Psychologists don’t only help people with a mental illness, they also offer coaching and other tools and techniques that can help everyone achieve more.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, this article by Clinical Psychologist Lisa Irving is not about mental illness at all – nervousness and fear are very “normal” emotions felt by all of us. Lisa’s insights are aimed to help those who might be looking to connect with new people overcome those very common feelings that stop many of us taking the leap.

I generally enjoy talking to people.  My mum could attest to the fact that I tended to talk a lot from a young age, although there were those middle-teen years where even I was a bit quieter. My own kids also went through a similar stage in early high school and I knew that because they started calling me “weird” for starting up conversations with total strangers.  As they near the end of School, I notice myself smiling more and more as I see them following my footsteps and chatting away to someone you haven’t met before.

Does the idea of talking to someone you don’t know make you nervous or shy? Maybe you’ve noticed someone you’d like to talk to on the train or at a party, at work, any where, but you keep talking yourself out of speaking up. If this is you, you’re not alone.

And the great news is we can help you overcome your shyness and start making new connections today.

Here are a few tips I offer wearing both my Psychologist hat and chatterbox hat.

Know that you’ve got something worthwhile to say

Being able to talk to anyone involves some belief in yourself and especially that you have something worthwhile to say to someone else.

People who find it naturally easy to talk to strangers probably already believe this, while others can learn it.

Take a chatty 4 year old for instance. They haven’t yet learned the social cues of when to be quiet and when to talk so they are happy to tell almost anyone whatever comes into their minds – like telling a baby-sitter, “my mum likes to drink wine after work.”  Kids at this age, believe that everything that comes to their mind is worth saying and we often smile because we know we would rarely be so honest.

Over time kids learn to filter, to know what is okay to share, and what isn’t.  We also learn to notice how the other person is responding to us.

The trouble is that for many reasons, some people learn to filter and question what others think of them way too much and this can lead to not saying enough.

If you find yourself wanting to share something and person you want to hear you is open to receiving your message, chances are you are just being too self-critical.

Practice makes perfect

Psychologically speaking, “social anxiety” is something almost everyone feels. It isn’t a clinical issue unless it impacts on your daily life. Some people suffer severely as a result of long term conditioning or a specific traumatic event that taught them to avoid social situations at all costs.

But for most people, social anxiety is not much more than a feeling of shyness that makes you filter just a little more than you really should. It could manifest in minor physical symptoms like blushing, an increased heart rate, sweatiness or having a mental blank which sometimes encourage us to avoid speaking up.

One of the major disadvantages of avoiding a challenging situation is that the person can actually deskill, or get out of practice. In regard to social anxiety, this means getting worse at having conversations with strangers which in turn, increases the likelihood of speaking up in the future – a vicious cycle.

So the big tip here is that it can be helpful to “unlearn” the default strategy of avoiding difficult, embarrassing or scary situations and learn the opposite strategy – which I call the “have a go strategy”.

Conversation starters

One of the things we hear from people who avoid talking to new people is that they don’t know what to say. So just like making sure you have a hammer and nails before starting a hardware job, we need to prepare our new friends “tool bag” so to speak.  For example, one of the tools we will probably need when talking to someone new is being confident that you have a range of ways to start the conversation – even to the point of having rehearsed a few out loud or in your mind.

Examples of conversation starters will depend on where you are, what you are doing, and what your goal is.

At a party, I might say. “Hi I’m Lisa, I don’t think we’ve met before, what is your name?”

And from there you could ask open questions about how they know the host, or say something positive about something you noticed about them (doesn’t need to be cheesy or a pick up line). Examples could be “I heard you just got back from a holiday. I love travelling too, tell me all about your trip?”

It can be a bit trickier on the train or bus where a lot of people just stare out the window or listen to their music, blocking everyone out. In this situation, you want to appear even more friendly and warm than you would usually, but start slowly.

Some of my conversation starters on the train have been:

(on noticing the man’s rather big luggage) – Are you just on your way back from a holiday – lucky you!

(on someone sitting on my handbag strap which was resting on their seat) Sorry, I’ll just make some room here.  (if they seem friendly, say something about what you notice about them)  – If they seem to be dressed in their work gear, “How was your working day?”

One time I remarked to the guy next to me when he was loudly cracking his knuckles, “that is like beautiful music to my ears”, which I said in friendly tone, and with a smile as well as a tiny bit of sarcasm, thrown in.  He’d already been talking to someone across the aisle and seemed to have a good sense of humour, so I was pretty sure he’d respond well.  We talked all of the 20 minutes to my stop.

It’s not just what you say, it’s also the way you say it

If you start a sentence looking like you would rather be somewhere else or that you are scared the other person will reject you, they are less likely to respond well.

Your job is to feel as comfortable within yourself as you can, while also making the other person feel as welcome as possible.

I tend to try to project that I already like them (emotional warmth) a lot as a person.  You obviously don’t know them yet if they are a stranger, but you may be able to imagine that they are a likeable welcoming person also – as though they are already your friend.  Doing so can help you feel familiar and comfortable with them which will reflect in the way you approach them. You can let it show by making solid eye contact, gently leaning in toward the conversation and adopting an open (unfold your arms), positive body position. All this will make the other person feel safe and welcome and as science shows, gives you a greater feeling of confidence.

For me, I’ve certainly had a few occasions where my first approach has fallen flat, but there are literally hundreds of times where people have responded really well.

Collect stories

Lots of people say they don’t like “chit-chat” or small talk.  I agree it can be boring, though it can also be the beginning of the fun stuff, which I call collecting stories.

The idea is to ask the kinds of questions that build up a story about that person.  Literally helping you create a story about the person, which you can reflect back to them. Sometimes I like to pretend to myself that I’m a detective and my “job” is to find out as much about the other person as possible. As well as being an entertaining way to navigate through lunch at a conference or otherwise boring party, a strategy like this can also help distract you from your shyness and get you engaging without fear.

Seeing a psychologist

Many people who make appointments with me in my clinical practice aren’t what the profession would consider mentally unwell, they just want to refine their confidence, learn to relax, be better managers or improve other life skills.  This one – shyness or nervousness about interacting with strangers – is a very normal topic to come up.  We all want to feel like we belong, and most people want to feel well connected with the people they know and love. Lots of people want to make more friends, improve a romantic relationship or with Valentine’s day only 24 hours away, have an enjoyable date that turns into something more meaningful.

The point here is if you do want a bit of extra help with something like confidence or interpersonal skills, give us a call because psychologists can help.

Feel free to contact us at Revive for an appointment to see as psychologist etc.