Most people have some level of “social anxiety,” resulting in difficulty starting conversations. More commonly, almost everyone struggles at times to initiate conversations with strangers – or almost anyone who is not a not a friend or family member.
For individuals who have a clinical condition known as social anxiety disorder (or social phobia), starting conversations is especially difficult. I recently learned that social anxiety disorder is actually the most common form of anxiety disorder. In fact, up to 10% of people suffer from social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
In our coaching business, we find ourselves coaching more and more college students and other adults who have high levels of social anxiety. Often this is associated with being on the autism spectrum. When coaching adults with both ADHD and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), we address both executive function challenges and neurodevelopmental gaps, including social skills development.
Just Getting Started!
Fortunately, there’s good news for individuals who have difficulty starting conversations. It’s very treatable.
The first step is being aware of how much you reach out and talk with others. Whether you are sitting next to a stranger on a train or an airplane, or beside a new co-worker you don’t know, do you find it difficult to start conversations? Are you comfortable with what to say and how to keep a conversation going?
Some people who have difficulty starting conversations brush it off by saying they are shy. In most situations, this means that they have not sought help in learning how to initiate conversations. Sometimes they were not very popular as a child or in early adulthood. If they had trouble making friends when they were young, they often feel rejected or incapable of holding others’ interest.
Myths about Starting Conversations
There are lots of myths about why people do not start conversations. Let’s explore some common ones:
- Very shy people can never learn how to start and maintain conversations.
- Some people live such boring lives that they have nothing to talk about.
- People often have “nothing in common” with people they want to get to know.
- If you haven’t learned to start conversations by the time you are an adult, it is unlikely you will ever learn.
- Starting conversations and keeping them going is a special gift; there are no guidelines or formulas to follow.
Starting Conversations Using Free Information
While there are no “surefire, guaranteed” strategies or formulas for starting conversations, there are some simple strategies that can be practiced and improved upon over time.
One key strategy is what author Alan Garner calls “making use of free information.” In his book entitled Conversationally Speaking: Tested Ways to Increase Your Personal and Social Effectiveness, Garner states:
During the course of a conversation, others will almost always be giving you plenty of free information, data beyond which you requested or expected. If you take advantage of this free information by making statements or asking questions related to it, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for channeling your conversations in interesting directions. – Alan Garner
For example, here’s a conversation I had with the person in the seat beside me on an airplane ride from Richmond, VA, to Boston, MA:
Me: “It looks like we got a break with the weather today. Sunshine and virtually no wind at all.”
Other Passenger: “That’s right. And the last time I flew into Boston we were working around thunderstorms.” (Free Information)
Me: “Do you fly to Boston often?”
Other Passenger: “Yes. I fly in there several times a year since I moved to the Boston area three years ago. The company I work for is headquartered there, but my job requires me to travel quite a bit!” (Free Information)
If my fellow passenger had no interest in speaking with me, his answer might have been, “No, not often,” or simply “Yes.” Yet, his responses opened up several avenues for me to pursue. For example, I could have asked any of these questions next:
- “How do you like living in Boston? How would you compare it to where you lived before?”
- “What company do you work for, and what kind of work do you do?’
- “Were you doing business in Richmond?”
- “Where did you live before you moved to Boston?”
Starting Conversations Using Self-Disclosure
I could have also provided information about myself at any point in this conversation. Alan Garner calls this Self-Disclosure. In fact, I did self-disclose:
Me: “I went to college in Boston and still have relatives who live near there. I know the metro area pretty well. (Self-Disclosure) I’m curious. Do you live in the city itself, or in one of the neighboring communities?”
Other passenger: “I actually live in Newton. Do you know where that is?”
Me: “Sure do. My brother has a stepdaughter who lives there with her family. And, in college, I actually dated someone who was going to school in Newton.” (Self-Disclosure)
Other Passenger: “That’s quite a coincidence.” (pause) “Well, this has been interesting. Yet, unfortunately, I need to finish a report before I arrive in Boston.”
This was the other passenger’s signal to me that the conversation had run its course. Of course, another response might have us finding more and more things we have in common!
The main point is that if you listen for free information and you do some self-disclosure, it will give you clues whether or not the other person might be open to sharing more personal information.
Of course, you don’t want the other person feeling like they are in an interview! Be sure to disclose just enough about yourself to give the other person openings to ask his or her own questions.
Debunking Myths about Starting Conversations
1. Very shy people can never learn how to start and maintain conversations.
Many people who have had lifelong difficulties initiating conversations have the misbelief that this will never change. Practicing the use of Free Information and Self-Disclosure can increase awareness and comfort with conversations. Fear of “rejection” may be strong, yet most people will send you signals whether they have any interest in engaging in a conversation. They might actually be in a hurry or have something else they need to do. If they give short answers like “yes” or “no,” it may be about THEM and not about YOU!
2. Some people live such boring lives that they have nothing to talk about.
If you start with the premise that you have nothing of interest to add to a conversation, you have sealed your fate! Yet, if you start by asking the other person questions, you may be surprised at how many things you have in common. You can also ask questions about things you do NOT have in common. For example, let’s assume that the person sitting beside me on the airplane said, “I actually don’t live in Boston or Richmond. I live in Cleveland.” I could then say, “I don’t know much about Cleveland. How do you like living there?”
3. People often have “nothing in common” with those they want to get to know.
In my experience, when I start talking with people, I almost always find that we have things in common. It might be places we have been, sports we like to follow, things we like to read, things that make us laugh, movies we have watched recently, etc. One thing we all have in common is that we are human beings. Sometimes, just like us, the other person would like to start a conversation, yet doesn’t know how to start it!
4. If you haven’t learned to start conversations by the time you are an adult, it is unlikely you will ever learn.
From my own experience and the experiences of adults I have coached, anyone can become more comfortable starting conversations and keeping them moving along. Age doesn’t seem to be much of a factor. It has been especially rewarding to see college students and other adults with social anxiety and autism spectrum disorder learn to engage in meaningful conversations.
5. Starting conversations and keeping them going is a special gift; there are no guidelines or formulas to follow.
As I have demonstrated, there are some concrete, time-tested strategies for having meaningful conversations. By being aware of free information and practicing self-disclosure, your “social anxiety” and fear of rejection may not go away. Yet your fear doesn’t have to prevent you from reaching out to people you know little or nothing about!
Reach Out and Connect!
If you struggle with starting conversations, contact us today to explore if our coaching services can help you make free information and self-disclosure work for you! As with most skills, initiating conversations gets easier with practice. Let’s chat!