Coaching The Socially Underdeveloped
When 22-year-old Warren hired me as a dating coach, he had tried unsuccessfully to ‘find a girlfriend. His social interactions came off as awkward and creepy, resulting in repeated rejection. He saw a counselor for his depression and anxiety who suggested to him that he might have high-functioning autism.
Twenty-three-year-old Emma was in a similar situation. She suffered from extreme social anxiety and the idea of communicating with someone directly (without the mediation of a cell phone) felt awkward – panic-inducing, even. She knew she needed to force herself to go out and meet people face-to-face, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Changing social behavior can be difficult -- and Warren and Emma are not alone.
I’ve noticed a concerning trend over the last few years: parents have approached me, worried about their young adult children.
Their kids have grown up in a digital environment with few real (off-line) social relationships. Minimal social demands have been made of them and as a result, they are unskilled in social interactions.
While I hate to make sweeping generalizations, much of Generation Z is socially awkward to a fault.
And parents are nervous that basic but important life milestones like getting a rewarding job and falling in love seem out of reach.
Even for a person who is attractive, interesting, and fun (once you get to know them), social anxiety or a spectrum disorder can make dating and relationships daunting. The first meet is not only about proving your appeal, but making the person across the table or at your side like you and want to get to know you better.
Because of the stigma, individuals with social disorders don’t usually disclose that on a dating app or even in an initial conversation. If you lack social finesse, the person you’re meeting probably noticed something was “off” during the date – but they didn’t know why. Unfortunately, the lack of soft skills in the first date (or even in the text exchange that usually precedes the first date) may cause the person you’re interested in label you as less desirable.
What if… you could tap into the skillset of the socially savvy and develop your social intelligence so that you can connect more meaningfully with romantic prospects?
Last year, CBS News Sunday morning did a feature describing how Microsoft launched a pilot program to hire autistic workers and received 700 applications in a matter of weeks. European company SAP launched a program to attract workers with autism in its Silicon Valley locale. Both have been extraordinarily successful, and their stories inspired me to enhance and expand what I could offer as a dating coach to my socially less proficient single clients.
Since autistic individuals often have a superior ability to recognize patterns and good attention to detail, I determined that I would need to point out common behavioral patterns in repeated social situations and prompt Warren and Emma to look for nuances and details in conversational content.
I broke down social interactions into formulas and processes so they could better grasp them. We ran “drills” and prepared for each exercise with mindset exercises and a walk-through of what would likely happen and how they could respond. We strategized how they would break the ice and what socially acceptable body language they would utilize to convey warmth and friendliness.
In order to thrive, the socially underdeveloped need small, supportive social networks or built-in friend groups where they can connect with people like them. That’s why I looked for groups of like-minded people with similar interests and challenges for them to plug into. I also provided wing-man and wing-woman services to them during some “field trips” to coffee shops, bars, and shopping malls – essentially mentoring or coaching them through social approaches in each of these contexts.
Since individuals with slightly maladaptive social behaviors are joining the workforce and the dating market, we should strive to be patient and flexible. I’m not talking about bending over backward for someone who exhibits pathologically problematic traits. I’m talking about identifying those with higher than average social anxiety or high functioning on the spectrum and meeting them closer to where they are.
We can do more to accept those who are unable to present themselves “normally” but who can still be productive members of society.
As a coach, I know that the key to growth is repetition and monitoring progress ongoing. I also know that both my client and I will need to manage our expectations; they will not likely be the social “superstar” of the office or the dating space.
These social skills are extremely difficult for this demographic to absorb, so magical transformations are unlikely to occur overnight. Again, repetition of simple social tasks and regular coaching will accelerate success.
If you have a friend, family member, or co-worker who struggles socially the way Warren and Emma do, maybe you can give them a loving nudge to consciously work on building their social toolbox. At The Date Maven, we have processes specifically for our single men and women with this need, so I invite you to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.