Overcoming Shyness: 9 Tips For Making Conversation


How do you see your world?

Do you suffer from shyness? Do you find it's difficult to start a conversation?

Imagine you enter a room full of strangers. Is your first inclination to spin around and walk away? Or does the prospect of making new friends give you the courage to charge in like a bull and embrace the opportunity?  If you think you’re the only shy one in the crowd, you may be surprised to learn most people experience at least some level of awkwardness and anxiety in a new situation. Meeting people we don’t know can feel extremely uncomfortable—that’s normal.  Yet it’s also true certain people seem to have a knack for overcoming their natural tendency toward shyness.  If you want to learn how they do it, check out the 9 tips below:


(1) Know what you’re getting into ahead of time.  Here are some useful questions to consider before walking into a room full of people—whether they’re strangers or otherwise.  How many people will be meeting?  How old are they?  Are they mostly single or married?  Is this an organized group or function?  Why are people gathering?  When we spend a few minutes thinking about the people we’re about to meet we can gear our minds to the type of things likely to come up in conversation.

For example, if this is a young, politically motivated group supporting an environmental cause, we can be fairly certain the main topic of conversation probably won’t be football.  This can also help avoid an embarrassing situation: For instance, if we were to walk into a liberally motivated group and go on and on about all the “crazy” environmentalists in the world, chances are people will start jumping all over us.


Fresh veggies are the best.

Here's a tip for starting a conversation: Look around the room and find something interesting to talk about. It might be anything, like color or light.

(2) Probe.  It’s sometimes useful to think of conversation as an ongoing process:  Two people meet.  One takes the initiative.  Questions are asked.  Answers are given.  The questions become more focused and so on.  Eventually, mutual areas of interest are discovered and the conversation blooms.  Thus, learning to how ask better questions is very helpful in becoming a better conversationalist.

Here’s how to make questions count: When we probe in a way that requires simple yes or no answers, it rarely invites further discussion.  This means “open-ended” or “leading” questions are better for jump-starting a dialogue.  For example, after determining the person or people we’re talking to have seen a particular movie, we might ask how it compares to other movies they’ve seen rather than asking if they liked it.  The first approach offers a more direct path to expand on an answer.  In the process, other movies or topics may come up that we can continue talking about.  On the other hand, the second approach will typically generate a one or two word response.  That’s rarely enough to keep the conversation chugging along.  Bottom line: Take a moment to consider the best way to phrase a question before asking it.



(3) Keep up on the things that matter most.  This is another way to say people often talk about news, gossip, weather, sports and kids.  Now, while some might label these superficial topics, they (a) work well as conversation starters, and (b) are topics close to the heart in most people’s day-to-day lives.  Thus, if the President is in town, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear talk about bad traffic, politics, the current campaign, etc.  Or if we know this is a group of mothers, we can expect to hear them brag on about their kids, discuss local schools, where to shop for kid’s clothing, and so on.  Keeping up on a favorite sports team, current events, gossip, and local activities is a great way to participate in most any discussion.


It's tough being in new situations.

Are you sweating bullets over talking to people you don't know? Do yourself a favor and avoid controversial subjects.

(4) Avoid highly controversial topics.  This may go without saying, but if we want to make a conversation much harder than it needs to be, all we need to do is bring up a topic like abortion, prayer in schools, terrorism or any other hot button political or religious topic.  No topic should be off limits in a conversation—this is a free country after all.  Yet we shouldn’t expect it to go easy if we bring up a controversial subject, especially when engaging a virtual stranger.  Chances are we’ll only get them all riled up.  Think of it this way: It’s much better to establish commonality with others before shoving potential differences directly in their face.


A group doing water aerobics.

Discovering common interests is a great way to build on a conversation.

(5) Be willing to share who you are, not just what you do.  Most people have jobs, but these days maybe 10 to 15% or more of those in the room are underemployed or looking for work.  Don’t assume others want to talk about what they do for a living.  Being jobless can bring on intense feelings of shame or low self-esteem.  That’s why it’s usually better to start off asking or talking about things people enjoy, the fun activities they participate in, their favorite movies, current events that really grab attention, and so forth.


(6) Think about how you view others and how they view you.  When we focus on a particular person we can easily make judgments about their character.  First impressions do matter and can be either positive or negative.  However, they need not rule the day when it comes to striking up a conversation or relationship.  If we’re fairly straight-laced and run into someone who wears rings in their eyebrows, lips and tongue, should we automatically assume they have nothing to offer us? Would the same hold true if the situation were reversed?

Where differences are so obvious it may be difficult to overcome our natural temptation to judge another as unworthy of our time or attention.  Here’s the rub:  We never really know who has the most interesting life story, is the most creative, the most open, or perhaps has overcome the biggest challenges in life—that is, until we  take time out and talk to them.  True, there are no guarantees we’ll have anything in common, but if we unconsciously dismiss someone for the way they look or what they wear, we may just miss out on a potentially amazing or even life-changing connection. It’s worth thinking about.


I'm passionate about birds.

What floats your boat? If you're passionate about birds talking about them could be a great way to start a conversation.

(7) Talk about the things that excite you.  Do you have a hobby?  Are you very interested in gardening or soccer?  Do you love traveling, fishing, reading, movies, art or music?  Talking about the subjects we’re most passionate about is a great way to start a conversation.  Many times people share common interests and don’t even know it.  When we’re willing to share our experiences (good or bad) about a subject we’re passionate about, people will naturally stop to listen because of the obvious energy we put into it.  One note of caution:  Don’t let a passion over a particular subject evolve into a one-sided conversation.  Remember, we’re seeking common areas of interest, not looking to become world-renowned lecturers.


(8) Practice.  Starting a conversation can feel extremely difficult and awkward when we first try to overcome our natural tendency toward shyness. Try not to buy into these feelings, which really do nothing for us except keep our circle of friends and acquaintances much smaller than it needs to be.  If it helps, think of meeting people in much the same way we learn to ride a bike.  First, we have to rely on training wheels, eventually those come off, and ultimately biking is the most natural thing in the world.  If we stumble during a conversation, think of it as if like getting a flat tire.  A flat shouldn’t force us to quit biking altogether, right?  Of course not.  Instead, we pump up our inner tube (or in this case our courage) and try again.  Thus, a stumble is just a bump in the road on our way to becoming a better conversationalist.  Never give up.  Not every conversation will turn out well, but eventually if we keep at it the process does get easier.


JB's on the couch.

Many people feel unheard. Is it any wonder we'll pay a counselor to listen?

(9) Listen.  Listening might just be the most important thing we do as we go about trying to become a better conversationalist.  When we really listen to people talk, we’ll get dozens of clues about the things they’re feeling or thinking about.  And when we pick up on these clues we can use them to help stay on the topic that’s most relevant or meaningful in the moment.  The sad fact is many people never feel heard or understood by others—that’s why we go see counselors, right?  Thus, paying better attention to what is being said (and meant) is a great way to improve the quality of any conversation.

And here’s another point to consider:  When we run into a person that talks on and on, chances are they are expressing some internal anxiety or other emotional distress by overcompensating.  If that describes you, take a breath and try zipping it up as you tune in to those around you.  Ultimately, everyone will have a much better time for your efforts.


Feeling Like A Chat?

As you go to meet others, try to remember that most everyone has to overcome a certain shyness to engage in conversation.  Don’t let those who seem naturally good at small talk intimidate you. Remember: You have a lot to offer so keep at it until it gets easier—it may take some time, but it will happen.  Hey, what do you have to lose?



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