How to start up a conversation with someone -- even if you feel anxious

Starting a conversation with someone can be one of the most stressful things you can do, especially if you experience social anxiety.

What Doesn't Work (how we mess ourselves up)

You see someone you know, or someone you would like to get to know, you happen to be standing right beside a neighbour on the bus, you bump into someone from class at a store, you are waiting in line and realize you are right beside a coworker.

Oh no....... Now I have to say something!

What could be a simple everyday situation quickly becomes complicated and stressful when we inject some worry.

Anxious thoughts like.....

To make things even harder for ourselves we mysteriously decide to set ultra high expectations

In the midst of all this fear of not being able to think of even a word to say, or being unable to speak due to anxiety, and worrying about outright rejection.....we also inexplicably decide to set impossibly high standards for ourselves that would be a stretch for most people such as......

Afterwards, we critique the conversation, subjecting it to our unbending high standards for success.

Instead of just moving on to the next thing we are doing, we take time to examine the conversation under a magnifying glass. We play back the conversation, paying particular attention to what we said, how we felt, what we wish we had said instead.

We go over the conversation in detail, remembering and re-living every word, every moment, every silence.

No mistake is too small to escape our critical eye as we replay the conversation over and over again, moment by moment, berating ourselves for every perceived "error".

We make it all about us!

We assume it's all about us. We put the whole responsibility for the conversation on ourselves. We feel that we can somehow read someone else's mind and know what they are feeling. We assume that any act of distraction or inattention is due to us - due to some flaw in us. We do not allow for the fact that the other person may be worried about something, may have a problem on their mind, or may be struggling to come up with something witty to say themselves.

We ignore the fact that many conversations people have are just about ordinary regular things.

Most people have regular lives and regular things to talk about. Conversation is not just about exchanging information, but it is about reaching out and connecting with another human being - even just briefly. It is the acknowledgment that we are human, that we can get to know one another, that we might share a common experience, even an ordinary one.

Most people have a lot of conversations about normal things in their lives, and most conversations and relationships begin with exchanges about regular things like the weather, the traffic, the class you are taking, the trip you went on, the music you are listening to , the long bus ride.

What To Do Instead

1) Realize that saying "hello" is a success in itself.

Even if it just ends with that. Saying "hello", taking the initiative to connect with someone, brightening someone else's day with simple human contact is worthwhile and is a "success" on its own. You have no idea how much that simple hello might mean to a person on a particular day.

2) Throw away the scoreboard - Life is not a test!

Life becomes so much less stressful, so much more pleasant, so much easier when we ease up on ourselves, accept ourselves and become open to just enjoying life.

Starting conversations becomes so much easier and stress free when they are no longer "a test you have to pass".

3) Let go of the extreme self judgment and criticism, and start making real connections with people.

We can learn to be kinder to ourselves and to let go fo self criticism and social anxiety. Most of the self critical thoughts associated with social anxiety are unrealistic and harmful. There is an effective process for changing these thoughts. It uses the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is done step by step, with each step building upon the one before it, gently replacing unrealistic perceptioms with healthy and helpful ones.

4) Try this simple but powerful exercise

I want to tell you about an exercise that I have some of my clients participate in. It is very simple but extremely powerful. (I'll tell you why it's so powerful later)

Give yourself a challenge.

Do this every day:

Every day from now on, make a point of initiating a short conversation with at least 3 people.

The goal is to start off with a situation which is just gently beyond your comfort zone, so that it is a stretch but is only a little anxiety producing. You will keep at this level until you can easily do it with no anxiety at all. You are building your social muscles.

Start off easy. Initiate conversation with the cashier at the grocery store, with the barista at a coffee shop, someone you recognize and pass by in the hallway.

You make eye contact, smile and say some variation of "Hi, how's it going?", "Hi, how's your day been?", or even just (if passing someone on the street or in the hallway) a smile or nod or "hi".

The first few times you try will be the hardest, but it will gradually get easier. Give yourself easy challenges at first. Then slowly build up to more challenge. Don't push yourself too hard or too far too quickly. The idea is to make gradual easy progress. When you begin to feel bored at a level of challenge, it's time to up the level and increase the complexity and difficulty.

The easiest situations are ones where the other person is doing a job such as cashier, gas pump jockey, librarian, waiter, and often speak to others as part of their job. Another easy situation is where you are traveling in the opposite direction and pass someone who seems friendly that you recognize and barely know on the street or in the hallway. In these situations a very short conversation is the norm, and is expected.

Keep doing this every day. At least 3 people every day, even if you have to force yourself to leave the house to do so.

5) After each conversation initiation, just move on... or be positive

When social anxiety is an issue for us, we tend to ruminate. We go over every little thing we do and analyze it crtiically. Even if it's just a smile and hello.

So let go of the critical analysis.

Instead, if you find yourself automatically starting to analyze what just happened, focus on what was good about it.

Focus on the positive and true: Things like -

So why is this so powerful?

It is powerful because you are:
  • incrementally building your social muscles
  • making progress step by step
  • learning to let go of self criticism
  • increasing your self confidence by taking the initiative
  • creating a solid foundation - every relationship begins with a simple hello
  • mastering a simple but powerful social skill you will always need everywhere

We all know people who can easily speak to anyone, make small talk comfortably and seem to have awesome conversations with everyone. Wish you knew their secrets?