Some people look forward to social situations and seem to thrive off of them. Many others have a more difficult time with social situations, leading people to cancel plans, skip out on social events, or attend, but find themselves uncomfortable and looking for ways out the whole time.
In my practice as a psychotherapist and coach, one of the main issues I’ve seen with social anxiety is that people who are socially anxious tend to overthink what they are going to say in a social situation, and don’t spend enough time actively listening. This causes them to miss the cues that can open a broader or deeper conversation (unconsciously, this probably happens out of a fear of connecting on a deeper level, as well as fear of vulnerability, even if there is also a conscious desire to connect — this topic on its own could generate many books of discussion).
How does active listening in a social context differ from passive listening?
When people are socially anxious, the mentality is often to get through the conversation as fast as possible, while also trying to appear to have interest and good questions to ask in order to stay away from awkward silences. But this mentality really ends up keeping the conversation on the surface, prevents connection, and reinforces anxiety. This causes the entire conversation to be more of a going-through-the-motions exercise, rather than a place where two people can find a way to connect.
Everyone has conversations for different reasons — whether it’s looking for a friend, a relationship, a business connection, etc. However, whether it’s business or personal, the goal of a conversation is to connect with another person, even if the reasons for wanting the connection vary.
When there is fear of rejection or vulnerability, seeking out a connection to another can be very difficult. It isn’t as simple as not knowing what to say in a social situation, it’s more that the anxiety overtakes the mind’s ability to recognize and create the opportunities to connect.
When actively listening, a person almost always presents cues that, if picked up on, can create more depth to conversations, and increase the comfort of a conversation.
Here’s a snippet of a passive listening conversation at a work party:
Anxious person: Hey J.
J: Hey there…how are things?
A: They’re good. How are you?
J: Things are good. It’s been quite a year. Feels like we never get a break.
A: Yeah. Totally, I know. (nods head a few times — anxiously starts thinking of what to say next).
So, even in this small snippet of a conversation, there are already cues that could take this conversation deeper.
Here’s a more active listening approach. In this approach, the anxious person has caught the cue of J referencing a desire for a break, or vacation:
J. Things are good. It’s been quite a year. Feels like we never get a break.
A: Yeah. Totally, I know. When’s your next vacation?
J: Oh, I still have two more months until I can get away. I’d be thinking about work the whole time if I went before that.
So now, there are many different directions the conversation can go…as well as J may ask A a question. But to focus on the cues for a moment, A has a few different possibilities just from what we have.
A can bring him/herself into the conversation:
A: I know what you mean. Every time there’s a vacation I feel like I spend half of it wondering what work is collecting. I wish I could just focus on fun with my family. We like to go to the lake each summer and hang out for a week, but I find it hard to relax (now you’ve just brought in your own cues — what you like to do in your free time, and that family time is important to you — and if the other misses it, you can always branch it to them with a question — “Where do you go with your time off?”, or “Do you get much family time, considering how much work we always have?….What do you do?”).
Or, A can ask another question if not wanting to bring him/herself into the conversation:
A: I get it. There’s never a good time for a vacation in our work. Are you planning a good getaway somewhere?
There are also many other directions these cues can take the conversation. Perhaps they will discuss office strategies for keeping the work load from intruding on vacations, or maybe they will discuss family life, or desires for different travels, etc., etc. Obviously, the above isn’t a perfect scenario, but the point is that if one is actively listening in a conversation, there are almost always opportunities to expand a conversation into various directions, rather than looking for the way out. Make it a game, or a challenge, or both.
Next time you’re in a social situation, challenge yourself to do a few things differently (or try adding a different one each time):
Listen actively for the cues the other person gives to you.
Ask questions based on the cues the other gives you.
Bring yourself into the conversation — don’t only ask questions and give validating comments (such as, “that sounds great”), bring things in that move you and can relate to, or even test the waters by bringing something in that you don’t know the other can relate to yet. Don’t be afraid to like things and have passion. See what cues come from that for you or the other to expand upon.
Enter the conversation looking for a way in, not a way out. Remember, you can always leave the conversation when you’re ready.
Set a goal of at least how many cues you will catch and expand upon in a conversation before letting yourself out.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of this social anxiety series.