We start each session at Englist by taking five minutes and getting students to talk. We simply ask, “What have you been up to since we saw you last?” This easy question and activity is surprisingly difficult for many students, which is precisely why we do it.

The problem is, modern education and society have made social skill acquisition more difficult than ever before. In Taiwan, where we are based, students spend almost all of their waking hours in a classroom listening to teachers and taking tests. If they are not in school or doing homework, there is a good chance students are looking at a screen of some sort. The amount of time students spend actively interacting with each other is tiny, so even amongst their peers, student social skills are lacking.

However, the modern world also calls for interaction not just with peers, but with teachers, other adults, and even people from different countries. How is a student meant to meaningfully engage so many different types of people when all of their time is consumed by school and smartphones?

You can see the problem: there is a dearth of social skills education but we live in a world where success demands deft communication and persuasion abilities. Doctors see hundreds of patients a day, lawyers spend much of their time negotiating, explaining, and convincing others, and CEOs are tasked with building efficient and dynamic teams, and then leading them to success. Social skills – the ability to talk, interact, make friends, convince others, and to gain trust – are perhaps more important than any other set of abilities. But instead of trying to foster these in students, we have deeply limited them.

This is why Englist makes social skills a priority. Students need to speak in class. They need to think of things to say. They need to learn to interact with their teachers – adults from different countries who do things differently than parents or local teachers.

While our warm up sessions are important, they are also only the beginning; writing education demands that students open up, consider their thoughts, and learn to express them capably, first to teachers, then to everyone else.

In short, we live in a world where communication and social skills are increasingly important. As such, we make them a priority, and you should too.

What are social skills and why are they important?

“Social skills” encompass a range of specific abilities that are interrelated. Just by practicing one kind of social skill, you can improve in other areas, but it helps to be aware of as many of them as possible. This list is hardly comprehensive, but it is a good start.

1. Speaking and conversation

Just being able to speak when spoken to can be a tall order for a shy student. For obvious reasons, however, it is deeply important. Even asking a student “how are you today” can elicit nothing but blank stares, and kids (and adults!) need to get over this. It’s true, sometimes students don’t understand when someone is speaking to them, but they should say that rather than freeze.

Beyond just responding and being able to speak, students also need to learn how to engage in conversation. Let’s go back to our warm up exercise: we ask students what they did over the weekend or yesterday or whatever. Students often respond with, “Nothing,” and hope that is that. Fortunately for them, “nothing” is not good enough. So we press them, and they often follow up with some activity they have deemed uninteresting or boring. We ask them about the activity – why they are doing it, what exactly is boring about it, and what it entails.

This process usually involves dragging information out of students, and while it’s a pain for teachers, it is necessary for students. Once they are comfortable sharing a sentence or two, we ask them to expand. So, instead of “I had class” as a response, students learn to say, “I had dance class, which was really fun because we are learning a new routine to a new song and I really like it.” When students can comfortably form full thoughts and engage in back and forth, that is conversation. It takes time, but it’s worth it because it instills students with personality.

 2. Forming and fostering relationships: peers, strangers, and different kinds of people

Once kids can hold a conversation (in any language), they can begin to form relationships. They find people who share similar personalities or interests, and they converse about them. Students make and lose friends fairly regularly – this is part of growing up and practicing their social skills. They learn that being rude or too talkative damages relationships, while listening and having something interesting to contribute improves them. They develop and maintain strong relationships with peers, which turns into a virtuous cycle of social skill acquisition (and a source of fun and support).

Once students can form relationships with peers, they become better at engaging strangers. Their ability to speak with and listen to their friends makes them more capable of applying these same skills with new people, thus improving their ability to make new acquaintances and friends.

Finally, once people are comfortable engaging with strangers, they can then apply their social skills to building relationships with different kinds of people in different settings. The types of relationships required in a functioning, successful adult’s life are manifold and include professional relationships with people who are older, younger, in different departments, and from different backgrounds. Interpersonal relationships will include mostly peers, but also extended family and mentors. Beyond that, having the ability to engage people from different countries, of different social or economic backgrounds, or those with different beliefs and worldviews, opens up the most fruitful opportunities and experiences.

None of this is possible without being able to build and maintain relationships, and relationships are built on appropriate and adept social skills.

relationships are built on appropriate and adept social skills

3. Lawyer skills: explaining, negotiating, convincing

Three of the most important social skills are being able to explain, negotiate, and convince. We call these the “lawyer skills” because they are at the core of that profession, but are imperative for many other types of work and experiences as well.

First, being able to explain a topic to others is deeply important. It starts with kids explaining themselves when they get in trouble, and is a skill everyone must cultivate throughout their lives. It is the central skill required of teachers and coaches. The best parents are those who can explain ideas well to their kids.

Englist addresses explanation skills specifically when we teach students the art of the expository essay.

Next is negotiation skills. Kids learn this first from their peers; who gets to be “it” in tag, how to share, and who is first in line are all examples of kids having to employ negotiation. However, it becomes increasingly important as adults, when individuals must learn to compromise or co-exist with those we disagree with.

Finally, learning to convince others of an idea is one of the most difficult, but most useful, of social skills. Kids learn this in convincing their parents to hand over more responsibility and privilege, but as adults we use it when we argue or when we want to get our way. 

Persuasion is a core skill of academic writing, and is thus a required skill for academic success. This is one reason why Englist focuses so heavily on persuasive writing.

4. Active listening: patience, consideration, and empathy

There is more to social skills than talking – knowing how to listen is incredibly important. Most people think this comes easily for students too; teacher’s teach, students listen. However, there is a difference between sitting quietly and actively listening, taking in, and parsing information. So many people confuse listening with waiting for the speaker to stop talking so they can speak, but these folks have poor social skills.

The first ability to foster when considering listening skills is patience. Sometimes listening is sitting there and hearing what someone has to say, and giving them the time to say it. Patience is a useful skill on its own and can be a profoundly helpful technique – oftentimes in a dispute or difficult situation, a client or friend or significant other just needs to “feel heard.” But it’s also necessary to learn patience when listening so you can employ your consideration and empathy.

Consideration is the next step of active listening. Beyond just hearing what someone has said, you need to be able to see it from their perspective, understand what their meaning is (both on and below the surface), and analyze what is being said. This skill is important not just in listening, but in reading and thinking in general.

Finally, having empathy is the mark of a true active listener. Those with empathy understand why someone says what they say and feel how they feel. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything someone says, but it ensures you truly understand, and it helps the speaker appreciate your listening.

empathy is the mark of a true active listener

5. Gaining trust and reliability

Being capable of all of the above skills, gaining the trust of others should be fairly easy. Being trustworthy requires the ability to listen, but also respond usefully, and then also repeatedly and consistently.

This is also called being “reliable” – when a friend is having a difficult time, or when a boss needs a project done now, they know they can count on you because you’ve come through before. Gaining trust, even of close friends, also requires tact and socialization, and because being trustworthy should be a goal in and of itself, developing social skills are a worthy pursuit.

6. Confidence

Confidence isn’t simply a skill, it is also the consequence of years of practicing social skills. The most confident students are often those who feel the most comfortable in their class and with their work, and these students feel comfortable because they don’t have to think so hard about how to engage others – it seems to come naturally to them after so much experience.

Still, confidence is also a skill. Having it instills confidence in you among other people, making socialization even easier. It helps establish that you are trustworthy and capable, which are both useful in terms of the opportunities that will be open to you, but even further because like trustworthiness, confidence is a worthy goal itself.

7. Networking

As a practical example of the utility of social skills, we can look at networking. Those who are the best at “networking” are those who have the best social skills – those who are the most convincing, interesting to be around, trustworthy, loquacious, and confident. And it is often true that those with the largest and best networks are often the most successful: “a person is a person through other people,” as the Ubuntu philosophy goes.

While networking can come across as the cynical version of friendship, the skills required to succeed at it are the same as those that drive relationship development in all other areas. People with the best social skills find the best partners, the best careers, the best schools, and make the best friends. And aren’t these the whole point of “success” anyway?

How does Englist approach social skills?

Hopefully we all agree on the importance of social skills, but that still begs the question of how Englist helps. It’s an academic writing service, not a social club, right? True, but as we’ve touched on, there is a lot Englist provides in terms of socialization.

Group classes, conversation practice, and informal atmosphere

One thing people often don’t realize is that public education is meant to do more than just “make people smart.” One of its main goals is socialization – school is a socializing process meant to ensure students grow up into citizens capable of interacting responsibly and comfortably with other members of society.

Much social learning comes from simply being at school and interacting with other students and teachers. This process is further enforced at Englist, where students need to be able to speak and listen beyond just writing. And it’s all done in English.

Furthermore, we allow no more than 10 writers per group, so kids can’t “hide” behind more vocal, outgoing classmates. And, as we mentioned, all students are required to talk about day-to-day life at each session. We never accept answers like “nothing” or “okay” – writers must respond articulately.

Due to the small size of our groups, they are a fairly open and active environment. While Englist writing coaches are professional, they also speak with students as people and in an informal manner, which more closely mimics actual conversation and exchange in English.

Writing skills overlap with social skills

Beyond the speaking, the writing taught at Englist requires the ability to persuade and establish trust on the part of readers. Students are asked to try to get their work to be “relatable” so that potential readers can identify with it, and thus better understand and appreciate the arguments presented.

Take, for example, our “simple essay” – this is a simple form of persuasive writing where students have to be able to form an opinion, articulate their reasoning, and do so in an engaging manner. Simple, rote responses are never good enough, so social thinking is central to the writing process in this format. And again, this is required even for our most basic curriculum – the skills necessary for more advanced essays demand greater articulation and relatability.

Writing-as-social skills is on even brighter display at Taipei Teen Tribune, the showcase publication for our top writers. These students develop their own topics, discuss advanced issues with coaches, and delve deep into their research and reading for articles. Their work can range from controversial to candid, and these writers are able to employ this advanced social thinking in their day-to-day interactions, making them gregarious and engaged young people.

Writing-as-social skills is on even brighter display at Taipei Teen Tribune

Cultural exposure

Many students in Asia only rarely interact with people different from them. At Englist, students get the chance to meet a range of education professionals from a wealth of backgrounds. Students see different personalities and ways of thinking many of their peers do not.

Also, when considering their work, they have the opportunity to question and engage educated and international minds regarding various topics, thus providing a global perspective.

Finally, Englist makes a point of introducing students to global and Western culture. In many sessions, students are responsible for reading novels or short stories, almost all from the Western literary canon. Writers are further exposed to a range of media including music, film, and pop culture. This background not only improves their writing range and abilities, it makes them more confident when they encounter new types of people from different backgrounds.

Englist makes a point of introducing students to global and Western culture

Why Englist hates one-on-one

As a writing service, sometimes we hear from families that don’t want to join a class, but instead ask for one-on-one tutoring. We strongly discourage one-on-one tutoring, unless it is for a very specific purpose.

We will occasionally recommend one-on-one tutoring if students need to study for a specific test or in preparation for a presentation, speech, or to assist with a large assignment. However, we usually only work with students who we are already familiar with and who know a thing or two about academic writing. Without this rapport, one-on-one usually proves to be fruitless and more trouble than it’s worth.

One of the biggest problems is that one-on-one is boring. Group sessions are much more engaging because different personalities can come together and interact, while no single student is responsible for always engaging the teacher. Students develop friendships, see their peers also make mistakes, and they realize they are not alone in struggling with very difficult work. When students are with a writing coach one-on-one, however, the student has to not only do all of the classwork, but also the work of always answering every question the teacher poses, with none of the benefit of engaging in a class culture. This is hard on students and unless they are able to form a strong bond with the instructor, they are much less likely to enjoy the lesson than if they had some classmates.

Another important reason why one-on-one tutoring is more problematic than helpful is that it can, in some circumstances, teach students that they deserve special attention separate from the group. This is what parents are for, not academic programs or coaching. Students need to learn how to operate in environments that exist independently of them, not those tailor-made for their specific needs. One-on-one tutoring, however, is tailored to a student’s schedule, level, and personality.

Kids shouldn’t learn they are special because their parents tell them so or because mom and dad can afford specialized academic coaching for them. Kids should learn they aren’t special unless they work hard and develop attributes and skills that help them genuinely stand out.

Having social skills vs. not

Even considering how important social skills are, most people still lack these abilities. Many people, adults and kids alike, are awkward, lack confidence, and are clumsy in their interactions. And for most people, this may be okay. Not everyone should be Tony Stark or Jack Ma. But we have found that social skills are critical to success in many fields.

Take for example the story of Robert Oppenheimer vs. Christopher Langan as outlined in Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book Outliers. Robert Oppenheimer, a man known mostly for his mathematical genius but also for his speaking skills, is lauded as one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Chris Langan is much less well known, but likely on the same intellectual level with Oppenheimer. However, Langan, from a disadvantaged background, never developed the level of socialization Oppenheimer did, and consequently suffered for it.

We encourage you to read the book and learn about these two figures (as well as our article about student intelligence), but one important lesson to take away from this narrative is the importance of human connection and socialization. Being good at school is not enough, nor is it good enough for students to respond to “how was your day” with a terse “good”.

Social skills matter, even in mundane interactions. As such, at Englist they are a priority.

Having social skills vs. not

Interested in learning more? Want to check out our program?

Contact us for information about our program, or explore our online services.

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