With social anxiety, people can get caught up in trying to be agreeable. For example: “That sounds good!”, “How nice!”, “How neat!”, That’s really cool!”, “That’s awesome!”, etc. (There are reasons for this agreeability, such as fear of rejection, fear of being negative or critical, or of overtaking the conversation, but we’ll save that discussion for another time). While obviously there’s nothing wrong with being supportive or validating to another person, these comments generally don’t do much to help to open a conversation without adding something with it.
Genuine interest in the other person helps creates a more fluid conversation because it adds an element of real curiosity that can open the conversation.
If you’re genuinely interested in learning more about the person, their interests, and what motivates them in certain ways, then the questions to ask, comments to make, or the topics of conversation will likely come to mind and flow more naturally without having to overthink. Your actual interest becomes your guide, rather than having to generate a less-connected internal list of questions and responses.
Genuine interest takes a conversation from, “that’s nice,” or “that’s great”, to actually engaging. “What made you come up with that business idea?”, or “What made you want to go into sales, is it working with people, or what?”, or “You took your kids to the water park this weekend? What else do you do with your kids on the weekends, we could always use more ideas”, or “I love water parks! Last summer we went to this place…”, and so on.
The point is to make some part of their life your interest as well, and the conversation can flow more because you both have an emotional stake in what you’re discussing. You’re setting up engagement, rather than merely keeping the other person talking or commenting with filler.
For example, you may want to hear about what music someone listens to because you like music, or you may want to hear about someone’s interest in the stock market because it could help you with your own investing. Or you might ask someone for their input in something you’re also dealing with that seems to be in their interest as well. Maybe something emotional will come up that you can relate to.
Reflecting back to parts 1 and 2 of this series, genuine interest is a quality that opens the social anxiety window, and active listening will help you catch your points of interest, or will allow you to bring in your own.
With genuine interest in other people, your curiosity about them will help you into a more connected conversation. It’ll make you want to ask more questions, or understand what makes them tick in certain areas…and you can bring yourself and your own interests and experiences into this as well.
If you tend to not have genuine interest in other people, it could help to find ways to be in some way interested in each person you’re talking to at a social event, even if you have to challenge yourself to find something to connect with.
Tips for using your genuine interest in social conversations:
- Enter the conversation looking for something to be interested in, rather than thinking of how to keep them talking.
- While preparing topics in advance generally takes people out of the present (see part 1), it may be helpful to think in advance about what may interest you about another person (e.g. how they separate work and personal life; How they parent; What they do to have fun; What their inspirations are for various things in life; etc.).
- Challenge yourself to limit agreeable filler more than really necessary. Replace agreeable filler with a point of interest wherever the conversation is in that moment.
- When you hear something that interests you, ask questions that pertain to your interests. Don’t feel the questions need to only be about their interests.
- If you find that you’re having trouble being interested in their lives, bring in an interest of your own, even if not connected to where the conversation is at that moment, to see if they can engage with your interest.
Remember, genuine interest is less of an exercise in searching for things to say, rather than listening with an eye on yourself as well within a conversation to see where you are instinctively moved to hear and say more. When you can become emotionally involved in a conversation, it can lower the volume on the anxiety.
Overall, the tips I’ve offered in this series can be helpful, but I would generally recommend a psychotherapy experience for anyone with social anxiety. Social anxiety tends to be a cover for other anxieties, and general discomfort within one’s own skin. The skills are a coping strategy, but if people can become comfortable in their own skin and work through their own anxieties, social situations can become much less stressful.