Raising Resilient Communicators: Expert Social Skills Advice

Can I Email My Job Interview? The Death of In-Person Communication

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Panic opened Penny’s eyes as she was tasked with calling a list of suppliers. Joe asked if he could conduct his interview for a potential position over email. Lexie wondered if she could text, rather than meet the website developer. These young people are experiencing communication apprehension – they are dreading an upcoming social interaction. Communication apprehension was once found when people spoke to large groups, but nowadays young people are experiencing it even when speaking face to face with one other person. 

Do today’s youth have people skills? Are they capable of social interaction? Communication? Are their experiences and lifestyles equipping them for the challenges of the work world? Concerns on the topic are hardly new; business partners and parents can be found ranting on the matter from boardrooms to barrooms. 

This is why we contacted Denise Goldbeck. Goldbeck is not a ranter, but a Phd Candidate in organizational leadership, an expert in developmental psychology and a Registered Clinical Counsellor. Denise speaks on the subject with clarity and sophistication. She wasn’t hard to find (her husband Henry is the President of Goldbeck Recruiting).

She’s also the Founder of All-Stages Education Foundation – a charitable organization that houses Kids in the Spotlight, Launch:Youth Leadership, and Families in the Spotlight – programs that use the performing arts and games to teach children, youth, and families social interaction skills and help them learn about their own development. Her thoughts on the matter were insightful and, even more importantly, instructional.

We were hoping she could help us answer the question: do today’s youth have communication skills? And, if not, how can they be taught?

The Communication Crisis

“I think our youth have excellent communication skills,” says Goldbeck, clarifying her position. “What they’re lacking are social interaction skills.”1

She thinks that stating needs and communicating ideas is a strong suit for the next generation, but that being comfortable with face to face conversation and understanding nuance is an area that needs work. She began noticing the shift around the same time that the iPhone emerged, complete with constant texting and online social networking.

“Young people have their online or ideal persona as well as their real or authentic face,” she explains. “It’s a struggle to integrate those worlds. When their ideal self doesn’t appear in their real lives, it causes distress.”

She speaks about the fear of public speaking.

“The term ‘communication apprehension’ used to refer to the fear of speaking in front of an audience,” she explains. “Now young people are experiencing it when they have to make a phone call.

She’s careful about where she places the blame.

“Our youth are facing predatory algorithms, surveillance, and neural marketing,” she says. “Brilliant people are figuring out how to get their dopamine to fire and diverting them from off-screen experiences.”

Young People No Longer Learning Social Skills ‘In the Wild’

Goldbeck recalls her youth, learning social skills through interaction with other neighbourhood children in mixed-age groups. She says that people are moving away from this kind of natural grouping of mixed-age children and youth and that this is causing deficits in social understanding. 

“Opportunities for learning face-to-face interaction skills are dwindling in our culture today,” says Goldbeck. “Setting up a bank account, buying groceries, even breaking up with a partner is now often done on a device.” 

Without face to face interaction, Goldbeck believes that young people are in danger of losing skills that used to be taken for granted.

“We need contact in order to develop our identity,” she explains. “It’s not in our operating system, it’s born out of social interaction.”

Goldbeck lists a myriad of physical cues that are part of our identity formation and socialization, but missing from digital interactions. These include eye gaze, the dilation of the pupil, tone of voice, the constriction of the throat, utterances, and body language. She says that digital devices often enforce turn-taking behaviours, which rob our social interactions of important meaning.

“We took it for granted that our kids were going to learn to take turns when talking, to do perspective taking and to topic shift, to understand how to take the floor, and to know when to interrupt and when not to,” she says. “Kids nowadays are needing to be taught these things more explicitly.”

Can Social Skills Be Taught?

If this is the problem, what is the solution? Goldbeck offers some valuable advice that she believes can make a difference.

1. Get Off Your Phones

We’ve all seen the scene play out: young people melting down when removed from their devices. It’s not dissimilar to Neo being sucked from the tentacles of the Matrix. While it sounds like common sense that children should have real life experiences to balance their screen time, Goldbeck believes that it’s the parents who must lead by example.

“Babies learn how to react to social situations through their parents’ bodies,” she says. “As they sit on their parents’ laps they’re learning how to regulate themselves emotionally through heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperatures, and the tightening or loosening of muscles in the face. If they don’t get those experiences, it will be a struggle for them to organize themselves in terms of emotional regulation and attention.”

Something as simple as watching two adults interact can provide powerful lessons to youngsters, but only when they are able to observe those exchanges.

“If the adult is emailing or texting, the child doesn’t know what’s going on,” explains Goldbeck. “They’re not getting the social information they need to build an identity. I am seeing 10 and 11 year olds that lack social skills, and I suspect that their parents were frequently on devices when they were infants. The lack of interaction is likely the cause of the skills gap.”

One parent successfully reduced her child’s phone time by following Denise’s advice. Rather than confronting her kids, she was able to redirect them to fun, inviting activities such as board games, kicking a ball around, or making pizza from scratch. Denise says that the best activities are safe, but thrilling, providing both social contact and excitement. 

“The dopamine hit from a parent’s love might just beat out the algorithm,” she says.

2. Boredom, Frustration, and Confusion Aren’t Always Bad

While young parents want to protect their children from boredom, frustration or confusion, Goldbeck believes that these challenging states are essential to development. She says that boredom is often a mask for anxiety, and is a problem of creativity that the child needs to solve on their own. Frustration, too, is part of all growth and children need to build a tolerance for it.  “Some confusion can stimulate kids to reflect,” says Goldbeck. “Teach your kids to self-regulate, name and validate their feelings – but don’t protect them from them.” 

Goldbeck worries that parents are not holding their children able.

“Let your kids be bored! Let them be frustrated!” she pleads.“That’s an important part of developing a gritty person that can manage in the world. If you preserve them from these experiences, they wind up weak and entitled.”

3. Make Young People Figure Things Out

Employers vent about it all the time: young people are too reliant on precise instructions. While they excel at following templates, they often lack the ability to think on their feet and engage with challenges on the ground. Some experience in doing so goes a long way.

“When we do our youth leadership training, we don’t tell them how to do things,” says Goldbeck. “We tell them what to do and allow them to figure out how to do it. The what is there, the how is not.”

4. Learn Through Play

Goldbeck believes that play is the learning vehicle for both children and adults.

“Adult humans play more than any other mammal species,” she says, admitting that she herself uses games to learn. She believes that children hunger for playful encounters and urges people to understand the connection with development.

“Children enjoy coming to the program and experiencing spontaneous laughter and connection with their families,” she says. “They may even prefer that over something more glamorous such as Disneyland.”

Do You Have Any More?

Goldbeck’s academic knowledge on the topic of child development is coupled with hands-on experience gained by leading Kids in the Spotlight and Launch: Youth Leadership for over 35 years. Kids who took the programs years ago are now themselves parents who bring their children. It’s clear that the results fill her with gratification, particularly when young people who have come through the program wind up in the work world.

“I get calls from employers wanting to know if I have any more kids of working age,” she says. “I hear that they’re responsive, they listen, they engage, and have social interaction skills.”

Cited Sources

1 Direct Communication with Denise Goldbeck