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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

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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.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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