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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?”
I decided to learn to socialize without ever feeling nervous.
- I read books on confidence.
- I delved into behavioral science.
- I learned tricks from socially savvy people I knew.
Today, I can talk to anyone and feel confident doing it. I’m happy to have helped thousands of people feel confident socially.
In this guide, I’ll show you how even we who are born socially anxious can feel confident around others.
What you’ll learn
- How to feel more confident and know what to say by practicing re-focusing your attention in social settings.
- Counter-intuitive ways confident people deal with nervousness and why “out of your comfort zone-exercises” don’t work.
- What to do if you feel self-conscious, judged, like people won’t like you, or worry about flaws or looks.
- How to come up with things to say when you’re nervous, how to stop worrying about messing up socially, and how to keep someone’s interest.
1: Use “Re-focusing” to 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 it was suddenly harder to come up with anything to say.
Today, I feel as natural talking to strangers as I do with close friends. How was I able to accomplish this? By using a trick called “re-focusing”.
In a study,(1) scientists asked people with social anxiety 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?
- Instead of taking up our attention with every little thing we might be doing wrong, we’re able to just be present with the other person.(2)
- 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.(3,4)
On top of that, here’s what I’ve noticed in my conversations:
When I tried to apply the results of this study in my own life, I found that the scientists were right.
When I fully focus on the conversation I’m having, it’s easier for me to add to it and I don’t run out of things to say.
Or, if I enter a room full of strangers, (and I’m not talking to anyone) I focus on those around me: “I wonder what her job might be”. “That’s a nice T-shirt”, etc.
“But I need to be in my head to prepare for what to say and make sure I don’t do something wrong”
If you feel uncomfortable “leaving” your head, here are two things to keep in mind:
Focusing on the conversation or those around you will make it easier for you to add to it.
When we truly focus outward, we get curious, and questions naturally pop up in our heads.(3,4)
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.
It’s OK to occasionally “check in” on yourself.
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. 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:
Accept whatever your thoughts and feelings are. You can’t fight them. When you instead accept that you are nervous, you take control over those feelings.(5)
“I feel nervous right now and that’s OK”.
Then, move your attention back to the conversation or those around you.
Check in – Accept your thoughts and feelings – Move back the focus to the conversation or those around you.
2. It can be hard to control your attention and not get stuck in your head. Here’s how you can practice focusing outward
As you know, thoughts can be hard to control:
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)
We can teach our brain to focus on the right thing by repeatedly moving our focus back to the person we’re talking to.(7)
For example, 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.(8)
LESSON LEARNED: The way to stop being nervous talking to people is to refocus:
3: How to always know what to say when you feel nervous
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?”
However, confident people don’t feel the need to impress. They 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. 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.
4: The Growth Sign-technique – How confident people deal with nervousness
Whenever I used to get nervous, I saw it as a sign to go back to safety.
For example, I could get invited to a social gathering, get a really bad feeling and cancel last minute, and at home feel lonely and regret that I’d canceled.
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 doing new things gives us experience and makes us feel happier with life.(9) 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.(10)
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.
The next time you feel nervous, remind yourself of the following:
Nervousness is just a feeling, no different than feeling hungry or tired. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s often a sign that you’re about to do something that’ll make you grow.
You can say to yourself: What I feel is excitement of something good to happen.
5: 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 super-scary and often, we can’t be in a scary situation long enough for change to be permanent.(11)
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
Walking up to girls he’d never met before
(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.
Practicing terrifying things can help you do terrifying things in the future – Nils would probably be more able to lie down in a busy street than you or I.
However, how much value do you get from lying down in the middle of the street?
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.
Those are the things to practice.
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.(12)
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.)
6: 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:
- 1 in 10 have had social anxiety at some point in 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.(22)
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.(23)
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.
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 more or less everyone has some kind of insecurity.
Click here to read more on how to stop being self-conscious.
7: What to do when it feels like people will judge you
Earlier in this guide, I mentioned how nervous I’d felt joining a friend’s party.
When I felt everyone’s eyes on me, I barely remembered how to walk!
For many of us, it’s even worse when we’re about to start talking.
Many of my clients are sure that people will judge them for everything they say, or laugh behind their back, or look down on them.
If we constantly fear that people will judge us, what’s really going on is often that we judge ourselves.
(Psychologists call this projection: We project our own view of ourselves onto others.(24))
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?
Studies show that if 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”
We 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.
Sometimes it can be hard to break out of these thought patterns by yourself. In these cases, therapy can help.
As a result, you also change the way you assume that others see you.
For more on how to not worry about being judged by people, read my guide here.
8: “People won’t like me” – How to connect right off the bat with 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.
It was a protection mechanism. By assuming that everyone would be mean, I was prepared to deal with it.
This made it harder for me to connect with people:
When you’re in armor, you’re protected, but that very same protection makes you unapproachable.
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!
I call this the Dog technique. Everyone loves dogs, 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.
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).
I had discovered what behavioral scientists call reciprocity of liking: We dislike people who we think dislike us. We like people who we think like us.(26)
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.
9: 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 feels 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:
When we become okay with others seeing our flaws, 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 to be able to say “Yes, I am.”
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.
To be clear, 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.
Being completely accepting of ourselves likes this makes us less nervous.(27)
Here’s another strategy to not care what others think.
10: How to come up with things to talk about when you feel nervous
Sometimes when we’re expected to talk to people it can be hard to come up with things to say. This is especially true when you feel nervous.
This creates a downward spiral:
You try to come up with something to say, but you can’t because you’re nervous. Then you go “Crap, I don’t have anything to say!” and that makes you more nervous, which makes it even harder to think of something.
Here’s a method that has helped me a lot:
Focus on your surroundings, the situation, and those you meet and use it as an inspiration for new conversation topics.
Here are some examples on how to do this in practice.
Conversation 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?”
Conversation 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!”
Conversation 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.
11. How to practice coming up with things to say based on your surroundings
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:
How to start a conversation. In that guide, I also talk about what to do after the first few sentences.
12: 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?”
So when one topic with her died out, our conversation went something like this:
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 before. 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.
Right now, 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.
13: How to stop worrying about saying stupid things 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 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.(28)
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.
Scientists know that fear of being judged, nervousness, and social anxiety, all boils down to a single problem:
Being overly afraid of making mistakes.(29)
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.
Here are two tricks to set your mistakes into perspective
1: Get a more realistic view of your mistakes by turning the tables:
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”
2: Get a more realistic view of your mistakes by asking 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.
So, in your next social situation, remember this:
- Ask yourself how you would have reacted if someone made the mistake you did (Turn the tables)
- Ask yourself “If a confident person did the mistake I did, how would they have reacted?”
14: How to keep people’s interest using the Personal Mode-method
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.
I could relate to that. one time, I was talking to a girl that I liked.
Suddenly, as I’m talking, she makes eye contact with a guy behind me. It’s like she forgets that we’re talking, and she walks over to him.
If you get stuck in small talk (like I did), people can get bored after a while. In the case with this girl, she showed that she was bored in a less subtle way.
I didn’t involve people emotionally; I forgot to ask them about their experiences or thoughts on the subject. 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.(30)
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 feels more interesting!
Here’s a video where I explain more in detail:
Here’s my full guide on how to make interesting conversation.
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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.