If you often feel lonely, you’re in good company. People in the United States are feeling more isolated than ever before. In 1950, if you met ten people at a party, it was likely that one out of those people lived alone. In 2010, it was more likely to be two or three. And those numbers are going up.
In my dealings with single people, I meet many who feel alone, and this is in spite of the increased connectivity brought about by the social media revolution. People often don’t know how to make social connections. They’re afraid of rejection, or they don’t know what to say after “hello”. Unfortunately for many, their first impressions can be devastating. The least bit of awkwardness or silence can lead the other person to move on.
If you feel that the way you relate to people now is keeping you from advancing in your career; if you’re single and don’t know how to break the ice with opposite-sex strangers; or if you’re unhappy with your social life and would like to have more friends, I’d like to offer the following tips to developing your social life:
Make sure you don’t have panic disorder or agoraphobia. These two conditions are not shyness but disabling mental health disorders. If you’ve been diagnosed with either of these, get treatment from a licensed mental health clinician before attempting any of the following.
Go to social events. It helps to begin at your comfort level, then gradually stretch yourself just past it. Social events don’t have to be large: even groups of two or three are opportunities to flex your social muscles. Some people are more comfortable in smaller groups with little stimulation; others in larger groups where there’s a lot going on, and where there won’t be as much attention on them. Do whatever works for you in the social realm. If you need ideas for social events, go to meetup.com, Eventbrite, Flavorpill, or other sites that list events. Start with events that look like they’d be easier for you to manage, then gradually move on to more challenging ones. Try different-sized events to gauge your comfort level.
Practice conversation. Once you’re at your chosen event, just talk to people. If you’re not sure of what to say, consider the most common areas of conversation: context, work, and leisure. Context is the here-and-now — what’s going on in your immediate environment. Work is also a good topic; the conversation shouldn’t get too technical, unless you’re attending an event specific to your industry or profession. Leisure time is also a good topic. Choose areas that give you pleasure to talk about.
It’s also useful, in these situations, to focus on what the other person is saying much of the time. A good guide is the 70/30 rule: 70% of your talk is about the other person, 30% is about yourself. Also don’t forget mastery topics: subjects in which you or the other person is an expert. Look for moments where someone’s face brightens or their eyes light up, and get curious.
It’s OK to work out in advance what you’re going to say first. Especially if you’re new at this, it helps to know in advance the first thing you’re going to say and, for some people, even the second thing. These are like training wheels on a bicycle. It doesn’t matter whether you work it out the night before or a few seconds before introducing yourself — knowing what you’re going to say will help reduce your anxiety.
And speaking of anxiety — make it work for you. I am not an advocate of “fighting” anxiety. I prefer instead to feel it with an open front, with full breaths. If you find yourself getting anxious, check your breathing. Your belly should be expanding on the inhale. Consciously keep an open front and remain aware of your surroundings. Place your attention on the interaction, rather than the outcome. If you’re too worried about what others will think of you, you’re missing both the moment and your experience of the other person.
If you must think about yourself, focus on the value you offer, rather than on what you expect to get. Most people, whether they know it or not, can recognize a person who drains their energy or who expects others to take care of them in social situations. Don’t be that person. Focus instead on the value you can bring to an interaction. Whether it’s a funny story, an engaging smile, or useful information, offer it as a gift. Remember that purposeful, conscious listening can also be a gift of great value.
Be aware that what you don’t say can have as much impact as what you do say. People want to see congruity between your words and your behavior. Nonverbal communication is important all the time, but probably nowhere more than during small talk, where people are skimming the surface of familiar, safe subjects. Many people who are uncomfortable with small-talk are looking at the content of what’s being said, rather than the nonverbal cues. Facial expressions, gestures, eye-contact, touch, and a person’s use of space are all messages about what kind of person you are. They put you in a social context and give the other person an idea of how safe you are.
Relax and have fun. This is probably the most important thing. If you get too overwhelmed trying to remember all of the above, you’re probably not enjoying yourself. Remember that it’s just a social event. Unless it’s a formal company function, the consequences of what happens here probably won’t last. No mistakes are permanent. So just have fun and feel free to make mistakes, remembering that not interacting at all is probably the biggest mistake you can make.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. In the Internet age, there is always someone out there with an answer to your question. The first step is to ask. I’ve seen many people grow exponentially just from the act of asking for help. Contact me if you want to talk about ways I can help. If you’re single, you can also get in touch with my friend Justin A. for help in addressing issues that come up in conversation.
Shyness can feel isolating at times, but it can be overcome with practice and persistence. Sustained effort has a cumulative effect, which leads to expanded social circles, bringing you closer to the social life you want. Stretch your limits a little each day, and you’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.