For the longest time, I hated the idea of going out to social gatherings where I’d be expected to meet new people or hang out with acquaintances whom I barely knew. Yes, I’m an introvert and my preference is to stay in and chill with close friends only, on my schedule, on my own terms. Sounds pretty selfish when put that way, doesn’t it?
But I’ve gotten a lot better over the years. With the help of various tips and skills I’ve picked up, social interactions aren’t as hard or daunting as they once were. If you’re an introvert with social anxiety and find it difficult to socialize, here are several tips that helped me.
1. Listen to Learn, Not to Reply
If you go into every conversation with the goal of “holding a conversation,” you’re setting yourself up for failure. Conversations have to be about something. If there isn’t a central point to talk about, of course you’re going to flounder for words and/or clam up. Which is why I go into every conversation with one mission: to learn more about who the other person is.
In other words, by making them the subject of the conversation, you suddenly have a bunch of different topics and areas to explore. But remember: the goal isn’t just to talk about them; it’s to learn about them, which implies that you need to listen.
Be interested. Don’t fall into the trap of mentally formulating your next reply while they’re talking and subsequently missing everything they say. As they speak, take it all in without worrying about what you’re going to say next. Reply when they’re done; it’s OK if it takes a beat for you to think of something, but usually you can just jump off from the last thing they said. Of course, if you think of something you want to say while they’re talking, you can hold onto it—just make sure to keep listening.
Learning is important because that’s how you find topics they’re passionate about. And once you have those topics, you can move onto…
2. Ask Questions (But Don’t Interview)
When you’re genuinely interested in a person, questions will naturally arise. Where did they grow up? What do they do to pass the time? Spouse? Children? Hobbies? Ambitions? Opinions? There’s a lot to explore. This may sound like small talk, and that’s because it is—small talk is an important step in building relationships, and you should think of it as a “conversational warmup.”
If you land on a topic that they’re particularly passionate about, the conversation gets even easier because you can sit back and listen while they say what they want to say. When they say something interesting, ask them to elaborate. If you don’t understand what they just said, ask them to explain.
However, if you ONLY ask questions, the conversation can start feeling like an uncomfortable interview or even an interrogation. The key to sidestepping this is to always offer relevant thoughts of your own in response to what they just said before you slip your next question in. Also, questions should be raised to continue the current conversation, not bounce from topic to topic.
3. Open Up When Asked About Yourself
Unless you’re conversing with a narcissist, they’ll inevitably start asking questions about you. This is great because it shows that they’re interested in knowing more about who you are. It may be marginal interest, but it’s still interest! Don’t squander this opportunity.
When this happens, open up. Avoid giving one-word answers and avoid rambling. Nothing kills a conversation faster than shallow or curt answers, and nothing kills interest in a conversation faster than someone who drones on and on and leaves zero room for others to speak.
Admittedly, opening up is a risky and scary thing. It’ll be uncomfortable, for sure. But when you show that you’re willing to be open, others will likely follow suit. This is how conversations evolve past simple small talk—one person has to willingly offer their vulnerability. When nobody wants to be vulnerable, that’s when conversations remain as surface-level small talk.
4. Smile and Laugh
A simple smile can really lift the mood of a conversation and help others wants to stay as participants. Laughter kicks it up a few more notches, whether it’s a slight chuckle at an off-hand comment or a full-on belly laugh at a funny story being told. If you have “resting angry face”—like I do—it may require effort on your part to remember to smile and laugh, but that’s a small price to pay for more enjoyable conversations.
5. Mind Your Body Language
Our words convey what we think, our bodies convey what we mean.
You can say the same sentence in the same tone in the same situation, but subtle changes in your demeanor can alter the way that sentence is received by others. This is why smiling and laughing is important (mentioned above), but other key body language tips include: relax your shoulders, don’t fold your arms, lean in rather than leaning back, nod along when people make statements, and face your torso toward whoever is speaking.
6. Practice, Practice, Practice
If conversations and social situations are uncomfortable for you, then you really only have two options: 1) avoid them as often as you can and allow your social skills to deteriorate even further, thus eroding your confidence in social situations and allowing them to cause even more anxiety over time, or 2) go outside of your comfort zone in small steps, intentionally using every social interaction as a way to practice your social skills. It will get easier with time as long as you’re willing to treat your social skills as muscles that need practice and maintenance.
7. Develop Your Sense of Self
I firmly believe that one’s confidence in a conversation starts long before the conversation begins. If you aren’t comfortable with who you are as a person, or if you think you aren’t interesting enough, or if you feel like people look down on you as someone not worth having a conversation with, then all of that’s going to show in how you hold (or fail to hold) your conversations.
Take care of yourself. Sleep well and eat well. Work on your style and appearance. Be mindful of your personal hygiene. Take on new hobbies and build new skills. Address your insecurities and find yourself as a person, even if it means professional therapy. As you become a more confident person, it will absolutely spill over into your conversations.