3 ways to master your people skills with science

I’m a recovering awkward person.

Growing up, my social anxiety was so bad I’d use any excuse I could think of to avoid group activities and the discomfort that came with not being able to fit in with my peers. On particularly rough days, I would break out in hives right before walking into school and wear long sleeves and pants to cover my swollen, red, itchy limbs. As you might have guessed, the rashes covering my face and scalp didn’t help my popularity rankings.

It’s an understatement to say that people skills did not come naturally to me. Luckily, I figured out that I could learn human behavior just like I studied for math or foreign language tests. I read everything I could get my hands on about people — psychology textbooks, sociological studies, and every human behavior book ever written.

As a human behavior investigator, I have spent the past 10 years studying the Science of People in my human behavior research lab. In my new book, CAPTIVATE, I present a completely different approach to interacting with people.

I think our relationships can be hacked for good — one of the most important skills of all is having the confidence that you can be charismatic. Here are the top three things you need to know to master your people skills.

1. People skills can be learned

I am living proof that you don’t have to be born with a sense of social confidence to become a highly charismatic person. By learning to act the ways that naturally charismatic people do and being able to recognize nonverbal signs, you can ensure that you’re able to effectively communicate with people and understand the subtle messages they are sending you.

Instead of worrying whether or not people like them and looking anxious, charismatic people display open body language (i.e. they don’t cross their arms or legs and face people directly when they talk) and focus on engaging with people.

Their visible confidence and attention to others are what makes them so attractive. The key to becoming more charismatic is having the courage to interact with new people and practice your skills.

2. Make a killer first impression

This the secret to forming new connections. Harvard researchers Ambady and Rosenthal showed muted 10-second video clips of professors teaching to outside participants, who rated the teachers on 15 dimensions of effectiveness including warmth, optimism, and professionalism. The evaluators had to make judgments based entirely on nonverbal cues.

They concluded that we make a snap judgment in the first two seconds of meeting someone, and we rarely adjust it — even when we get more information. We decide if we believe, like, or trust someone before we have even heard him or her speak.

3. You have the power to influence behavior

When you understand the hidden forces behind human behavior, you can pinpoint why people act difficult and you can then tailor your interactions with them to bring out their best selves.

The easiest way to do this with body language is to display open body language (no crossed arms or legs) and positive and/or neutral facial expressions.

Our brains naturally mirror people we are focused on, so this can help calm down an agitated person or give someone a sense of happiness and excitement if you want to lift their mood.

Learning people skills transformed my life and it can transform yours, too. Before I realized that being charismatic was a skill I could develop, my social anxiety caused me to make terrible first impressions and left me with no way to forge relationships with the people I was inspired by.

Once you master the skills, you can walk into any room with the power to spark conversations and form lasting connections.

Vanessa Van Edwards is the lead investigator at the Science of Peoplea human behavior research lab, an author, and a speaker. Her latest book is CAPTIVATE: The Science of Succeeding With People.