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Published on July 6, 2018

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

More by this author

Pam Thomas

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

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Last Updated on January 15, 2019

What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

When I wrote my book Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide, I was surprised at the various layers of review and editing necessary to get the book to publication. Before I ever submitted the manuscript, I enlisted a former colleague to read and copy edit my work. Then, I submitted my work to an editor at the publisher’s house, and once she approved it, she sent it to her colleagues and then her company’s editorial board.

Upon editorial board approval of my book, my editor sent my work to reviewers in my field, then a developmental editor, then a designer and layout team and, finally, another copy editor. There were a host of personalities with whom I needed to interact along the way.

It turns out that getting a publishing contract was just the beginning – a lot happens between developing a concept, writing the book, finding an agent and publisher, and getting the book on bookshelves or on Audible or Kindle. Through every milestone of the publishing process, my ability to interact with others was crucial. This underscored for me that no matter what or how much a person accomplishes, you never do it alone – everyone needs assistance from others.

While I conceived of the book and wrote the manuscript, there is no way my book could have hit booksellers’ shelves without the dozens of people who were involved in the publishing process. Further, interpersonal skills can propel or stonewall success.

Even as someone who has written hundreds of essays, press releases, pitch notes and other correspondence, writing itself is not a solitary endeavor. Sure, I may write in solitude, but the moment I am finished writing, there are always clients, colleagues, partners, peers and others who review my content.

What is more, even as a published author and contributor for this platform, I try to never submit final copy (content) that has not been copy edited. I send everything to my copy editor, whom I pay out of my own pocket, for her review, edits and approval. Once she has reviewed my work, caught unbeknownst-to-me errors, I am much more confident putting my work out in the world.

How Interpersonal Skills Affect Relationships

It is clearer to me now more than ever before that interpersonal skills are needed in every profession and every trade.

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People don’t elect leaders because the leaders are smart. Individuals are motivated to vote when they have a hero and when they feel they have something to lose. If they seriously dislike the other candidate, they are much more likely vote according to a 2000 Ohio State University study:

“A disliked candidate is seen as a threat, and that will be motivation to go to the polls. But a threat alone isn’t enough – people need to have a hero to vote for, too, in order to inspire them to turn out on Election Day.”

In a work setting, interpersonal skills impact every facet of your development and success. Trainers must collaborate with a design team or the company hiring them to facilitate the training. During the training itself, the facilitators must connect with the audience and establish a rapport that supports vulnerability and openness. If the trainers interact poorly with the trainees, they are unlikely to be invited back. If they are invited back, they may be unlikely to inspire cooperation or growth in their trainees.

Solopreneurs interactions with clients and subcontractors, and those interactions will, in part, support or adversely impact their business. If you enjoy a career as an acclaimed surgeon or respected lawyer, your interactions with patients, clients, health insurance agencies and a team of other practitioners – many of whom are shielded from public view – will improve or decimate your practice.

As a hiring manager, one of the things I consider when interviewing candidates is their interpersonal skills. I assess the interpersonal skills they display in their content and face-to-face presentation. I ask probing questions to learn how they interact with others, manage conflict and contribute to a team atmosphere.

When candidates say things like, “I prefer to work alone” or “I can hit the ground running without assistance,” I bristle. When candidates appear to know everything and everyone, I wonder if they will be receptive to learning or open to feedback. Could these statements be indications that these individuals lack interpersonal skills?

It stands to reason, then, that interpersonal skills are among the most valuable and the bedrock of all talents and skills.

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What are Interpersonal Skills?

Interpersonal skills range from emotional intelligence, empathy, oral and written communication to leadership to collaboration and teamwork.

In sum, interpersonal skills are skills that enable you to interact well with others. They include teachability and receptiveness to feedback, active or mindful listening, self-confidence and conflict resolution.

From a communications standpoint, interpersonal skills are about understanding how colleagues prefer to communicate and then using the appropriate mediums to meet respective needs. It is about understanding how to communicate in a way to get the most out of different people.

For instance, in my career as a public relations practitioner, part of what I am constantly evaluating is which colleagues, clients and members of the media prefer email, text or phone calls. I am assessing how much frill to use with each person depending on what has worked in the past and depending on what I know about the person with whom I am interacting.

Making these decisions and being disciplined enough to follow each person’s known preferences helps me better connect with the various individuals in my orbit. Is this tiring at times? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely.

How to Improve Interpersonal Skills

There are tons of resources to teach interpersonal skills. I love books such as Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, and The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

There are also a host of books and articles on emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions and perceive and adapt to others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence is likewise a critical component of positive interpersonal relations. You can learn more about it in this article: What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why It Is Important

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Active and mindful listening also support improved interpersonal skills. I recommend you take a look at this piece: Active Listening – A Skill That Everyone Should Master

I have further found that humility helps a ton with interpersonal skills. It takes humility to admit you have more to learn and that you can learn from the people around you. In fact, everyone with whom you interact has a lesson to teach you. And employers are increasingly looking for team members who are lifelong learners, meaning they believe there is always room for growth and professional and personal development.

Forbes contributor Kevin H. Johnson noted in a July 2018 article,

“That’s why, when anyone asks what the next ‘hot’ skill will be, I say it’s the same skill that will serve people today, tomorrow, and far into the future—the ability to learn.”

Don’t overlook introspection.

While interpersonal skills may seem simple enough, introspection is critical to learning where and in what ways you need to grow.

Through introspection and observation, I have learned that my interpersonal skills suffer when I am sleep deprived, because then I am short-tempered and irritable. I’ve observed this connection over a significant period in my life. Unsurprisingly, it is also true of others. Fellow LifeHack contributor, health coach and personal trainer Jamie Logie noted:

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When you are chronically sleep deprived, it really does a number on you. A lack of sleep can keep your body in a constant state of stress and over time this can get pretty ugly. Elevated stress hormones can be involved in creating a bunch of pretty nasty conditions including anxiety, headaches and dizziness, weight gain, depression, stroke, hypertension, digestive disorders, immune system dysfunction, irritability.

Additionally, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported,

“Sleep deprivation can noticeably affect people’s performance, including their ability to think clearly, react quickly, and form memories. Sleep deprivation also affects mood, leading to irritability; problems with relationships, especially for children and teenagers; and depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase anxiety.”

The point is, even as you are identifying ways to improve interpersonal skills, think about what is getting in the way. While sleep deprivation is a trigger for me, your stumbling block may be different.

The Bottom Line

You cannot fix what you do not know is broken. Even as you work to understand and apply interpersonal skills, spend some time in mindful meditation to get clear on what is holding you back from developing solid relationships.

Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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