue to the skill in question as you do on the skill itself. This can feel odd because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t to everyone. In fact, we all have problems at times. For instance, when we’re caught up in an argument, all of us have missed the process of what’s going on around us and plowed on ahead no matter how others respond. We’ve all seen people resist our ideas only to push harder and cause more resistance. In short, we all missed the cues.

Without going into detail here, suffice it to say that you’ll need to slow down the skill you’re teaching. Focus on what others are doing or saying BEFORE the skill is called for and actually spend time looking for both the verbal and nonverbal cues that would drive a person in one direction or another. Then look at how people might respond to what you’ve just learned—with particular emphasis on what it looks like when the skill is working and when it isn’t. “Oops, that didn’t work. Let me try something else.” Once again, this calls for slowing down, looking for both verbal and nonverbal hints, talking about them, and then identifying where to go given the response. It’s a little hard to describe this in the abstract, but this ability to read social cues lies at the heart of your problem and you won’t be providing people the full solution to their problem if you merely focus on the traditional elements of influence or communication training.

Good luck with a challenging and often touchy task.