In this internet age we live in, where you can do your shopping online or use the self-service checkout at the supermarket, people are going for increasingly long periods of time without human interaction. Add to this that so much communication that does take place happens via an electronic medium like social media messages, comments on posts and texting, and you have the not-so-surprising reality that MANY people lack social confidence.
Lack of human interaction is rarely the sole cause of this low confidence, but can play right into and compound self-confidence issues that are born from childhood where we may not have been validated enough by our parents.
When I was 16 years old, I was hit by intense depression and anxiety that turned into social anxiety and murdered my confidence.
Rebuilding myself was a multi-pronged approach, but I found the single most effective thing that worked to build my social confidence was not a meditation or mind trick; it was in fact to do the thing I was most scared of… socialize.
This doesn’t mean I started hitting parties; like with all other things one might want to build confidence in, you have to get competent at it first. And like with all other things that one might become competent in, you have to start small.
In this case, we boil socializing down to its most fundamental aspect: conversation.
When I’m working with someone to build their social confidence, I give them an extremely simple exercise that they can progress at their own pace. So simple is this, that I rarely have to push them in any way once they get started.
The philosophy is to start small (in other words, ‘easy’), enjoy the achievement of that victory and then ramp up your efforts.
Here it is...
Talk to one stranger every day.
You simply engage one person every day, starting with the most simplest of conversations. Usually, this will be a question that a quick and simple answer can be provided for and therefore easy to ‘get out of’ for those who are seriously nervous when talking to people.
Below are a list of conversation-opening phrases that I’ve placed in general order of ‘difficulty’ with what most people find the easiest being first and hardest being last.
“Can you tell me where I can find…?”
This is at its least challenging when asking a shop staff member where an item might be, and a bit more difficult when asking a stranger directions to a particular place. You might actually know where the place might be, which for some people makes asking the question easier (because there is no real anxiety as you’re not actually lost!)
“Do you have the time?”
This was a common thing I would hear or ask people myself when I was younger, because back then you actually needed a watch to know the time. Nowadays, I literally don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a mobile phone and therefore has access to the time. And so what makes this conversation starter slightly more difficult as that you then either allow the person to wonder why you don’t have means of telling the time or you have to give a reason such as “My phone battery has died”.
“I love your hair/necklaces/shirt/etc”
I love giving people compliments. In my effort to build my confidence I discovered that giving a stranger a random compliment required slightly more effort on my part, but was the most rewarding in the way it made me feel and made me actually want to do it more. We often fear that people will think we have some kind of agenda when giving people compliments, but if you can overcome that and see how your simple words can light someone up, I guarantee that you’ll be glad you did. And this is where the real transformation starts to happen. After making someone smile and feeling the good feelings they instantly have towards you, the negative beliefs that once held you back (people don’t think I’m interesting) get replaced with positive ones (people like me). And as the reward centres of your brain get fired off, it wires you to seek more. In other words, you start looking for things to compliment people on; you start to see the best aspects of them and this by itself makes you feel good. Giving at least one stranger a compliment every day will be a total game-changer in the quality of your life.
“What’s that perfume/aftershave you’re wearing? I really like it!”
This is slightly more personal as you’re complimenting them but also asking them to reveal a part of themselves (albeit a very superficial part of them) and share something with you. As simple as this is, many people have a problem with asking people for things.
“You have the loveliest voice/accent”
Nobody really knows why, but some people would rather chew broken glass than talk on the phone. To help boost that social confidence, challenge any ‘phone anxiety’ you might have by again tapping into the power of complimenting. Be genuine and don’t say this to someone if they have a voice like gravel (unless you like that). Another version of this can be “Where is your accent from? I really can’t place it”. This then opens up the conversation to then talking about places.
“How’s your day going?”
Asking somebody something so open-ended such as this almost demands some sort of follow-up conversation. Asking a stranger this as you stand in a queue at the bank, bus stop or sit next to each other on a train will almost always result in them asking you how your day is going. There is the small chance that you will get a simple one- or two-worded reply such as “Great, thanks”, in which case you then get the opportunity to practice being comfortable with uncomfortable silences (which is another social skill).
Essentially, this is a form of ‘exposure therapy’ where you gradually inoculate yourself to that which you are scared of. As you dip your toe into the waters of social interaction, and challenge yourself to go just that little bit further in each time, you build a positive feedback loop where your confidence and competence in social situations feed each other.
Bonus tips and tricks:
When you have the thought that you might use one of the phrases on a particular stranger, bypass any negative self-talk your mind might come up with to talk you out of it by using this method. Simply say to yourself as soon as you notice that you are considering talking to that person; “Three…. Two…. One… Go!”, and do it! Most of us are highly programmed to take some sort of action after hearing the “one” or “go” which is why this is a powerful mind tool.
As a part of this exercise, I instruct people that if they ever do happen to pull-out last minute in talking to someone, that’s OK. BUT… they then must do a set number (depending on who they are) of press-ups. Maybe not there and then in the middle of the shopping mall or wherever, but they have to do them that day and for every time it happens. Not all people have the personal integrity to do this, but this helps to build that integrity and also tap into the power of reprimand. While the press-ups aren’t the worst thing in the world, the brain will associate not following-through with 'pain' and will then seek to avoid that by preferring to take action instead.
You can always end it
Those with more severe anxiety at talking to strangers are encouraged to remind themselves that they can always end it. “Well, this is my stop” or “I better get going or I’ll be late. Nice meeting you!”
A REAL Thank you
Looking people in the eye as you say thank you to them (till staff, shop attendants, waiters, anyone) is something that I encourage all people to do no matter where they are in the social confidence spectrum. I consciously practice this myself as I seek to make my gratitude truly felt, and this is also something I suggest to the most socially un-confident – because the shyest of people are always eager to get away from the interaction. You’ll notice that the least confident people make the least eye-contact. Practising eye-contact at the end of the interaction is easiest (because it’s ending and therefore you’re not going to have any awkwardness staring at each other). It also just feels good to give a genuine thank you rather than a routine thoughtless one as you walk off. So next time you have an interaction where you are served by someone, pause for just a moment, smile, look them in the eye, say a genuine "Thank you". In that instant, you will make a very brief but real connection with that person that will have positive effects on both you and them.