It’s a scene that many of us know all too well. You walk into a room full of strangers and you want to connect but have no idea where to start. A flood of nerves washes over you and your heart beats faster as you scan the room looking for a familiar face or, at least, a place to lean where you feel less exposed.
If you’re lucky, you will find an effortless connection with someone, but more often, connections take work and your enjoyment of the interaction is inhibited by the fear of missing the mark and being boring, stupid or incompetent.
Making conversation is an art we can all get better at.Credit:Stocksy
You leave feeling frustrated by the same automated conversations, the lack of real connection but unsure of how to engage in a way that feels more natural, nourishing and interesting.
More than 10 per cent of the population will experience diagnosable social anxiety in their lifetime. A far greater proportion experience a less paralysing but still uncomfortable form of social anxiety.
Psychologist Mel Schilling says it is on the rise. "One of the key reasons for the increase in social anxiety is uprise of social media."
It's tempting to deal with the discomfort by avoiding social situations completely.
But, says psychologist Marny Lishman, "the more we keep avoiding people, the more we will keep avoiding people. So the best way to deal with it is to work towards being around people again."
Sociability is a skill we can all develop in the new year.
“We’re not naturally taught how to have good conversations,” says University of Technology Sydney’s Sophi Bruce, a leadership specialist and positive psychology coach. “A good conversation is an art we can practise.”
Go beyond the predictable
To engage in a good conversation means going beyond autopilot responses, being too polite or hiding behind our feelings of awkwardness.
“We often say deeper things on Facebook than we do face-to-face,” Bruce says. "We restrict ourselves thinking that we're being too intrusive but perhaps we have to remember that life's too short for dull conversations."
A good conversation, Bruce says, is one that takes us "beyond the surface level" and makes us think in a new way.
The irony of social anxiety is that the fear it’s rooted in can cause us to shrink into the relative safety of insipid small talk.
“We often hear how successful everything is but what we crave is that normal, human connection.”
Our propensity to stay safe and gloss over life is evident, even in the most banal of exchanges. Busyness, researchers from Harvard and Columbia business schools argue, has become a status symbol, and explains why “busy” has become such a common response to, “How are you?”
Don’t just talk about the weather, and if you must, throw in an interesting anecdote.Credit:AAP
It means that when someone pauses amidst the “busyness” of life to give an honest response, and the other person pauses to genuinely listen, it is not only rare, but space instantly opens for a more satisfying interaction to occur.
“You walk away going, ‘Oh that was a human moment,'” Bruce says.
By revealing ourselves, we take a risk that the other person will listen and show interest.
“Genuinely charming people have good etiquette – really listening and asking really good and curious questions,” Bruce explains, adding that charming people give authentic compliments and allow natural pauses in conversation.
They are also comfortable with who they are. “If we’re second guessing ourselves all the time or what they think of us we can’t relax and we can’t listen."
Go broad and visualise
When social anxiety gets in the way of feeling comfortable, Bruce says admitting to feeling nervous or shy immediately relaxes the other person.
“It shows you’re a normal person,” she says. “Quite often, if people acknowledge they feel shy, it also helps them feel less shy.”
Perhaps this is because about 90 per cent of all humans experience shyness, so it – along with the full emotional spectrum – is something we share with others.
“We all have a universal human identity – everyone has anxieties, everyone has fears, everyone has loves," Bruce explains. "We need to have compassion for ourselves and others … If you remember you’re both humans, you‘ll get more out of the conversation.”
Another technique is to practice visualising yourself free from anxiety and enjoying social situations.
"If you are ‘thinking’ of something, then a part of your brain thinks that it has happened and creates a new memory," Lishman explains. "So just visualising yourself without anxiety repeatedly is training your brain out of being anxious."
Arming yourself with a few broad questions to ask someone about themselves can also "help you to engage with others and take the spotlight off you", Schilling says.
A 2012 Harvard study found talking about ourselves activates the feel-good part of the brain typically stimulated by sex and good food.
Suddenly, two lines from Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People make perfect sense: "Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language," and, "Talk to someone about themselves and they'll listen for hours."
Mel Schilling's conversation and connection tips
- Put down your phone when speaking to someone, this makes a statement that "you are important to me".
- When listening to someone, ask questions to clarify their meaning rather than making assumptions.
- Maintain eye contact and mirror their body language (without being completely awkward).
The School of Life runs workshops on How to be Sociable led by Sophi Bruce.
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