I remember how nervous I got when I met new people.
I blanked out and couldn’t come up with anything to say. Once, at a party, I panicked and went to the bathroom. Then I sneaked out and walked home.
On my way home, I asked myself: “Why do I get so nervous around new people – really?”
After lots of reading, I found the answer: We’re all wired to be cautious around strangers. For our ancestors, meeting strangers could be deadly.
But for some of us, we’ve learned thought patterns that have made us OVERLY scared.
In this guide, I’ll show you how even we, the anxious ones, can feel confident around others.
Today, I can talk to anyone. When I’m in the mood, I love it.
I’m living proof that ANYONE CAN GET RID OF THEIR FEAR OF MEETING NEW PEOPLE.
Here are the strategies that changed my life…
1: Use “Re-focusing” to immediately stop being nervous
When I was with close friends, I felt relaxed and never ran out of things to say.
But as soon as I had to talk to a stranger, I got self-conscious and couldn’t think.
Later, I learned a trick that changed all that.
In a study, scientists asked people to talk to a stranger 1 on 1.
They asked half the group to focus on how they THEMSELVES came off. (If they were blushing, what the stranger might think of them, etc.)
They instructed the other group to focus on GETTING TO KNOW THE STRANGER. (They had to focus on the conversation and asking questions.)
Who do you think felt less nervous?
The group who had to focus on the stranger described themselves as TWICE AS CONFIDENT.
Why is this?
- When we focus on the conversation and the other person, we become less self-conscious. That makes us more relaxed.
- When we focus on the other person, it’s EASIER to come up with things to say. That also makes us more at ease.
When I come across strangers, I remind myself: FOCUS ON THE OTHER PERSON and THE CONVERSATION.
The brain is sometimes like a disobedient dog; it wants to do the opposite of what we want it to do. When we want to focus on others, it wants to worry about how others see you.
We can teach our brain to obey by repeatedly moving your focus back to the person you’re talking to.
“But David, I have to be in my head to prepare my next thing to say!”
When we learn to focus on the conversation, questions will NATURALLY POP UP IN YOUR HEAD.
(That’s why it’s so easy to make conversation with close friends. We don’t run out of things to say because we’re focused on the conversation.)
LESSON LEARNED: The way to stop being nervous talking to people is to refocus:
When you come across strangers, constantly bring your focus back to THEM.
2: The Growth Sign-technique – How confident people deal with nervosity
Whenever I used to be nervous, I saw it as a sign to go back to safety.
Later, when I made friends with people who were very confident and successful. I learned that they had a different view on fear.
They didn’t see nervosity as a sign to stop. They saw it as a sign that something good was about to happen.
When I thought about it, it made perfect sense:
Whenever I did something I wasn’t used to, I felt fear. But it’s doing new things that makes us grow. In other words, fear and nervosity is a sign of something good about to happen!
I’ve taught myself to EMBRACE my nervosity:
When I’m nervous it’s because I’m doing something that makes me grow.
DON’T TRY TO AVOID NERVOSITY. Instead, be thankful that you place yourself in situations that make you grow.
Nervosity is not a stop sign, it’s a growth-sign.
3: Why Out of your comfort zone-exercises don’t work and how to find your “Comfort-zone sweet spot”
You’ve probably seen this illustration a bunch of times. It gives the impression that you need to do crazy out-of-your comfort zone stunts to be confident.
But this doesn’t work:
Studies show that doing crazy things far out of our comfort zone just gives us a temporary boost.
Take my friend Nils, for example. He did all sorts of crazy stunts to stop being nervous:
Like laying down on a busy street
Speaking in front of a large crowd
Doing stand-up on the subway
Talking to girls he felt attracted to.
(He didn’t pull off these things because he felt confident. He did it because he tried to overcome feeling nervous.)
After Nils had succeeded with a stunt, he felt like he was on the top of the world. But after a few hours, the feeling had worn off.
After a few days, he felt like he was back to square one.
This is how the comfort zone actually works:
There’s no point in going way out of our comfort zone. We want to be in the sweet spot of it.
If we do what we’ve always done, life’s dull. If we do what my friend Nils did, it’s terrifying. We want to be in the part of the comfort zone that’s EXCITING.
We can only be in the terrifying part for a few minutes. We can be in the exciting part for the rest of our lives.
LESSON LEARNED: Make it a habit to do things SLIGHTLY out of what you’re used to. That way, your comfort expands a little every day.
Here’s an example of what this can look like in real life:
If you’re used to just nodding to the cashier in your supermarket, say “Hi”. If you’re used to just saying “Hi”, ask her how she’s doing. If you’re used to asking her how she’s doing, joke with her (And so on).
Don’t do what’s dull. Don’t do what’s terrifying. Do something just outside the ordinary every day. This way, your comfort zone expands all the time.
4: How to use recalibration to stop feeling self-conscious when you’re the center of attention
Back in school, I hated having to walk over the courtyard in the mornings. I felt like everyone watched me and judged me.
Guess if I could relate when one of our readers wrote :
“I often wonder ‘Are people thinking about how I look or how I sound? Do they notice that I’m awkward?’”
I started reading books about social anxiety and nervousness. Here’s what blew my mind:
- Every fifteenth person you meet has social phobia.
- Every sixth person you meet has some kind of anxiety disorder.
- Every third person you meet is uncomfortable in all social situations.
- Nine out of ten feel nervous talking to a stranger.
Realizing this changed something inside of me.
Before, I assumed that everyone was confident but me. Now, I know that beneath a calm surface, ALMOST EVERYONE is nervous.
Let’s do an exercise on how to use this to our advantage to overcome self-consciousness.
Imagine that you’re at the outdoor meetup event above and no one knows anyone.
How would you feel? Quite uncomfortable, I’d guess.
Now, look at the image but focus on how, behind the calm surface, people are actually nervous.
Some might be loud and intimidating, others look calm, but that’s their way of looking confident.
You’re looking at a group full of nervous people!
Behavioral scientists call this “Acquiring a realistic world-view”. It’s also called recalibration:
It’s when we crush the false idea that everyone is confident but us.
Simply reminding us of this fact makes us less nervous around people
The next time you’re about to enter a room full of people, focus your attention on them (Like I described in step 1). Remind yourself that everyone’s more or less nervous.
Click here to read more on how to stop being self-conscious.
5: What to do when it feels like people will judge you
Earlier in this guide, I told you how nervous I felt walking over the schoolyard. When I felt everyone’s eyes on me, I barely remembered how to walk!
For many, it’s even worse when they’re about to start talking.
They’re sure that people will judge them for everything they say, or laugh behind their back, or look down on them.
A few years ago, scientists discovered WHY some of us are so afraid of being judged.
They saw that fear of being judged, nervosity, and social anxiety all boils down to a single problem:
Being overly afraid of making mistakes.
In other words, anxious people overestimate the effect of social mistakes.
We think that for people to like us, we have to be perfect. If we mess up, we’ll lose all our friends! (At least that’s what it FEELS like)
But being perfect doesn’t make us more likable. Trying to be perfect makes us LESS RELATABLE and because of that LESS LIKABLE.
Isn’t that ironic? People try to be perfect to be likable, but because of that, they end up being less likable.
But, if we make mistakes every once in a while, that makes us human and relatable.
So if perfect is unlikable, what is then likable?
To be AUTHENTIC.
A person who’s authentic is a person people can trust, and that’s likable. An authentic person is a person who doesn’t try to be someone they’re not.
I have a friend who often trips and mispronounces words. Everyone loves her.
I know a guy who’s very rich and always perfectly dressed. I happen to know that he has no close friends because he never lets anyone in beneath the perfect surface.
Lesson learned: Don’t TRY to be perfect – what’s the point if it’s not even likable?
Aim for being authentic. That means not trying to pain a perfect facade. People respect an authentic person.
Here’s the secret: Instead of trying to hide your flaws, OWN THEM.
Don’t try to hide what you don’t like about yourself. Accept that it’s part of who you are.
I used to obsess what my nose was big. One day, I decided to accept that it was part of me. I stopped trying to hide that I had a big nose, and owned it.
As a result, I worried less about being judged.
For more on how to not worry about being judged by people, read my guide here.
6: “People won’t like me” – How to get accepted using the “Dog Technique”
Whenever I had to walk up to someone or a group of people, I had a strong feeling that they just wouldn’t like me.
It wasn’t rational. It was a conviction that I just couldn’t shake.
For me, I think it was because I was bullied in elementary school. My subconscious had taught itself that whenever I saw a group of strangers, they would be mean to me.
Luckily, what determines if we’re likable isn’t magic. There are simple principles we can use to make sure that we connect and that people accept us and respect us.
In this video, I present the 3 steps to make anyone like you.
My problem of FEELING like they wouldn’t like me continued past school:
When I met new people, I was always cautious (To not risk being rejected). Because of that, people responded with the same caution.
That reinforced my worldview that people wouldn’t like me.
When I realized this, I was like – wow – I’m going to try to dare to be warm toward people FIRST. (Just as an experiment – I didn’t think it would even work.)
But the results were amazing. When I dared to be warm toward people off the bat, they were warm toward me, TOO!
I call this the Dog technique. Everyone loves dog, because dogs DARE to show that they like you right off the bat. I’m not talking about being needy (Or licking people in the face) but to DARE TO BE WARM FIRST.
I explain how this works in more detail here. That article is about why some are so popular even if they aren’t good-looking or rich or have a good job.
7: How to become invincible using the “Flaw” method
I was often afraid that people would realize how nervous I was or realize that I was a fraud. I thought I was the only one who felt like this – until I realized that almost EVERYONE feel the same way.
Feeling like a fraud even has a name in psychology: The Impostor Syndrome.
One day, my friend Nils taught me something about being nervous that I’ll never forget. (Nils is the same guy as on the comfort zone stunt images earlier in this guide)
Here’s what he helped me realize:
It’s first when we’re OK with others seeing our flaws that we become invincible.
Think about it:
If we walk through life hoping that no one notices our insecurities or fears, we will always be afraid that someone might “find out”.
What Nils decided to do was to accept all his flaws. He stopped being afraid to share that he was afraid and had insecurities.
Something unexpected happened. When he stopped caring about those flaws, his nervosity faded away.
This doesn’t mean that he walks up to people and tell them about his insecurities. It’s about accepting that it’s OK that people DO KNOW about our insecurities.
If someone would walk up to you and say: Are you nervous? It’s a relief to not have to hide it, but say “yes”.
Being completely OKAY with others knowing about our flaws makes us more confident.
(And as I talked about earlier in this guide, perfect isn’t likable, while authentic is.)
Another strategy is to making a conscious decision to NOT CARE what others think.
8: How to always know what to say when you feel nervous
Say that right now, you meet this woman at an event:
You ask her how she’s doing, and she replies:
“I’m alright, but jetlagged. I just came home from France”.
Here’s how MOST people start thinking:
“Uh oh, she’ll think I’m a loser for never being to Europe. She looks skeptical, I can tell. Hmm, should I tell her about that time I was in Cancun? I mean, that shows I’ve traveled at least a bit. WHAT SHOULD I SAY?”
However, confident people focus on GETTING TO KNOW HER.
By using the same trick of focusing outward that I talked about before:
Confident people focus on what she says, and are curious about it.
“Oh, she’s been to France – how come? What did she do there? Did she like it? Where in France? What was the weather like? Has she been there before?”
You shouldn’t ask all these questions, as this is just to show the internal monologue.
But – you can ask ANY of those questions. Focusing outward makes it EASIER to come up with things to say.
Scroll back up at the photo and see if you can come up with some more questions about her, by focusing on what she said. That is a GREAT exercise to learn to re-focus and be better at making conversation.
If you can’t come up with anything, that’s fine! But that’s a sign that you want to practice focusing outward. I’ve written about how to do that here.
Whenever you start feeling nervous, remind yourself of this:
FOCUS ON THEM. BE CURIOUS ABOUT WHATEVER THEY SAY
9: How I start a conversation when I feel nervous
I use a simple trick to always know what to say when talking to a stranger.
FIRST, I make a statement about the situation we’re in. THEN, I ask a follow-up question about it.
Example 1: A conversation at a dinner
Let’s say that I’m at a dinner, and I end up next to a stranger. I might say:
“That salmon looks so good!”
Then, I ask a follow-up question.
“Do you eat salmon?”
This is a natural way to start a conversation, and you can use it anywhere. First statement, then follow-up question about the statement.
Example 2: A conversation at work
Say that I end up by the elevators with someone from a different department.
“These elevators are so fast since they updated them”
And then, a follow-up question:
“Are they the same in your building?”
You remember how I talked about FOCUSING OUTWARD earlier? If these steps sound difficult, it comes naturally when you practice focusing outward:
When you focus on your surroundings, statements and questions will pop up automatically in your head.
I practiced statements and questions in my head about stuff I saw when I walked down the street. After some time, I automatically started focusing outward instead of worrying about me!
(I stopped feeling self-conscious as I walked down the street – like how you’re not self-conscious when you’re absorbed by a movie!)
Here’s what I’d like you to do right now:
- Look around your room, and make statements in your head about things you see.
“I like that lamp” “That plant needs water” “The sun really lights up this room” “The countertop is so messy” (And so on).
- Take a walk, and ask yourself questions about those you see
“I wonder where he’s from?” “I wonder what she’s doing for work?” “Is she nervous or is that how she always looks?” (Notice how this makes you less self-conscious)
When you practice this new way of thinking, starting conversation gets easier.
If you want to go deeper into starting a conversation, read my complete guide here:
How to start a conversation. In that guide, I also talk about what to do after the first few sentences.
10: How to avoid awkward silence even if you don’t know what to say
I used to end up in awkward silence all the time. It came to the point where I avoided making conversation with people.
Later, a socially savvy friend taught me a clever technique:
When you talk to someone, you come across a bunch of different topics.
Think back to the last time you talked to a friend. What did you talk about?
The last conversation I had was with a girl at a meetup. This is what I recall from our conversation:
- She worked in video production
- She recently saw her family in her home country, Ukraine
- She felt bogged down by work
When a topic runs dry, I jump back to ANY OF THE THINGS WE’VE TALKED ABOUT BEFORE.
(It could be a topic from earlier in the conversation or even from last time we met)
So, I could ask:
What do you do more specifically in video production?
What was it like in Ukraine?
What was it like seeing your family?
What is it at work that bogs you down?
If this feels hard, it gets easier when you FOCUS OUTWARD like I talked about in the beginning of this chapter.
Right now, think back to a conversation you had with someone:
- What topics did you cover?
- What could you ask about those topics?
As you see, we’re pretty good at remembering what we talked about with someone. Use that to your advantage, by asking a question about any of those topics.
“But David, I can’t come up with any questions!”
If you have a hard time coming up with questions, you’re not focused on the conversation.
When you watch a movie you like, questions pop up in your head all the time. “Who’s the murderer?” “Who took the gun?”.
Why? Because you focus on the movie.
In the same way, you want to focus on the conversation.
11: How to avoid saying stupid things when you’re nervous using the “Turning the Tables”- method
I was always terrified of saying something stupid.
It took me a decade before I realized:
Confident people say as many stupid things as nervous people. It’s just that confident people don’t care.
I felt like I was always just one wrong word from losing everyone’s approval…
…I thought that I had to be PERFECT.
You now know that people DISLIKE those who try to be perfect and LIKE authenticity.
Making small mistakes shows that you are human and relatable.
(Ever wondered why movies always portray the evil person as perfect and confident? Because they WANT us to dislike them!)
As you become more confident, you will notice that you care less about saying the right thing. A joke that didn’t go home doesn’t mean that people got upset or dislike you. No one remembers except for you.
But here’s a good thumb that saved me a lot of headache:
Never joke on anyone’s behalf or talk down on something. As long as you keep out of doing that, people won’t feel offended.
That way, you don’t have to feel as awkward as I did once…
I joked with a girl about “self-important ladies” from the Lower East Side in Manhattan. It turned out she was from the Lower East Side…
As long as you don’t joke on anyone’s behalf, it’s ONLY funny!
Like that time I was in Barcelona and should ask for a coffee with milk. I don’t know Spanish so my friend told me: “Ask for a cafe con leche”. (That means coffee with milk) But when I ordered, I said: “Cafe conejo” which means “Coffee rabbit”.
That was terribly awkward at the time, but I know now that those mistakes make us MORE likable.
Here’s something a behavioral scientist once taught me:
When you beat yourself up for something you said, ask yourself if you had cared if someone else had said it. Would you dislike the person? Or would you just find that person a bit more relatable?
This is called “Turning the tables”
So, in your next social situation, remember this:
- As long as you don’t joke on someone’s behalf or talk down on something, blunders are likable!
- Ask yourself how you would have reacted if someone made the mistake you did (Turn the tables)
12: How to keep people’s interest using the Personal Mode-method
This one was painful for me…
You see, one time, I was talking to a girl that I liked.
Suddenly, as I’m talking, she gets eye contact with a guy behind me. It’s like she forgets that we’re talking, and she walks over to him.
This and similar experiences made me realize that I had to learn making INTERESTING conversation.
Luckily, I figured out what my mistake had been.
1) I didn’t involve people in the conversation: I forgot to ask them about THEIR experiences or thoughts on the subject.
2) I got stuck in talking about facts and opinions.
The problem with facts and opinions is that the conversation gets dry and impersonal. You won’t get to know someone by talking about facts and opinions.
When we switch over to talk about what’s personal, the conversation gets interesting.
Here’s an example of how to turn a conversation interesting:
Maybe you talk about how rents are high. If we get stuck on this topic, most people get bored after a while. So, we want to switch the conversation into PERSONAL MODE.
So, maybe you say
“Yeah, the rents are ridiculous. I have this dream to move to the countryside one day and buy my own house instead. Where do you think you’ll be living in a few years?”
Do you see what happened there?
By sharing something slightly personal, the conversation becomes feels more interesting!
There are some nuances to this.
Here’s a video where I explain more in detail:
Here’s my full guide on how to make interesting conversation.