I have always marveled at people who seem to effortlessly make conversation with others. There are some who even enjoy it. I think they are called extraverts. And then there are people like me, who shy away from most social situations which may require striking up a conversation or making chit chat due to raw fear. If you suffer from social anxiety disorder the thought of having to make conversation may cause you to feel anxiety ranging from apprehension to downright panic.
It is good to know that we socially anxious folk are not alone. In fact the Anxiety Disorders Association of America reports that there are about 15 million of us living in the United States. We are the ones hiding from the neighbors to avoid making small talk or who are making up every excuse in the book to not go to the work party or social function. Some of us may be classified as nerds like the fellows on the TV show, The Big Bang Theory. The character of Sheldon works on his conversational and social skills by devising a Friendship Algorithm, a flow chart designed to help him initiate connection. As hilarious as this comedy skit may be, how many of us wish we had such a chart to help us figure out the art of making friends? We can probably also relate to the awkwardness of trying to make conversation in a group as demonstrated by the Big Bang characters, Sheldon and Leonard as they try to fit in at a Halloween party. But the character who most fits the socially anxious role is the character of Raj who becomes terrified to the point of complete silence when trying to talk to a girl.
So what is it that makes conversing with others such a scary proposition?
I have some theories of my own.
"¢ You might feel that you are going to be judged in some way. You may worry that you will say something dumb or embarrass yourself. You may worry that you will come across as dull, boring, or weird. You may also feel that you will have nothing to say or that you won’t be able to keep up your end of the conversation.
"¢ Some of you may experience speech difficulties such as stammering or stuttering when feeling pressured to speak leading to feelings of frustration and a weakened self esteem. Have you all seen the movie, The King’s Speech? For anyone who battles social anxiety and speech problems, you will love this film.
"¢ Talking to others, especially in a group, requires a constant monitoring of social rules which can be vague and confusing. You have to not only pay attention to what is said, but tone, intonation, personal space, eye contact, body language and of course what is actually being said. It can seem overwhelming to know how to be a part of this social dynamic and also appear calm, cool, and collected.
"¢ Feeling nervous can make you worry that people will pick up on your anxiety and see you sweat, fumble for words, and struggle. The fear you feel when talking to others may make you feel more anxious because there is a chance you will show your anxiety symptoms in public. It is a negative feedback loop which can be hard to break.
Does any of this sound familiar? You may wonder, "Why bother?" Yet a part of you may yearn to meet new people, make new friends, and simply feel free of fear so you can relax and enjoy talking to people.
The following are my best tips on how to lessen your anxiety so that you feel more at ease to make conversation.
"¢ Assess your anxiety
Write down the types of social situations where conversation makes you feel any anxiety or discomfort. Some of these settings may include work functions, being introduced to new people, or talking to the opposite sex. Also take into account whether or not it is easy or difficult to talk one-on-one, in a small group of 3-5 people, or a large group of five or more people. Rank your anxiety on a scale of 1-10 based on these conditions. For example, initiating a one-on-one conversation with one of your co-workers may rank a 4 on your anxiety scale but trying to join an already existing conversation at an after work party with a large group may rank a 9.
"¢ Determine your strengths and weaknesses
Which situations make you feel the most comfortable in talking to others? What is it about these circumstances which allow you to be at your best? Can you identify your strengths under these conditions? For example you may feel a great sense of comfort talking one-to-one with a close friend. In that situation you may be witty, laugh easily, and smile. The key is to figure out how to take your best self and be that confident in conversing with others in a variety of social settings.
You will also want to identify your conversational weaknesses. Which aspects of talking to others scare you the most? Is it starting the conversation? Is it trying to think of what to say? Or is it reading people’s non-verbal cues? Try to narrow down your main challenges in holding a conversation.
"¢ Practice your conversational skills
Take a look at your list of social situations where you feel anxiety in making conversation. Which one of these is ranked the lowest as far as your stress level? This is the setting to start practicing making conversation. Choose a situation or setting where you are a little out of your comfort zone but not so much that you can’t concentrate on listening and speaking. Always remember that the responsibility of making conversation is not solely on your shoulders. The other person or people are also thinking of things to say. In general people like talking about themselves so asking questions is a good way to get the conversation rolling. But you don’t want to ask so many questions that you begin to sound like a television reporter. Your questions greatly depend upon the setting and how much you know the other person or people. Topics such as kids, jobs, vacations, movies, or food are generally safe themes to gravitate towards. Using lead-in phrases to questions such as "What did you think about"¦" or "What is your favorite"¦" can get people to feel relaxed and offer their opinions and stories. Be prepared to chime in with your own thoughts and experiences.
To feel more in control you may want to have an exit strategy prepared ahead of time. If you know that you are able to leave the conversation when you wish, it may seem less anxiety provoking. Some of these exit lines can include, "I have really enjoyed talking to you" or "Thanks for sharing your story with me. I hope to hear more about it when I see you at the next (meeting, conference, get- together)."
Remember that the purpose of most conversation is to share something whether it is information, a personal story, or laughter. It is a way to get to know others and for them to get to know you. The purpose is not for others to judge you or to find fault with you. Most people are not entering into a conversation in this way so you need not view it in this way. Try to focus on the positive aspects of what you can learn about yourself and from others. Who knows? You might actually enjoy it and make a friend in the process. Anything is possible.
"¢ Self monitor
Try not to judge yourself too harshly even if you feel you bombed at making conversation in a particular setting. It is all a process and you are learning. You are learning the skills of talking to others and also how to lessen your social anxiety. This is a huge undertaking and it isn’t something that will magically happen overnight. You may learn that you do have the skills to make conversation but that you still don’t like doing it in some situations or settings. And that is okay. You don’t need to be a social butterfly or a party animal. But it does help in life if you aren’t terrified of speaking with others or if you aren’t living in fear of the next social invitation. It is nice when you feel that you have a choice in being social with others. Learning how to tame your anxiety when you talk to others can give you more choices and social opportunities.
We would love to hear about your experience. Do you find it difficult to make conversation? What aspects of talking to others are the most difficult for you? Have you found any ways to lessen your anxiety when making conversation? Tell us all about it. Your tips can help someone else who is facing a similar challenge.