A while back, I worked with a client who was very successful in business. She had risen to the top and was well regarded in her industry. Susan (not her real name) was a top executive and responsible for the performance of a large team. She often had to address large crowds in periodic industry meetings. You would think someone in that position would be very confident. However, as part of her job, Susan was required to attend various social events and when she did, despite her high-profile position, she became a wallflower. She felt awkward and had no idea what to talk about. Her social anxiety was so intense it was almost crippling.
When she walked into a social gathering, Susan felt as if a spotlight was turned on her. It blazed brightly showing her and all her inadequacies to the world. Her hands would sweat, she felt a lump in her throat, and her stomach ached. Most of her time at these functions was spent leaning against a wall, avoiding eye contact. If she thought someone was approaching her, she would suddenly need to use the restroom as an escape. Oddly, many of the people she avoided in social settings were the same ones she worked with on a daily basis.
Susan regularly addressed large audiences easily and confidently. In the work setting, she had no qualms about being seen. But in a party with 20 people or in a small gathering with four, her anxiety increased and she felt stifled. When asked what allowed her to be so confident in one area and so uncomfortable in the other, Susan pointed to one thing. As an executive, Susan felt confident because she knew her job. She knew herself in that role. She was knowledgeable in her industry and was able to field any question that might come her way. In her role as human and as a single woman, the confidence was missing. She couldn’t think of anything to talk about on a social level. She felt judged and as if others saw her as incompetent.
As her coach, I asked her to break down the elements of each situation. What did she feel when she walked into the room? What was going through her head as she approached people? In the work setting, Susan’s confidence came from her industry knowledge and experience. In the social setting, she was very much in her head and the “what ifs” took over. What if I can’t hold up my end of the conversation? What if they think I’m boring? What if I meet a man I like and he doesn’t like me?
I asked Susan to change her perspective. Using the “what ifs” we explored other possibilities. What if the person who was judging her was herself? What if the people she is afraid will reject her are feeling the same way about her? What if people saw her as confident and poised because of her performance at work? I asked her to imagine what it might be like if that spotlight moved from her to another person. What would happen if she walked up to that person and began a conversation with a question? Something as mundane as “Hi, how are you?” She was fine with that. Her fear was “what next?” Once the person responds, where should she go from there?
Many years ago I had been plagued by a similar social anxiety. Then I read a quote by Dale Carnegie, “Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.” And that is very true. People are most comfortable talking about themselves. If you’re stuck for small talk, use your powers of observation. Comment on the dress she is wearing and ask where she got it? Compliment a tie he is wearing and ask about his kids. The key is to ask open ended questions. Avoid questions that can be answered with a yes or a no because they can shut down a conversation before it gets going.
Here are some sample questions to get you started:
How is your wife/husband?
What do you think about the latest political race? (this could be a dangerous one if you get sucked into a debate so be careful here.)
Where are you going on your vacation?
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
There are a myriad of questions you can ask and once you get the person talking, they will give you information for follow up questions. By the time they realize they’ve been doing all the talking and turn it around on you (which doesn’t happen often) you will be so relaxed you will have forgotten that you were nervous in the first place.
Once Susan realized she was judging herself and that most people really don’t care about her hairstyle or dress, she was able to relax a little. We practiced different scenarios and she became confident enough to try her new approach at the next social gathering. She reported back that when she walked in, the same feelings started to come up. Armed with a new perspective, she was able to visualize the spotlight moving to someone she knew fairly well at work and she focused on him rather than on herself. Once she got out of her head and allowed herself to relax she got through the party with much less anxiety. She was determined to continue practicing until it became second nature.
Social anxiety is something that many people struggle with regardless of their professional status. If this is a struggle for you, find something that will remind you to get out of your head and to reach out to the other person. More likely than not, that person is going through their own struggle. She might be grateful that you spoke to her and got her out of her head.