For the Socially Anxious - A Toolbox of Habits and Conversation Starters
18 Nov 2018
Over the years, I have spent a lot of time learning how to communicate complex ideas in a way that is easy for beginners to understand, and also how to appear relaxed and confident while giving presentations and interacting with people across a variety of social situations. Now that I appear to be super relaxed and happy around other people, it is difficult for many new people to believe how visibly shy and anxious I used to be.
A few really helpful habits have helped me to learn how to recover from social anxiety fairly quickly. A few of these habits are from a book called: How to Talk To Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for big Success in Relationships, by Leil Lowndes. The reason I love this book so much is because of how practical and eye opening the advice contained within it is. Leil exposes you to a bunch of useful habits, and also helps you to develop a personalised toolbox of what I like to call conversation firelighters.
Habits are actions that take very little physical and mental energy to complete. Habits are useful because they allow you automate many of the routine activities in our lives, which in turn frees up our minds so that we are capable of concentrating on higher level activities. You can think of breathing as a deeply ingrained habit.
Creating a new habit takes time, because you have to repeat the action you want enough times until it becomes automatic. The following habit is an excellent one to begin with, because you can use it as a building block for creating other positive habits in your life at an accelerated rate.
The doorway affirmation habit is where you say a positive affirmation every single time you walk through a doorway. If you think about it, you can easily walk through a doorway 60+ times in the course of your day. This includes every time you enter or leave your home, every time you enter or leave a room in your house, the gym, an office. Every time you enter and leave the bathroom or kitchen (especially the kitchen). The benefit of attaching a positive habit to your doorways (doesn't just have to be affirmations), is that it makes you repeat a new habit many times over a short period of time.
One of the biggest reasons why most people struggle to adopt new habits, is because it can take a chain of up to 28 days for a new habit to really stick. Over this time, most people only perform the new habit once or twice a day, so essentially it takes 28-56 repetitions to make your new habit stick. One of the difficulties of creating new habits in this way, is that it is easy to forget to practice your new behaviour when there is a large gap between habit repetitions, so if you skip a day you are essentially at ground zero again. Whereas you can easily complete 60+ repetitions of that one habit in a single day, just by attaching it to every time you walk through a doorway.
Doorway affirmations are a great tool for increasing your communication skills, because a huge part of social shyness comes from low confidence or a sense of low self esteem, which you can easily increase by repeating positive affirmations regularly throughout the day. Even if you don't believe what you are saying at first, when it becomes a habit to think positive thoughts about yourself, it will manifest into your reality. For example, if you say "Today is an amazing day" and really make an effort to believe it, then by the end of the day you are likely to really believe you had an amazing day.
You may also use the doorway method to modify your posture. If every time you walk through the door you straighten up your posture and smile, you will naturally project an air of confidence that will over time become natural for you. So every time you walk into a room where a social event is going on, you will be entering the room projecting that confidence and approachability. Which leads us to our next habit. Now you know how to enter a room as your best self, here is how you can you carry that confident personality over to the moment you first meet a new person.
Most communication self-help books advise you to smile at people the moment you meet them for the first time. Smiling releases feel good endorphins similar to when you exercise or eat chocolate. Smiling is also an effective way to display warmth which helps other people to feel relaxed around you. However, smiling at someone you have just met can have less of a positive impact if they notice you smiling at everyone you meet in the exact same way.
For example, if someone you just meet and smiles warmly into your eyes, you might feel a rush of endorphins and assume that that person is someone you'd really like to get to know more. But then if you notice that person smiling at the next person they meet in the exact same way, and does the same again for the next person, then you might decide that their smile didn't actually mean much, which could make you less interested in getting to know them.
To combat the robotic smile effect, Leil Lowndes suggests you delay your smile by a few seconds, and vary this delay time until it becomes natural. This means that when you first meet someone, you let them glimpse your face without a smile, and then gradually let them see your face erupt into a smile meant just for them.
While this technique feels artificial to begin with, it is actually a much more natural way to interact with people instead of smiling instantly for no apparent reason. Practicing this, you will find that there are some people who you can't help but to smile instantly at, which makes those infectious smiles special again. You will also find that when you meet people for the first time, your slow smile will make you consciously acknowledge the new meeting as a joyful occasion, and this will stand out to both you and your conversation partner.
Toddler, 100% Attention
Another positive habit you can adopt to improve your ability to connect with people, is to treat people as if they are toddlers. This doesn't mean that you should give them a pacifier of treat them as inferior, but instead that you should give them your undivided, joyful attention.
Think about how you react around a small child who toddles up to you. Most people would instantly project a feeling of delight and crouch down with open arms to welcome the toddler. In that moment they are not paying attention to what they were doing or any electronic gadgets they were previously absorbed in. Instead they are giving all of their attention to the toddler whilst projecting warmth and love towards them
Yet when most people meet a stranger they do not do so with joy and warmth, because they feel like they don't owe that person anything yet, or they might have a variety of questions running though their mind, including: What do I say to this person? Why should I try and get to know someone I might never meet again? What if that person doesn't like me or I don't like them? What if they reject me?
Now if you think about the people that you encounter who you have instantly liked, the chances are you liked that person because they were friendly, warm and made you feel welcome. Some examples could be cashiers who are genuinely interested in your day, friends who are exceptionally good at listening, strangers who chat to you as if you are old friends. The key difference here is that these people are not wondering whether they are not going to get on with you, instead their internal monologue is saying that this complete stranger is awesome and they expect things to go well.
To incorporate this habit into your life, make sure that when anyone talks to you, give them your undivided attention. Really listen to what they have to say. Don't look at your phone or wonder about the things you have to do, instead make them your priority. This is a subtly powerful habit to adopt, because it is rare nowadays in a society where everything competes for our attention for anyone to be really present, whether that is during conversations or working on a project. So it will really stand out if you walk into a room, meet someone for the first time and really give them your full, warm attention. This will make people feel good and mimic your behaviour. It's a beautiful thing.
At this point, you know how to project the best version of yourself when you walk into a room and when you meet a person for the first time. The following strategies will enable you to you feel confident starting and maintaining conversations, even if you usually feel very anxious in social situations or talking to people one-on-one.
How awesome would it be, to be the kind of person who can ignite conversations into a rally of energetic exchanges, just by being your authentic self, and asking the right kind of questions. The rest of this guide shares a few surprisingly easy tips to help you do just that.
No Naked Replies
One of the best approaches I have come across for starting and maintaining conversations is what I like to call the No Naked Reply approach. This involves a little bit of preparation, but it will change the way you approach conversations for life.
Every time you meet a new person, it is very likely that you will be asked one or all of the following questions depending on the length of your conversation: Where are you from? What do you do? What are your hobbies? These three questions can make the conversation feel incredibly awkward, or provide an opportunity to break the ice and turn the conversation into a rally of energetic responses.
When most people answer common who are you and where do you come from questions, they usually give a skeleton answer. For example, whenever someone used to ask me where I was from, I used to say "Pembrokeshire (small town in Wales), where are you from? I would then get a similarly bare response and have no idea where to go from there. The conversation would start to feel incredibly awkward, and I would despair at being so useless at connecting with people. Unless I met someone who happened to know where I was from and could extend the conversation. This kind of reply is known as a naked reply, because there is no opportunity for extension, the reply was too bare.
What makes a reply not naked is where you incorporate a few opportunities for the other person to find something in common with you that they can use to extend the conversation. All you need to do here is provide a little more detail. I noticed a huge change in conversations when I started doing this. For example, when I lived in Edinburgh someone asked me where I was from. My reply was "I am from a small town in Wales called Pembrokeshire. It's so tiny compared to Edinburgh because the entire high street was about seven shops, unlike the Royal mile of shops here".
This reply provided three opportunities for extension that I noticed in the replies I got from this:
If I'm from Wales then why don't I have a welsh accent?
What it was like for them to grow up in a city.
Shops on the Royal mile.
The best thing about this approach is that you don't have to worry about figuring out what the other person has in common with you. You can focus on sharing your personality and perspective on the world, which allows them to pick out the parts that spark interest in them and carry the conversation forward. Though if you do know you are going to a social event with people who are interested in say History for example, you could explain where you are from in a historical context and know that you will get an enthusiastic reply.
This approach goes for any kind of question, and is especially useful for helping people connect with you even if you have a big scary job title that no one outside of your industry can understand. Though if you are still worried about not being able to answer these questions on the spot, it is worth getting a notebook and write a journal entry using these questions as a prompt. The act of writing your response out in a comfortable environment will make you more likely to remember how to answer these questions naturally in a social setting.
Here are 10 naked questions that you can practice responding to:
Do you have any pets?
What was the last book you read?
What's your favorite food?
Do you have brothers and sisters?
How do you spend your free time?
What do you do? What's your job?
What's your phone number?
Who has had the most influence in your life?
Why did you decide to [apply, do etc]
What jobs have you done?
This next conversation approach goes hand in hand with the No Naked Reply approach, but in reverse. Instead of thinking of little hooks that you can add to your replies to help other people extend the conversation, you can search for words or topics in your partner's conversation to extend.
For example, if you complain about the whether and someone snaps at you and tells you it's good for the grass, you might be tempted to think that they are not interested in talking with you any further. However, if you take the word detective approach, you would pick up on the word grass and realise that this person is likely to be interested in gardening. So instead of excusing yourself from the conversation, you could ask them if they do a lot of gardening because they mentioned grass. This is a really powerful technique because it is a great way of disarming potential confrontation, and it also shows the person that you are paying attention and care about what they say. Chances are, that person will warm up to you and get excited about sharing gardening stories with you.
Comfort Zone weekends
A final really useful tool for starting and maintaining conversations is going out of your comfort zone and trying new activities. If you spend a few hours one weekend playing golf as part of a golfing group, for the rest of your life whenever someone mentions they play golf, you will be able to ask them the right questions just by listening to the things that the other golfers you were with talked about. If you went to a woodworking shop or a knitting group the same thing would apply. If you haven't tried a hobby that a person you have met is interested in, you could ask them how you could get started in their hobby.
The biggest thing all of these habits and strategies teach you is not to see differences as alienating, but rather as potential bridges you can use to connect with people. Every single person you meet is going to be a fascinating mix of perspectives, experiences, skills and hobbies that you will be granted many opportunities to have access to.
Meeting people is an exceptionally rewarding experience, because they make you grow and experience life in a way you never considered before. So walk into that room with a straight back,project warmth and joy towards every single person you interact with, share enough of yourself to give them the opportunity to extend your conversations, really listen to their responses and ask them about the things that matter to them (anything they say matters to them), and get curious about these magical people, because they will change you for the better.