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I remember how nervous I could get when I met new people.
I could blank out and not 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?”
In this guide, I’ll show you how even we who are born socially anxious can feel confident around others.
1. Focus on getting to know the stranger to stop worrying about how they see you
Focus on the conversation you’re having and try to get to know the person.
This makes us more confident. Instead of focusing on every little thing we might be doing wrong, we’re able to be present with the other person.
When we fully focus on the conversation, it can make us curious. Curiosity activates our “exploratory drive” and questions automatically start popping up in our heads. That makes it easier to know what to say.,
That’s part of why it’s so easy to talk to close friends. We don’t run out of things to say because we’re focused on the conversation or the surroundings rather than what they might think of us.
If you walk into a room full of strangers, you can get the same results by focusing on those around you even if you’re not talking to someone. “I wonder what her job might be”. “That’s a nice T-shirt”, etc.
2. Occasionally “check in” on yourself and then focus outward again to feel more in control
Sometimes we feel the need to check in on ourselves. For example, I came to think about my posture the other day in a conversation. I corrected my posture and then moved my attention back to the conversation.
It’s OK to “check in” on yourself like that. That can help us feel a little more in control. We just don’t want to get stuck thinking about ourselves.
If you feel worried or have negative thoughts like “what will they think of me” – do the following:
3. Accept your thoughts and feelings rather than trying to fight them
If you try to fight your feelings of nervousness or anxiety, that can make you feel worse about yourself. When you instead accept that you are nervous, you take control over those feelings.
“I feel nervous right now and that’s OK”. After all, being nervous isn’t worse or more dangerous than being hungry or tired. They are all feelings.
4. Be better at focusing outward by practicing whenever you watch movies or Youtube
Sometimes, the brain 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 us.(6)
You can teach your brain to focus outward (rather than worrying about you) by repeatedly moving your focus back to someone else.
The next time you’re watching someone talking on Youtube or in a movie, you can practice re-focusing your attention.
Move your attention from the person you’re watching (their appearance, manners, energy level, etc), to the topic they’re talking about (ask yourself questions about it, practice being curious about it), to yourself (how you feel, how others might view you), then back to the person, and repeat several times.
Training your attention outside of social settings makes it easier to refocus in real social settings.
5. Practice being curious to know what to say
Let’s 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”.
If you’re like I used to be, your anxiety might kick in and say something like this:
“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?”
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. This is just to show your 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 refocus 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.
6. See nervousness as excitement for something good about to happen
When we do something new, we feel fear. But doing new things gives us experience and makes us feel happier with life. In other words, fear and nervosity is a sign of something good about to happen!
In fact, the body’s response to nervousness and excitement is exactly the same.
When you’re excited or scared you’re feeling the same feeling. It’s just that we tend to interpret anxiety as something bad and excitement as something good.
You can say to yourself: What I feel is excitement for something good about to happen.
7. Do things slightly out of your comfort zone but avoid what’s terrifying
There’s no point in going way out of our comfort zone. We want to be in the sweet spot of it. We can only be in the terrifying part for a few minutes. We can be in the exciting zone regularly as a habit.
Practicing terrifying things can help you do terrifying things in the future. You want to build your ability to do things that are meaningful to you, like meeting new, interesting people or having a relaxed conversation and form a connection.
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).
LESSON LEARNED: Don’t do what’s dull. Don’t do what’s terrifying. Make it a habit to do things SLIGHTLY out of what you’re used to. That way, your comfort expands a little every day.
(Therapists call this graded exposure. This is one of the methods that therapists use to treat social anxiety. It’s something you can try on your own, but if you’d like extra support, you can find a therapist or counselor and they will give you expert guidance.)
8. Learn how insecure people can be to feel less intimidated by them
Look at these numbers. They might surprise you.
- 1 in 10 have had social anxiety at some point in their lives.(13)
- 1 in 3 millennials say they have no close friends.(14)
- 5 out of 10 see themselves as shy.(15,16)
- 5 out of 10 don’t like the way they look.(17) (Only 4% of women feel comfortable describing themselves as beautiful.(18))
- 8 of 10 feel uncomfortable being the center of attention.(19)
- 9 out of 10 have some type of body insecurity.(20,21)
Realizing this changed something in me.
Before, I assumed that everyone was confident but me. Now, I know that people are way more insecure than they look.
Let’s do an exercise that uses this realization to our advantage.
Imagine that you’re at the outdoor meetup event above and don’t know anyone. How would you feel? Quite uncomfortable, I’d guess. Now, look at the image again but focus on how 9 out of 10 of them carry some kind of insecurity. Some might be loud and intimidating, others look calm, but that’s their way of looking confident. In reality, they’re quite insecure!
Therapists describe this as acquiring more realistic beliefs. 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.
9. See talking to someone as helping them out
Psychologist and social skills expert Dr. Daniel Wendler explains:
When we carry negative beliefs about ourselves, we can behave in a way that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you believe that you’re the only one at the gathering who feels anxious or awkward, then maybe you’re going to stay silent or leave early, and that’s just going to make you feel more isolated from everyone else.
If you instead can update your belief with the more realistic view that lots of other people at the party also feel anxious, you might realize that you can actually help someone else out by starting a conversation with them.
Instead of choosing to withdraw you choose to engage.
10. Speak to yourself in a friendly way to feel less judged by people you meet
If you fear that people will judge you, or think bad things about you, it can be a symptom that you are judging and thinking bad things about yourself. Psychologists call this projection: We project our own view of ourselves onto others. As long as we’ll judge ourselves, we’ll assume that others will judge us, too.
With this in mind, the way to stop feeling judged by others is to stop judging yourself. So how do you do that? When we speak to ourselves in a different way, we can change the way we value ourselves.(25)
Instead of saying things like…
“I’m so stupid/ugly/worthless”
You can say…
“I made a mistake, and that’s human. Everyone makes mistakes.”.
Or, say that you judge yourself for not being good socially. You can remind yourself of a moment where you did do good socially.
Some find it helpful to keep a journal where they write three positive things about themselves each day. The things can be as small as “I brushed my teeth today” or “I can be funny sometimes”. The important thing is to be consistent.
By challenging your own judging voice, you slowly change the way you see yourself. As a result, you also change the way you assume that others see you. Sometimes it can be hard to break out of these thought patterns by yourself. In these cases, therapy can help.
11. Be friendly rather than aloof even if you’re nervous and people will respond better
When I met new people, I was always cautious (To not risk being rejected). People saw me as aloof.
Naturally, they responded with being aloof back. That reinforced my worldview that people didn’t like me.
When I realized this, I decided 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!
Here are some examples of showing warmth:
- Asking people a question or two about how they’re doing and what they’ve been up to. It’s effective because it signals that you care.
- If someone pulls a joke or tells a story, show appreciation by laughing or making a positive remark. It can be as little as “Haha, I love that story!”
- If you like what someone’s doing, let them know about it. “I liked what you said before regarding apartment designs”.
- If you tend to “play it cool” or restrict your facial expressions as a safety behavior, practice being more expressive. (Acting more like you do with people you are comfortable with).
We dislike people who we think dislike us. We like people who we think like us.
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I explain how you can do this in more detail here. That article is about what some do to be so popular even when they aren’t good-looking, or rich, or have a high-status job.
12. Choose to accept your flaws to be more comfortable with who you are
I used to obsess that my nose was big. I decided to accept that it was part of me. I stopped trying to hide the fact that I had a big nose and owned it. I didn’t try to convince myself that my nose was small. Instead, I accepted the fact that my nose isn’t small. As a result, I stopped worrying about being judged for my nose. That made me more comfortable and likable.
If we walk through life hoping that no one notices our insecurities or fears, we will always be afraid that someone might “find out”.
We can choose to accept all our flaws. A friend of mine 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 to be able to say “Yes, I am.”
Being completely accepting of ourselves likes this makes us less nervous.(27)
13: Use your surroundings for inspiration to come up with things to say
Focus on your surroundings, the situation, and those you meet and use it as an inspiration for new conversation topics. Here are some examples of how to do this in practice.
Topics inspired by the situation
If you’re, say, in the lunchroom at work or outside of the classroom in school, people aren’t always prepared to socialize. Here, you want to “ease in” by asking something regarding the situation first…
“Excuse me, do you know when this class will start?”
“Hi, where did you find the coke?”
“Do you know if there’s another bathroom around here?”
You’ll probably just get a short yes or no to this question, but a simple question like this is important as a warm-up to make your next question more natural and not as “out of the blue”.
Now, you can ask a question based on the person – like, “Thanks. I’m David by the way. I started working here a few days ago. How do you find the place?”
Topics inspired by the surroundings
Making small statements about the surroundings is great at semi-formal events like a dinner at a friend’s place or a small party. These small statements are obvious and some think they are “needless”, but they are important: They show that you’re friendly and open for interaction.
“That salmon looks good.”
“It’s warm in here!”
“What a nice place!”
Topics inspired by the person you meet
You can use these topics in places where you’re expected to socialize (mingles, corporate activities, the first day at a new job or school, etc).
Or, you can use them when you’ve already made some small talk with someone.
“How do you know people here?”
“How come you started working in…?”
“What do you like the most about…?”
Focus outward as I talked about by the beginning of this guide. It will make it easier to come up with questions like these.
It’s not about memorizing questions – it’s about focusing outward and practicing being curious about what you see.
If you use questions and thoughts that come up because of this curiosity, you’ll be able to have a conversation that feels authentic.
14. Practice coming up with statements in your head when you’re out walking
I made it a habit to make statements and ask 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 as much about me.
Here’s an exercise you can do right now to come up with these statements:
1. 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).
2. When you go outside, 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, coming up with new topics gets easier.
When a topic dies out, you can naturally start a new one based on thoughts you already have in your head.
“Is that a Samsung phone you got there? Happy with it? I’m thinking about ditching my iPhone.”
If you want to go deeper into starting a conversation, read my complete guide here:
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How to start a conversation. In that guide, I also talk about what to do after the first few sentences.
15: Think back to an earlier conversation topic if there’s an awkward silence
When a topic runs dry with someone you’ve talked with for a while, jump back to any of the things you’ve talked about before.
Here’s an example from a conversation I had the other day:
She: So yeah, that’s why I like Canon better than Sony because the second-hand market is much larger for Canon…
Me: Interesting… (Conversation dies out)
Me: You mentioned that you lived in Ukraine earlier. Did you make films there as well or what did you do?
If this feels hard, it gets easier when you focus outward as I talked about at the beginning of this article.
Think back to a conversation you had with someone:
- What topics did you cover?
- What could you ask about those topics?
“But David, I can’t come up with any questions!”
If you have a hard time coming up with questions, you want to focus more on the actual conversation. (Earlier in this guide I talked about how curiosity activates our “exploratory drive”.)
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 focus leads to curiosity. In the same way, you want to focus on the conversation you’re having.
16: Ask yourself if you would have cared if someone else said or did something stupid
Know that confident people say as many stupid things as nervous people do. It’s just not as big of a deal for them.
I felt like I was always just one wrong word from losing everyone’s approval. I thought that I had to be PERFECT.
It’s normal to have some fear of making mistakes – nobody wants to mess up. But the issue is having TOO MUCH fear of making mistakes.
Psychologists call this Catastrophizing – when you believe that a social mistake means YOUR LIFE IS RUINED and PEOPLE HATE YOU and therefore YOU MUST AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS.
Meanwhile, a more realistic belief is that a social mistake would create a minor awkward moment that would be uncomfortable but would be forgotten in ten minutes.
Fear of being judged, nervousness, and social anxiety, all boils down to 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, everyone will judge us.
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?
17. Ask yourself what a confident person would have done
When you feel like you’ve messed up, ask yourself how a confident person would have reacted if they’d done the same mistake.
Do you know a really confident person? If so, you can have that person as your point of reference. Or, you could have someone like The Rock or Jennifer Lawrence in mind. How would they have reacted if they’d made the same mistake you just made?
Most often, we can assume that they would’ve just made a joke about it or wouldn’t care.
18. Ask something slightly personal to make your conversations more interesting
When I asked my readers what made you the most nervous in social settings, one issue that came up was the worry of not being interesting enough.
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.(30)
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 feels more interesting!
Here’s a video where I explain more in detail:
Here’s my full guide on how to make interesting conversation.
This article was co-written with Daniel Wendler, PsyD. He is a two-time TEDx-speaker, author of the bestseller book Improve your Social Skills, and founder of the now 1 million members subreddit /socialskills. Read more about Dan.