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3 top tips for talking to people when you feel socially anxious

The one that doesn’t speak

Have you always been the quiet one? The one that doesn’t speak? Me too. I’d listen to friends’ discussions from the sidelines. I’d hear the constant chatter, but I wouldn’t chip in. I didn’t know how to talk to people. Did I have any thoughts worth sharing? I often couldn’t think of a single thing my friends would be interested in hearing from me.

And then that dreaded thing happens: someone asks you a question. Oh no! Now everyone’s looking at you expectantly, your mind has gone blank, your cheeks have gone red. All you can think is ‘how stupid do I look right now?!’ That seemingly uncontrollable freeze response kicks in.

I used to wonder why I was so different. Why did I struggle to talk to people? I assumed I naturally had terrible communication skills. I even convinced myself this was the result of some kind of neurological disorder (I felt there just had to be something seriously wrong with me to freeze like that in everyday conversation).

As much as I didn’t want this to be true, I accepted it as fact: I’d never be able to hold a conversation. There was definitely something wrong with me. No one seemed to have the same trouble participating in discussions and no one understood my difficulties. In fact, people would ridicule me for it and I felt deeply ashamed. I made a habit of avoiding situations where I would be expected to hold a conversation because I knew I couldn’t do it. (If you’ve ever felt like this too, you’ll be interested to learn about the science behind why introverts struggle to speak – it’s about how we access memory differently to extroverts).

And then I looked at the way I communicate from an NLP perspective…

Stop being so reserved

Early in my NLP Practitioner training, each group member provided the others with anonymous feedback: one thing we should stop doing and one thing we should start.

Here’s some of the feedback I received from various people:

  • Stop sitting back in communication
  • Stop allowing others to speak over and direct
  • Stop being so reserved
  • Start being more outspoken
  • Start taking risks

Note the theme here? At first, I was a little upset with these comments. I AM quiet. And I’m reserved. I don’t even want to be a loud person that always seems to have an opinion to share with everyone. But…

I would love to feel comfortable participating in conversations more often. What if being more outspoken and not sitting back in conversation was actually a possibility?

With some coaching, I analysed my behaviour and the reasons I sit back in communication. What I found surprised me…

I didn’t know when to shut up!

Seriously – my own internal chatter was preventing me from fully participating in conversations.

Is there a little voice in your head that tries to plan a conversation before you say a word? Self-talk that questions your knowledge and freaks out about the possibility of looking silly if you get something wrong?

I would even anticipate questions I might be asked and create a vision of a tongue-tied, red-faced me trying and failing to defend myself. What would others think of me?

Could that small voice in your head really be the reason you’ve struggled with conversation for so long?

Yes it could.

How to listen to people

You see, one problem with all this internal chatter is that we’re not actually listening to the other person speak. We cannot effectively listen to two conversations at the same time.

This is what the communication process should look like:

Communication process - I speak; You listen; You process; You speak; I listen; I Process

With internal chatter, it’s a never-ending cycle of processing (having a conversation within our own heads). We’re waiting to say our part. We plan our speech and try to perfect what we want to say in our minds before we even begin to open our mouths. By the time we’ve done that, what we have to say is no longer relevant. The conversation has moved on.

Did you notice? Which conversation are you really listening to?

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Perhaps you believe sitting back in discussions allows you time to think of a response; to find the right words before sharing your thoughts? Yet, taking this approach leaves you in conversation with only one person: you. And that means opportunities are missed. You’re not developing relationships. You’re not showing people how awesome you really are! (And you really are awesome in your own quiet way). But you can. You can learn to quieten your internal chatter once you know it’s not helping you.

Perfection is not required

First things first: perfection is NOT required in everyday conversation. Is it even possible to say something wrong (aside from the obvious offensive comments of course)?

Remember some of the silly things your friends have said. What happened? Did you laugh with them at their slip of the tongue? Did you think any less of them because of what they had said? Perhaps you felt a stronger connection with them (doesn’t it feel good to be reminded that other people make mistakes too)?

So what would happen if you did just speak out?

If you say something a bit daft and everyone has a giggle, they’ll feel warmer towards you than when you say nothing at all and even, perhaps, than if you could say everything right.

That little voice that’s after perfection… it’s misguided. No one expects you to be perfect. No one.

Focus on others

When your internal chatter is loud and you’re deep in thought about what you wish to contribute to the conversation, you’re really not focusing on the other person’s needs or what they are saying. So how can you quieten this internal chatter?

One helpful tip to quieten the mind when there is too much chatter going on, is to push your tongue to the roof of your mouth whist listening. No one will even notice what you’re doing and you’ll be free to focus on the real conversation.

In putting the other person first and really listening to their words with interest and curiosity, you’ll find it easier to follow the conversation and easier to contribute too…

Ask purposeful questions

You don’t have to be witty or intelligent or confident to make good conversation. You just have to be genuinely interested in others and you can talk with anyone. Really listen to people, be curious, ask great questions and show people that they are important. There are some great examples of questions to ask in ‘how to turn small talk into smart conversation’, Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker recommend asking questions that invite people to tell stories.

Celestine Chua suggests using these 5 easy ways to make small talk with anyone:

  1. Ask questions
  2. Give a compliment
  3. Talk about a surrounding object
  4. Ask for advice
  5. Share something about yourself

What if you’re put on the spot?

That’s ok. Allow yourself to be quiet for a few moments. You can easily buy yourself time to process your thoughts by saying something like “hmm, let me think about that…” or simply put on your ‘thinking face’. Most importantly, remember to breathe slowly and evenly to keep a calm and clear mind.


If you’re walking the path from social anxiety to quiet confidence, join like-minded people in the Quiet Connections for support, understanding and free workshops.

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