In our daily lives, we are required to interact with other people for many different reasons. Even ordering a hamburger at a fast food place requires social interaction -- ideally, a positive one.
Having social anxiety, however, makes many interactions very stressful. Here are four suggestions to ensure that your next person-to-person interaction is positive. And hey, you might just make a new friend.
1. Body language matters. A lot.
I can’t overstate this: Body language is arguably the most important part of communication. If you approach someone with a positive demeanor (by smiling, for example), people are much more likely to react better toward you. A person’s internal defenses are lower when a stranger approaches who appears happy, upbeat, and non-threatening.
2. Knowing what not to say matters
Knowing what not to say is almost as important as knowing what to say. We understand that being rude or insulting is not the way to make friends, but some topics of conversation should be handled very delicately. These include money, politics, and religion.
These types of conversations have their place. But when you first meet someone, it’s best not to start with something as emotionally charged as a person’s belief system or world views. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but generally we should try to build a rapport on lighter topics.
3. Make it about them and not about you
Social anxiety is often rooted in the idea that people won’t like us. My own anxiety grabs hold of my self-esteem and won’t let go. It makes me feel worthless.
Most people enjoy talking about themselves, so ask questions that keep the conversation off you and about them. Ask about their hobbies, children, and what entertainment they enjoy (TV shows, music, sporting events, etc.). If you start a conversation this way and ask appropriate follow-up questions, you’ll have an opportunity to get comfortable before you need to begin sharing details about your own life.
4. In the real world, it's okay to, "lead the witness"
I always engage people with a light subject that I’m comfortable with. If there was a local sporting event or a popular television show that I watched, I’ll open with that. Popular culture has a wealth of things to discuss that aren’t very deep and are unlikely to raise emotions (sports rivalries notwithstanding).
By starting the conversation and leading it somewhere unobtrusive and within my comfort zone, I can ensure that things stay light. Holding a conversation about my latest Netflix binge is much easier that explaining that I live with bipolar disorder. It allows me to get a feel for a person and have a positive interaction without risking much.
That positive interaction becomes a building block for deeper conversations down the road. While these conversations may seem meaningless, they aren’t. Establishing rapport takes time and building relationships with people isn’t something we need to rush.
Bringing it all together
In my opinion, Maya Angelou explained human interactions best:
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
If you make someone feel good by having a simple conversation about seemingly nothing, you’ve accomplished a lot. Take that, social anxiety!
Gabe Howard is a contributor to HealthCentral.com and a person who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. Interact with him on his website, www.GabeHoward.com.