You might not guess it by the brash and bossy way I write sometimes, but I can be a shy, introverted, bucket of awkward around those I don’t know well. In the protective sphere of family and friends, I’m a fun-loving spitfire, but I’m also the person who responds to a stranger’s friendly “How are you today?” with “You too!”
Whether it’s personality, choice of topic, or energy level, conversation, especially small talk, can be an energy vampire to the anxious and introverted. Here are some tips to help you engage and even enjoy conversation with others.
Have an exit strategy
Our next door neighbors (let’s call them Lyle and Talulah) are retired. Talulah enjoys puttering around the garden, reading on the patio, and generally keeps to herself. Lyle, by contrast, will take the sound of our garage door opening as a challenge to see how fast he can bound over to our driveway in his orthotic high tops for high fives and an epic conversation about the squirrel population of the neighborhood.
I like Lyle. I like Talulah. Guess who I’d rather run into? When I do run into Lyle, we exchange pleasantries, and then I deliver a polite excuse and make like a heat-seeking missile for my door. I give myself permission to exit before I start to feel drained and my cheeks begin to go numb under my glued-on smile and bobbing head.
A lot of the trepidation I feel about making small talk stems from anxiety. I fear what the other person will think of me. I fear that I’ll say something stupid. I fear that the earth won’t swallow me up and I’ll have to listen to Lyle tell me the one about how he spent half his childhood in a saloon one more time. You get the idea.
So I use a few psychological tricks.
- Take the focus off yourself — most people are most interested in themselves. Seems obvious, right? This is actually beneficial to those who abhor small talk because it takes the focus off of us and puts it on the other person. You need only smile, nod and ask an occasional question for others to feel heard and liked.
- Remind yourself of past successes. People tend to have more favorable impressions of us than we suspect. And just because you blurted out “Have fun!” the last time someone told you they were heading to a funeral doesn’t mean it will happen again. Even if it does, remind yourself that you’re human and we all say cringe-worthy things from time to time.
Know your purpose
I used to attend a lot of two to three-day meetings with doctors and scientists. I was fine with talking shop, but when the conversation turned to things like the local sports team, the weather, or so-and-so’s unfortunate fashion malfunction on the escalator, I started to feel drained. I think I might be genetically incapable of shmoozing.
So when I know I’ll be in a situation where small talk is required, I remind myself of the following:
I can recharge later.
Small talk is important in building the foundation for future relationships.
I am smart and capable and gosh darn it, people like me.
Ok, so these tend toward the cheesy, but mantras are powerful things if you can get yourself to believe them. Repeat these or similar positive affirmations often enough, and they can give you something to focus on and, ultimately, change your negative thought patterns.
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