Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Lately, Yocheved has been waking up at night worrying about Shevi. Shevi is now going for her degree in speech therapy. Yocheved knows that Shevi has always been an A student and that she will succeed in all academic areas. She is already doing great work with stroke victims as they attempt to gain back their speech. Shevi’s teachers report to Yocheved that all of the people she works with immediately take to Shevi, pushing themselves to work harder because they want to impress her. So, why does Shevi have so much trouble going on dates?

At first, Yocheved thought that Shevi was simply going on dates with the wrong boys. Boys who couldn’t understand how special her daughter is, but as date after date ends in rejection, Yocheved has begun to worry that there is something more to the problem. However, conversations with Shevi typically end in frustration and anger. Shevi always cuts the conversation short with one of a few short phrases:


“Mommy, I told you. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I know what the shadchan said. I can’t hear that I just didn’t seem “right” again.”

“No, there is really nothing to discuss. I know, you think I am perfect and that if I would only try harder to show who I am, I would wow any boy. But, that does not seem to be working.”

“Mommy, please, please don’t make me talk about it. It’s too painful.”

Because shadchans continued to set Shevi up with eligible boys, Yocheved chose to ignore the problems she knew existed under the surface, but last week, she found a poem Shevi had scribbled onto the back of her notebook.

Endless disappointment
Endless shame
Just can’t figure out how to
Show how I am

Somehow it seems
That the harder I try
The worse I feel
When they say goodbye

Ringing phones
Knocks on doors
Hiding, disappearing
I can’t take it anymore

Tears filled Yocheved’s eyes as she thought about the pain that Shevi experienced every time she was rejected by another boy. Why did Shevi have such a hard time meeting her dates when she was so wonderful with new clients?


Dating is Torture

While Shevi might feel confident as a speech therapist, her lack of self-esteem when it comes to dating leads to disastrous results. She freezes up and her mind goes blank because of social anxiety. For people with social anxiety, their condition inhibits them from doing little more than responding to questions in barely audible monosyllables, never meeting the other person’s eyes.

Girls, like Shevi, with these deficits come away from almost every date feeling deflated, dispirited, and ashamed. Repeated experiences of this sort shatter self-esteem, giving rise to feelings of being unwanted, unworthy and out-of-sync with society. As Shevi’s poem intimates, the ringing phone of the shadchan only makes it worse.


Raising Your Social Intelligence

Many people believe that practice and a positive role model will solve all social issues, but what they do not understand is that sometimes people simply lack “social intelligence” when it comes to finding favor with others. Often girls who are short of social skills find dating to be excruciatingly painful. They miss social cues and have difficulty connecting with a new acquaintance.

Research has shown, however, that social skills training along with shidduch coaching can help girls like Shevi overcome their discomfort and fear in new social situations. One of the main goals of social skills training is work on self-esteem. Because Shevi has been rejected so many times, she no longer believes that she can go on a successful date. In addition, she begins to think that there is “something wrong” with her. Social skills training and shidduch coaching are not a miracle cure, but with consistent training and practice, people like Shevi can gain confidence and poise.


Non-Verbal Communication

One of the first skills that we work on is non-verbal communication. We continuously give messages to others through without words. For instance, when someone is telling you unfortunate news, they might look down to avoid seeing you in pain. Alternatively, if you enter a new situation and stand with your arms crossed across your body, you are signaling your discomfort, indicating that you feel you need to protect yourself.


Eye Contact

Perhaps the most important way that we communicate without words is through eye contact. When someone is speaking and you are glancing at your water glass, your hands, or your plate, you are intimating that you are not interested in what they are saying. When I work with young men and women, one of the first skills we work on is eye contact. We conduct regular conversations and then analyze their facial expressions. Were they looking at me when I was speaking? Did they appear interested? Where was their gaze focused when they were speaking? Here are some tips for successful eye contact:

  • Start small. If you are not comfortable looking directly in the eyes, focus on the areas around the eyes.
  • Don’t stare. Eye contact is important, but do not stare directly into your date’s eyes with no interruption. This can often be interpreted as combative and threatening.
  • Respond to eye contact with eye contact. Because of the intimacy and openness conveyed with eye contact, shy people often have trouble not only giving it, but being on the receiving end of it. If someone is looking in your eyes, respond positively by returning their gaze.


Body Language

Aside from eye contact, there are many subtle messages that people send through non-verbal communication:

  • Avoid restlessness: Restlessness can be tapping your foot incessantly, moving around silverware, or checking your watch multiple times. Restlessness indicates that you are not interested in what the person in front of you is saying. Therefore, when Racheli fiddled with her napkin, the young man with her might have thought that he was boring her and consequently might have stopped talking.
  • Steer clear of closed-in body posture: Crossing your arms, turning your body on an angle away from the person you are speaking to, or leaning away from the table are all signals that you are not comfortable in the situation. Instead, face the other person directly and keep your posture relaxed and at ease.
  • Don’t people-watch: Instead of watching everybody else in the lobby of the hotel, stay focused on the person you are there with. Aside from leading to lashon hara, people-watching is distracting and again indicates a lack of interest in your date.
  • Smile: While smiling seems like a no-brainer when trying to communicate in a positive way, many people forget to smile when they are nervous and in new situations. Ironically, research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that smiling can actually make you less anxious. When you use the muscles in your face to smile, those muscles trigger hormones in your brain that make you more relaxed and happy.


Verbal Communication

I have worked with several young men and women like Shevi who are charming and intelligent in regular circumstance, but who cannot seem to get past a first date when set up. There are several ways to combat the anxiety associated with meeting a new person for the first time. Many people think that the ability to make conversation is something people are born with. In reality, though it is not always easy, you can learn how to be more comfortable when meeting new people. Dr. Donna Sollie and Dr. Jean Pearson Scott of Texas Tech University, in an article entitled, “Teaching Communication Skills” explain that it is possible to coach people to better connect with others.

The key to knowing where to start is to understand the four levels of communication. First, there is small talk. Small talk it the safest place to start when you meet someone for the first time. You can talk about surface issues such as current events, weather, and your surrounding. The purpose of small talk is to determine the “comfort zone” between you and the other person.

The next level is fact disclosure. Fact disclosure is like small talk, except that you are revealing small details about yourself. Refrain from sharing overly emotional details at this point, such as problems at home, work, or school.

Once you reveal facts to one another, if you feel that you have things in common, the next step of communication is sharing viewpoints and opinions. This stage allows you to build a rapport through becoming slightly vulnerable when talking to the person about more intimate topics. Such topics might include politics or religion. Make sure you do not use this as an opportunity to be negative about other people because that will simply paint you in a damaging light.

The last level of communication is sharing personal feelings. After building trust, finding commonalities, and sharing viewpoints, you may feel comfortable sharing your genuine feelings. At this point, you are forming an emotional bond with the other person by creating an environment of empathy and compassion.

Like Shevi, a lot of people have trouble getting past small talk and fact disclosure. This is natural and should not be alarming. However, before heading out for a date, Shevi should consider what viewpoints and opinions she might be willing to share if they come up. Then, discussing them will not be as stressful or intimidating if those topics arise on her date. Of course, sharing personal feelings might not be comfortable when meeting someone for the first time. In that case, save those personal feelings for future dates.


Teaching Empathy – Responding Appropriately to Others

Perhaps one of the most important social skills that people can learn is empathy. Empathy means being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and recognize their feelings. This is not the same as sympathy or feeling sorry for someone, rather, empathy is responding in an understanding and caring way to what others are feeling.

Gwen Dewar, PhD, suggests multiple ways to foster empathy in adolescents and young adults. First, she argues that people need to know how to regulate their own emotions. To that end, in my shidduch coaching, we work on different responses to disappointing or painful situations. Once my client is self-confident enough to respond well to their own disappoints, we work on their responses to others. Often, this requires explaining the hot-cold empathy gap.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to appreciate the power of a food craving when you aren’t hungry? This is what researchers call the “hot-cold empathy gap,” and it appears to be a universal problem. When people are feeling cool and collected, they underestimate how compelling emotionally or physiologically “hot” states – like hunger – can be.

Conversely, people in the grip of “hot” states often underestimate how much their current perceptions are influenced by their situation. The hot-cold empathy gap leads to mistakes in judgment and failures of empathy. But once we understand how the hot-cold empathy gap works, we can use it to teach empathy.

Understanding the hot-cold empathy gap can help Shevi comprehend how her actions might influence her date. Recognizing that if she does not respond positively to certain questions, she could potentially embarrass him. Gaining empathy for other people’s emotions will allow Shevi to react appropriately during future shidduchim.


Transforming Shame Into Success

Over the course of several months of shidduch-coaching, Shevi grew as a person and began to believe in herself. She gained confidence and no longer dreaded hearing that the shadchan had called to set up another date. After a while, both Shevi and I believed that she had rid herself of social anxiety and could happily and successfully meet new young men. A few months later, Shevi sent me a wedding invitation with a new poem clipped to it:

Endless fulfillment
Endless pride
Finally figured out how to
Show how I can be a bride!
Thanks for teaching me how to display my true colors! – Shevi


Needless to say, when Shevi walked down the aisle, there were very few dry eyes in the audience.

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An acclaimed educator and social skills ​specialist​, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at [email protected].