Management by Coaching
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
The secret to feeling confident in uncomfortable social situations
Marissa is among the best marketing people in the business when it comes to the technical part of the job. She’s smart, hardworking, and has an uncanny ability to match the right submission with the right insurer. Where she struggles is with the human factor. Marissa dreads dealing with what she describes as the agency’s “high-maintenance” producers. She feels the same way about her company underwriters. Marissa goes out of her way to avoid face-to-face or phone interaction. Talking to people makes her uncomfortable—at the office and in her personal life. Anything that feels like conflict makes her heart rate soar. She relies on email and texts for most communication and spends the majority of her day hunched over her computer screen with her headphones on.
Putting ourselves out there is never easy. … No matter how confident or successful we are, at our core we all fear being judged as not good enough in some aspect of our lives.
Jonathan is the 37-year-old CEO of a nonprofit global digital health organization. He’s highly intelligent, personable, physically attractive, and holds a Ph.D. in public health from one of the country’s leading universities. When it comes to business, Jonathan can talk to anyone, from a local healthcare worker who barely speaks English to a country’s health minister. What gets him shaking in his shoes is the idea of having to make what he calls “small talk” with the potential donors who fund his organization.
Turns out that social anxiety is a far more common problem than people care to admit. Nearly 50% of Americans consider themselves “shy,” which is just the everyday word for socially anxious. And 12%, at some point in life, will meet the criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder, which means their anxiety gets in the way of living the life they want.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. Interestingly, traits underlying both social anxiety and star performance at work overlap considerably. People with this kind of anxiety often have high standards and a commitment to thorough, well-done work.
Individuals fall at different points on the social anxiety spectrum. (If you’d like to do a free self-assessment and see where you are, email me at email@example.com.) Some people experience anxiety in most social situations. For others, anxiety is connected to specific situations, such as speaking to strangers, mingling at parties, or performing in front of an audience.
Jonathan’s social anxiety is purely situational. Overall, he’s comfortable with people. He’s just challenged to have casual social conversations with the wealthy and successful potential donors he sees as being out of his league.
Marissa’s social anxiety is far more pervasive. She avoids people in general, and it’s affecting her daily life and ability to do her job. Someone like Marissa may be suffering from an actual social anxiety disorder and benefit from professional help.
Why social situations make us anxious
Putting ourselves out there is never easy. We worry. Will we say the wrong thing? Will others view us as dull or boring? Will others reject our attempt to initiate a conversation? No matter how confident or successful we are, at our core we all fear being judged as not good enough in some aspect of our lives.
The good news is that with practice, people can learn to manage their social interaction challenges with relative ease. Here are eight strategies for reducing social anxiety and connecting with others:
- Reframe your thinking. If you view meeting people at a business event as having to make meaningless small talk or schmoozing, you devalue the process. If what you’re doing feels shallow, embarrassing, or even demeaning, it’s hard to have much enthusiasm. Reframe the experience. See it as an opportunity to genuinely connect with people. We live in a time when people are hungry for connection. Some experts believe we’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Nearly one in four Americans say they have zero people in their network with whom to discuss important matters, up from one in 10 in 1985. Forty percent of adults in America report feeling lonely on a regular basis. Twenty-eight percent of all American households in 2016 were single person, up from 22% in 1980 and 10% in 1950.
- Be the first to send the safety signal. When you walk into a situation where you don’t know people, your brain, whether you know it or not, is hard at work trying to sort out who is a friend and who is a foe. It searches for cues in body language, facial expressions, tone, and words to make snap judgments about who is safe and who’s not. Most people are passive and will sit back and wait for the other person to make the first move. If you want to increase your success in connecting with others, have the courage to be the first one to send the safety signal. It’s as simple as uncrossing your arms, relaxing your hands, putting your shoulders back, taking a breath, catching someone’s eye, and smiling. People perceived as warm and open hold tremendous attraction.
- Concentrate on the other person. Most of us are so busy worrying about how we’re coming across that we lose sight of the other person. One of the best ways to reduce your anxiety is to shift your attention from yourself to the other person. Instead of thinking about how you can make a great impression, focus on how you can make the other person feel comfortable, interesting, and important. Keep a relaxed and open body position, ask questions that demonstrate your interest in the person, listen with full attention, and make good eye contact. If you’ve ever had the experience of talking to someone at an event and their eyes are scanning the room looking for who else is there, you know how important it is to maintain eye contact.
- Open up a little. If your tendency is to keep the spotlight off yourself and always be the one asking others questions, reconsider that strategy. A reasonable number of questions will make most people feel flattered. If you’re asking all the questions, people can start to feel like they’re on the witness stand. Creating a real connection is a dance of give and take. That means being willing to share a piece of yourself.
- Own up to a vulnerability. Sharing a flaw or shortcoming about yourself enables the other person to relax. It also makes you more likable. Researcher Elliot Aronson at the University of Texas, Austin, discovered this phenomenon when he studied how simple mistakes can affect perceived attractiveness. He asked male students from the University of Minnesota to listen to tape recordings of people taking a quiz. When people did well on the quiz but spilled coffee at the end of the test, the students rated them higher on likability than when they did well on the quiz and didn’t spill coffee or didn’t do well on the quiz and spilled coffee. Release the pressure to be perfect. Choose a medium level of vulnerability that’s honest but doesn’t feel too risky to share.
- Unite rather than divide. When you’re trying to build rapport, find common ground and avoid making comments that may divide. While some people love a vigorous debate, for many, anything controversial feels threatening and is a conversation stopper. For example, let’s say you’re at a business dinner cutting into a perfectly cooked filet mignon. The young woman on your left says, “I turned vegan six months ago, and I’ve never felt better in my life.” Your immediate response is, “I could never give up meat.” She responds with a weak smile, thinking this guy has no regard for his health or the impact cattle are having on global warming. A better but still honest comment that creates common ground might be, “My doctor says I need to eat less meat and more vegetables. What’s a great vegetarian dish that you think I should try?”
- Convey positive energy. Gener-ally speaking, we’re attracted to positive people. Their genuine enthusiasm, openness to people and ideas, and optimistic view of the world tend to make us feel better. People who project negative energy by complaining or dwelling on the downside deplete our energy and leave us feeling tired and drained. Energy is contagious. Most of us prefer to spend time with people who lift our spirits and avoid people who drag us down. While complaining about your workload, the miserable weather, or the horrible traffic on I-95 may seem like a good conversation starter, it’s a tactic that can work against you.
- Anxiety is driven by uncertainty. Winging social interaction can be paralyzing. Pay close attention to what typically makes you anxious and plan for it in advance. For example, if you feel weak in the knees or queasy before speaking in front of people, find a place where you can be alone and go through a few power stances. Amy Cuddy has a great TedTalk that you can view online on how and why this works. If you’re concerned about having something interesting to say, choose a couple of topics in advance. An online search of what’s trending can give you a range of ideas. If you worry about getting trapped in a conversation with someone you don’t like, plan an escape route. A technique that works well is saying, “Let me introduce you to Karen; she’s also in technology, and I think you two will have something in common.”
You’re not alone
It’s common to think that we’re the exception and that what’s hard for us comes naturally to others. That’s seldom the case. Most people, except the most extroverted among us, find ourselves anxious in some social situations. People who make it look simple know their triggers. They use techniques that help them shift their mindset when anxiety starts to surface. They’ve learned that the more they expose themselves to situations that challenge them, the easier it gets. Most important, people who are good at social interaction don’t take rejection as a gauge of their likeability as human beings. They accept that some people click with them and some people don’t. They don’t waste time dwelling on interactions that don’t work. Instead they invest their energy in finding people with whom they can connect.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive and lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.