Do you suffer from social anxiety?
Perhaps you can’t maintain eye contact and stumble over your words, looking for the exit.
In this article, we’ll look at social operations and developing conversation skills to increase your confidence.
“I’ve literally forgotten how to speak”, I said.
My friend looked smiled at me, a silent agreement.
I’d been working from home behind a laptop screen since changing careers, with minimal human interaction.
When I did venture forth from my marketing dungeon, even ordering a coffee seemed taxing.
Sure, I could order a latte, but shooting the social breeze felt unfamiliar.
My social skills had atrophied, to the point that simple conversation felt stunted and awkward.
I soon warmed up and entered the flow, but it was a reminder that even the most basic abilities are bestowed on a use them or lose them basis.
Fortunately, I’d used them excessively in the past when, working as a physio, I’d built my conversational muscle like an iron-pumping bodybuilder.
Part of working in a people-facing industry, especially health care, is that you have to get good with people. Surprisingly.
A huge part of the treatment process is developing rapport, culminating in trust and hopefully a successful rehab outcome.
Not to mention that when you’re stuck in a room with someone for 30 mins once or twice a week, it helps if you’re not a weirdo.
Working in that environment, you encounter a diverse range of clients, treating people of all backgrounds and walks of life.
It’s essential, therefore, to converse comfortably in all situations.
This type of professional training certainly helps hone your social skills, so if you’re struggling with the art of communication, hopefully, you find the following pointers helpful.
But first, a quick caveat.
Note that this article is about developing conversation skills in a one-on-one context.
I’d argue that group conversations are slightly different from solo encounters in that they’re more performative, involving elements of public speaking, which is another skill entirely.
In this context, we tend to revert to evolutionary impulses, where egos are easily activated, in order to assume our place within the hierarchy.
For this reason, I’ve always preferred one-on-one’s or intimate gatherings, where such posturing recedes.
Developing conversation skills
If you only want to improve your surface-level interactions, some of the following tips might appear excessive.
But by practising the advice below, however, you’ll not only be prepared for water-cooler chats, but also deeper and more meaningful exchanges with friends.
If in doubt, just listen
Although it might sound counterintuitive, a good conversation starts with silence.
It’s the space you give someone to express themselves which allows communication to flow – otherwise, you just have two people shouting over one another.
In our world of noise, it’s rare to find good listeners.
Making someone feel truly heard, however, gives them the freedom to open up for a deeper and more rewarding exchange.
In this way, the art of listening is predicated on putting another person over your own conversational needs.
We’ve all been trapped in conversations where the other person bangs on about themselves, showing zero interest in making it a two-way exchange. BORING!
There’s nothing as off-putting as a narcissistic conversationalist.
In order to facilitate active listening, we must first show an active interest in our conversation partner.
Demonstrate this by asking them questions. And don’t worry about what – there’s no wrong question.
Simply make them open-ended enough to facilitate further discussion. It’s important to remember that rather than completing a question checklist, your enquiries are motivated by genuine curiosity.
Don’t try to plan the conversation, but instead enjoy its natural flow.
Asking questions is a great way to seed a conversation with interesting topics, but forging a deeper connection with another human also requires finding areas of common interest.
Otherwise, it simply becomes an interview.
To make another person feel understood, we can draw on our own experiences and find parallels with what they’re saying.
Contributing your own thoughts and feelings creates a common bond and helps to cultivate shared interests.
Think back to the conversations you dread.
Often they involve instances of judgement or criticism.
Fostering a deep connection is dependent on letting another person speak their mind without fear of reproach.
The ability to empathise with another, even if you don’t agree or align with their perspective, is one of the hallmarks of a good communicator.
After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion.
Just because their worldview doesn’t align with yours, doesn’t mean you can’t explore their position with curiosity.
If it turns out that there’s no way for compromise, you can still act with compassion before exiting the exchange.
Our bodies are often mirrors for our minds.
Psychological stress frequently manifests in muscular tension and anxiety incites physical symptoms like rapid speech and sweaty palms.
Luckily, however, this phenomenon seems bidirectional.
If you alter your body language and act as if, it’s possible to improve your mindset, especially concerning conversation.
Before developing the speaking skills we now enjoy, humans evolved to identify thousands subliminal, non-verbal cues, which remain large factors in how we relate to one another.
Whilst social anxiety might result in a defensive stance or withdrawn position, true connection involves adopting an open posture and establishing eye contact.
Nodding when another person is speaking can signify agreement while standing upright with your shoulders back can increase conversational confidence.
Perhaps the simplest, yet hardest, aspect of being a better conversationalist is practice.
While socialising is a daunting prospect for those with public performance anxiety, the only way to overcome your inhibitions is to feel the fear and do it anyway.
As with most things in life, we only overcome our weaknesses through exposure therapy, however awkward or uncomfortable the initiation may be.
Even if the first few rodeos are complete failures, it’s only through sheer repetition that, through trial and error, we learn to become skilled speakers.
I’ve experienced this first hand when cold calling sales prospects.
At first, my emotions were out of control, resulting in nervous, stuttery calls, with dismal results.
It was only after annihilating my fear by picking up the phone repeatedly that I gained the confidence and the skills to sell my proposition.
Developing conversation skills, like most things in life, is a numbers game.
Communication is what separates humans as a species.
The fact that we connect and collaborate verbally is an unprecedented evolutionary leap, which provides unlimited opportunity for those willing to master the art of conversation.
If you want to expand your professional network, exchange ideas with like minds, or simply become a smooth social operator at the local coffee shop, invest time in developing conversation skills.
You won’t regret it.