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How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety

How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety

Imagine being able to talk to strangers without the shakes, or being able to walk into a party cooler, calmer and more collected instead of a sweaty bundle of nerves…

Does that sound like a dream come true?

This article offers some key tips for easing the anxiety that comes with talking to strangers in a social setting. Tips on how to talk to strangers that will leave you feeling more calm and less crippled.

How I used to have a racing heart and sweating palms

In high school, I had a friend who could talk to anyone. It did not matter where we were. We could be at a small gathering or a large party and she would strike up a conversation with perfect strangers. I was always jealous of her ability to talk to people she did not know with such ease.

She was an extrovert at heart. And being able to talk to strangers was not something that made her heart race or her palms get sweaty. She just went into action and morphed into a social butterfly.

Then there was me — quiet, not to be confused with shy, but rather a bit more “cocooned” and reserved. When it came to making small talk with strangers, I’d become a bumbling, rambling fool. With my heart racing and my palms sweating, I would feel myself shrinking as I searched for things to say.

So instead of flitting around the room, pollenating conversations, I would stand in the corner and hold up the wall.

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Come to find out I was just an introvert who was not great at small talk.

So while I do not suffer from social anxiety, I do get how the thought of talking with strangers causes heart palpitations and the sweats. To this very day I still get a little “twitchy” before going to social functions where I may not know many people.

But here is the deal, whether you have social anxiety or you are an introvert who does not do well with small talk, there are some easy ways to lower the anxiety and sweat levels. Ways that support you in navigating those social settings and talking to strangers with a bit more ease.

How to lower anxiety and talk to strangers

Social anxiety or the anxious feelings we get when it comes to talking to strangers is real. Regardless of the reasons we get anxious, here are some easy and helpful things we can do to lower the anxiety:

1. Own it, rather than judge it.

Judging yourself only tells the brain that there is something wrong with you. Since your brain takes cues from you as to what is real and what is not, your brain will provide you with all sorts of evidence to support your thoughts, which in turn leads to more anxiety.

Rather than judging yourself for having angst when it comes to talking to strangers, try owning it. For example, “I get anxious when I talk to strangers.” as opposed to, “What is wrong with me that I can’t talk to strangers without getting anxious?”

2. Be you.

Similar to owning the anxiety is just being you. Want to talk about adding to the anxiety; try being someone you are not in a social setting.

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“If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” ― Brené Brown

Here’s the thing, authenticity is expansive. It gives us the space to be who we are in those social settings that make us nervous.

I think back to my friend in high school. I tried to be her and I failed at it which only created more angst in social situations. Had I just taken a couple of deep breathes and been myself, I am pretty certain I would have been less anxious and rambling.

3. Deep breaths.

Speaking of deep breaths, try taking a few before you enter any situation where you are going to be surrounded by people you do not know. The bottom line, when we are anxious, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid so we are not getting enough oxygen. Not enough oxygen feeds anxiety and panic.

Deep breathing doesn’t just provide more oxygen to our brains but also calms down our nervous system.

Take a look at these 5 Breathing Exercises for Anxiety (Simple and Calm Anxiety Quickly).

4. Be curious.

Try going into the social setting and be curious about the people you are going to meet. I wonder what I’m going to learn?”

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Like authenticity, curiosity is also expansive. When anxiety has you shutting down, use some curiosity to open up the possibilities.

5. Come up with some questions in advance.

The best way to engage curiosity is with some questions. When anxiety gets the better of you, it may be difficult to come up with some questions to ask someone you are meeting for the first time.

Prepare some in advance. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having some pre-scripted questions to help ease the social anxiety and get the conversations going. For example:

  • “Where are you from originally?”
  • “What’s the coolest thing you have ever done?”
  • “What’s one thing you love to do every day?”

6. Address the Boogie Man under the bed.

What scares you most about talking to strangers? If you shine a light on the biggest, scariest fear you have, you diminish the fear a bit and the anxiety that goes along with it.

Give the “What If…Then What” exercise a try. For example, “What if people think I’m weird?” or “What if I don’t know what to say?”

Once you have your answer, then ask yourself this follow-up question,“Then what would happen?” Keep asking the follow-up question until you have run out of “then what’s”. This is similar to the 5-why problem solving technique.

7. Set a goal and celebrate.

Celebrating the goal completed is an important part. You are re-training your brain to see social events with strangers as a positive, as opposed to a negative. So before the social event, set a goal for yourself. For example, initiating a conversation with one person you do not know.

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Once you accomplish the goal, do something to celebrate. (FUN IDEA ALERT: I love to have my clients create what I call a “Celebration Box”, which makes celebrating fun and a “no-brainer”. This requires a box that you are welcome to decorate and slips of paper with “celebratory-type” items and activities written on them. Put the slips of paper in the box and once you complete your goal, pull a slip of paper from the box. Then do whatever that slip of paper says.)

8. Carry a “security blanket” with you.

Does this sound silly? I promise it is not. During my first year of coaching, to help me calm my nerves, I used to hold a heart-shaped rose quartz crystal in my hand during each call. Just having that crystal created a sense of calmness and made it easier for me to coach.

Pick out something small that symbolizes “calm”. Something that you can carry in your pocket, wear or indiscreetly hold in your hand. A crystal or a pendant on a bracelet that says “breathe”. A tiny piece of Play Doh or Silly Putty that you can squeeze works too.

9. Tell a friend and take them with you.

Having back-up support is helpful when it comes to anxiety. A friend that is in the know can be supportive and their active participation in the conversations takes the pressure off.

Taking the anxiety down a notch

While being a social butterfly may not be your thing, here are few keys to lowering your social anxiety. Keys to taking that anxiety down just a notch.

  1. Recognize that social anxiety is real.
  2. Try not to judge yourself for having it.
  3. Commit to doing something that makes talking to strangers easier.
  4. Try different calming exercises until you find the ones that work best for you.

“Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.” – Walter Anderson

At the end of the day, you are so much stronger than your social anxiety makes you feel when you start doing something about it.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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Pam Thomas

Chief Change Officer @What's Within U; Helping people dig out from the ruts that keep them stuck personally and professionally.

How to Develop a Lifelong Learning Habit How to Stop Worrying About the Future: 8 Practical Techniques How to Talk to Strangers When You Feel Crippled With Social Anxiety Writing Journal for a Better and More Productive Self (The How-To Guide)

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Last Updated on August 6, 2020

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

6 Reasons Why You Should Think Before You Speak

We’ve all done it. That moment when a series of words slithers from your mouth and the instant regret manifests through blushing and profuse apologies. If you could just think before you speak! It doesn’t have to be like this, and with a bit of practice, it’s actually quite easy to prevent.

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” – Napolean Hill

Are we speaking the same language?

My mum recently left me a note thanking me for looking after her dog. She’d signed it with “LOL.” In my world, this means “laugh out loud,” and in her world it means “lots of love.” My kids tell me things are “sick” when they’re good, and ”manck” when they’re bad (when I say “bad,” I don’t mean good!). It’s amazing that we manage to communicate at all.

When speaking, we tend to color our language with words and phrases that have become personal to us, things we’ve picked up from our friends, families and even memes from the internet. These colloquialisms become normal, and we expect the listener (or reader) to understand “what we mean.” If you really want the listener to understand your meaning, try to use words and phrases that they might use.

Am I being lazy?

When you’ve been in a relationship for a while, a strange metamorphosis takes place. People tend to become lazier in the way that they communicate with each other, with less thought for the feelings of their partner. There’s no malice intended; we just reach a “comfort zone” and know that our partners “know what we mean.”

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Here’s an exchange from Psychology Today to demonstrate what I mean:

Early in the relationship:

“Honey, I don’t want you to take this wrong, but I’m noticing that your hair is getting a little thin on top. I know guys are sensitive about losing their hair, but I don’t want someone else to embarrass you without your expecting it.”

When the relationship is established:

“Did you know that you’re losing a lot of hair on the back of your head? You’re combing it funny and it doesn’t help. Wear a baseball cap or something if you feel weird about it. Lots of guys get thin on top. It’s no big deal.”

It’s pretty clear which of these statements is more empathetic and more likely to be received well. Recognizing when we do this can be tricky, but with a little practice it becomes easy.

Have I actually got anything to say?

When I was a kid, my gran used to say to me that if I didn’t have anything good to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. My gran couldn’t stand gossip, so this makes total sense, but you can take this statement a little further and modify it: “If you don’t have anything to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

A lot of the time, people speak to fill “uncomfortable silences,” or because they believe that saying something, anything, is better than staying quiet. It can even be a cause of anxiety for some people.

When somebody else is speaking, listen. Don’t wait to speak. Listen. Actually hear what that person is saying, think about it, and respond if necessary.

Am I painting an accurate picture?

One of the most common forms of miscommunication is the lack of a “referential index,” a type of generalization that fails to refer to specific nouns. As an example, look at these two simple phrases: “Can you pass me that?” and “Pass me that thing over there!”. How often have you said something similar?

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How is the listener supposed to know what you mean? The person that you’re talking to will start to fill in the gaps with something that may very well be completely different to what you mean. You’re thinking “pass me the salt,” but you get passed the pepper. This can be infuriating for the listener, and more importantly, can create a lack of understanding and ultimately produce conflict.

Before you speak, try to label people, places and objects in a way that it is easy for any listeners to understand.

What words am I using?

It’s well known that our use of nouns and verbs (or lack of them) gives an insight into where we grew up, our education, our thoughts and our feelings.

Less well known is that the use of pronouns offers a critical insight into how we emotionally code our sentences. James Pennebaker’s research in the 1990’s concluded that function words are important keys to someone’s psychological state and reveal much more than content words do.

Starting a sentence with “I think…” demonstrates self-focus rather than empathy with the speaker, whereas asking the speaker to elaborate or quantify what they’re saying clearly shows that you’re listening and have respect even if you disagree.

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Is the map really the territory?

Before speaking, we sometimes construct a scenario that makes us act in a way that isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual situation.

A while ago, John promised to help me out in a big way with a project that I was working on. After an initial meeting and some big promises, we put together a plan and set off on its execution. A week or so went by, and I tried to get a hold of John to see how things were going. After voice mails and emails with no reply and general silence, I tried again a week later and still got no response.

I was frustrated and started to get more than a bit vexed. The project obviously meant more to me than it did to him, and I started to construct all manner of crazy scenarios. I finally got through to John and immediately started a mild rant about making promises you can’t keep. He stopped me in my tracks with the news that his brother had died. If I’d have just thought before I spoke…

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