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The Ten Minute Trick for Learning How to Be More Social

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Photo: Vigan Hajdari

Some people seem like they came out of the womb with friends attached.

Picture the most magnetic person you know. Someone who is so naturally warm, who gives off such a friendly vibe that people gravitate toward them wherever they go. More than likely, when you visualize this person, you see them surrounded by others, telling animated stories or making people laugh. Their confidence is electric.

For many of us, this kind of effortless social confidence is a giant mystery.

Maybe we’re a little on the shy side. Maybe we have had some negative social experiences that sent us shrinking back from crowds. Or maybe we experience a lot of success in some aspects of life, but have always felt “just average” or even unequipped when it comes to navigating social life.

Perhaps we’ve told ourselves it’s no big deal. We’re grown adults now. We don’t need a bunch of socialites hanging on our every word to feel worthy. 

But the truth is, somewhere underneath all our survival instincts and coping mechanisms, there is still probably a subtle ache for better or deeper relationships. And that’s natural. Relationships are part of every niche and nook of our lives–from work to home, neighborhood to family.

If we don’t feel confident or comfortable building and maintaining relationships, it literally impacts our entire lives.

The fact that relationships are woven into every part of life may feel overwhelming if you struggle socially, but their constant presence is actually very hopeful. If you improve how you connect with people, that one new skill set can boost your contentment in every area of life!

Assess where you are

Social struggles often seem simple. If we could just learn to small talk more naturally, if we just didn’t freeze up, we imagine our lifelong friendship circle would fall tightly into place around us.

But these kinds of social challenges are usually symptoms that point to deeper challenges that have to be faced. Sometimes they point to a lack of information or skills. We haven’t been “educated” to succeed socially. But sometimes they also stem from bad feelings we have about ourselves. We may feel like we don’t measure up or that we just don’t have it in us to function like other people do.

When we feel at all inferior–like there’s something wrong with us that prevents us from being fully accepted socially–it’s important to invest in feeling whole and well on our own first before trying to dive into the deep end socially. Often, good friends, books, courses, therapy, or support groups can help us retrain our brains to believe in our worth and boost our confidence.

Some of the tips below may also be of use for combatting negative messages about yourself. In just the ten or so minutes it takes you to read them, they could orient you to a whole new and more satisfying approach to friendship.

Mindset

As you determine to improve your social skills and grow your friendships, tune into the messages circling inside of you…especially the negative ones.

Are you harsh with yourself? Do you blame yourself for social mistakes in the past? Do you tell yourself you’re inadequate? If you regularly spend time thinking about what you see as shortcomings, or even speaking these messages aloud, you make those negative thoughts seem stronger and more true than they really are.

Try to identify any negative messages circling inside you and make a choice to stop thinking them. You may have to literally pick them out one by one and confront them with more information to break their hold on you. For example, if you feel like people often abandon you after getting to know you, you may have been telling yourself you’re just unloveable or incapable of having long term friendships like other people enjoy.

You may need to take that harsh belief about yourself and purposefully try to prove it false. You could note, for example, that some of the reasons prior relationships fizzled out have nothing to do with you. The other people involved also brought their own flaws to the table. And busy schedules or other emotional distractions often pull people away from friendship, even if they value the person involved. Also, even if it was something you did that turned people off friendship with you, it wasn’t you. It was your habits or choices. That means if you adopt new habits and make different choices, you have every opportunity to have more satisfying and lasting friendships in the future.

Slowly train yourself to abandon and silence these negative voices that strip you of your confidence. This may mean you acknowledge the fear or criticism circling inside you, but you consciously let it go. Even though you could worry about it for five or ten or thirty minutes, you simply say, No, I refuse to give this negative thought more than five seconds of my life. This thought is damaging to me and doesn’t serve my best interest. Why would I give it any more time or energy?

Don’t compare yourself to others. If you know you tend to compare yourself to other people–their confidence, their achievements, their career success, their looks or possessions–dropping the urge to compare yourself could be a game changer.

The reality is, you don’t have enough information to make an accurate comparison anyways. Let’s say, for example, you see someone thriving socially at a party. They are dancing or lost in a laughter-filled conversation with others. You look over and think, they always have it together. But the truth is, there are probably many parts of their lives that don’t feel satisfactory to them. They may be less capable than you at their workplace, for instance. Or they may be really good at surface level small talk, but not have nearly as much trust in their friend circles as you do. They may be in the middle of a terrible relationship, they may fall asleep feeling pity or self doubt, they may be a chronic worrier.

Don’t do yourself the disservice of comparing your insides with their outsides. In other words, don’t compare the vulnerable weaknesses you secretly know about yourself with the very small and polished part of other people out in public.

Learn to focus on what’s going on around you, not what’s going on inside of you. Often when people struggle socially, they retreat inside themselves and quietly analyze themselves or others in the room, rather than putting that same energy into connecting with others.

This is a strangely backward habit because sometimes even though you are struggling against low self esteem, you tend to imagine that the other people present are somehow all noticing you–judging you or excluding you. In reality, you aren’t probably central to their social experience and it’s kind of ironically arrogant to think you are, especially if you’re hanging out quietly on the fringes of the gathering. If people are talking among themselves, they’re probably engaged with each other, and are paying very little attention to you. But because you are so focused on your own possible short comings, it may somehow falsely feel like everyone else must be honed in on you too.

Let yourself be you…even if it means patiently growing into a slightly more developed version of you. Learning to connect with others better doesn’t mean just copying what you perceive some other socially successful person to be doing. In most cases, simply trying to be like someone else will backfire because each of us has different social needs and different preferences for how we interact with friends.

Someone you perceive as popular, for example, might have only very casual friendships that they rely on when they “go out.” But if you don’t go out a lot, and don’t even really enjoy the night life–for instance, it wouldn’t make any sense for you to try to function like they do and accumulate a crew of socialites like theirs. What might make you feel equally satisfied might be developing two good friendships with people who enjoy the same sort of lifestyle or schedule that you do. Having someone to jog with every day and someone to confide in at work, then, could make you feel more supported than having a table full of people to watch a game with at the sports bar.

Don’t worry at all about what friendships look like for other people then. Strive to build the number and type of friendships that make you feel great.

Don’t try to transform yourself into the life of the party overnight. You don’t have to adopt a fake personality or pretend to be an extrovert to make and keep good friends. The only way it will work, in fact, is if you stay true to yourself. Focus on being you, while slowly adopting better habits that are more likely to forge strong social connections.

In other words, you’ll never have to walk into a work event and start schmoozing the whole room, shaking hands and telling loud jokes, if that’s not your norm. And if you did that, it would probably be a disaster. People would likely perceive such a drastic difference in your behavior as fake…and you probably couldn’t maintain that kind of unnatural energy long term.

Branching out, and trying on new habits, will look much more subtle than that. Perhaps you’d determine to sit down next to someone you already have a connection with and engage them in a one on one conversation. Perhaps you’d try to find a different person, later in the event, to connect to in personal conversation as well. Perhaps you’d text or email one of the people after the event and tell them you enjoyed talking…all the while, though, being you.

Practices

The prospect of trying to be yourself, but adopt new habits, may feel overwhelming at first. But don’t worry. There ARE practices that naturally lead to building and maintaining better friendships for everyone. They aren’t magic, you don’t have to have any special abilities to try them out, and you don’t have to invent them yourself, or even get them right the first time.

Below, you’ll find a few of these practices that will help you be most open and able to form good connections.

Go where the people are. If you want to try on new social habits, you need new people and new experiences with which to practice them. So take some time to think about your average day. Where and at what times do you see other people or groups hanging out or talking? Maybe you take the train into work and see the same familiar faces on the commute every morning. Maybe you notice a group of people always hanging out by the conference room door or around the copier. Do you tend to eat your lunch at your desk? Maybe you could find a more social place to eat. Is there a staff lunch room or cafeteria? Could you invite someone else to pull up a chair and eat their lunch with you?

And don’t worry. You don’t have to abandon your normal responsibilities to spend all day socializing. Just look for ways to include other people in what you already do, gradually increasing the amount of time you spend interacting with people. If you have to run an errand, ask if someone wants to come along. If you’re going to walk or jog after work, see if anyone else wants to join you. And if someone else invites you to join them for something, make a point to say yes…even if it stretches you beyond your comfort zone. Another step in this direction would be to set aside one half hour per week to text or call friends just to touch base. Or, you might also consider joining a club, gym, church, or other type of group that meets once a month. Start small. Even if you only spend five more minutes a day interacting with people or accept only one social invite per month, it will help grow your comfort and your people skills.

Act as if you’re already on friendly terms. Sometimes when we meet new people, we feel unsure of how to act because we don’t know them well. Are they shy? Are they judgmental? Will they be scared off if we talk too much? Because of this, we often play it low key, shrinking away from our natural selves and acting extra careful about everything we do and say. This is ironic because holding back and walking on eggshells isn’t natural, it doesn’t make anyone comfortable, and it doesn’t let people experience the real you during this first impression.

Instead, try to greet people and strike up conversation as if you’re already on friendly terms. But here’s an important disclaimer: This doesn’t mean treat them like a best friend, who you should confide all your secrets in or jump right into deep discussion with. This means, treat them like an acquaintance you already know and like. Operate with a sense of belief that they will probably like you, or something about you, and you will likely be able to find something you like about them as well.

This means you should try to smile, say something welcoming, and try to position yourself comfortably and casually. Try to avoid closed off body language like crossing your arms or slouching your shoulders. When people talk to you, respond warmly and with a smile, as if you’re interested and glad they asked you a question. When they speak, keep the conversation going by asking a question or two that demonstrates you want to get to know them before you launch into a story about yourself.

Err on the generous side. Make a point to freely give genuine compliments as they arise in your mind. If you notice you like their shirt, for example, say it aloud. If you respect how they handled themselves in a story they just told you, say so. As long as you’re sincere, positivity makes you enjoyable to be around.

Be generous in thinking about the experience others are having as well. If you’re going up to the refreshment area, offer to get them a drink refill, for example. Or ask if anyone needs anything else before you excuse yourself. If you are walking together, be the first to grab the door for the others, or make a point to save spots for everyone when you’re the first to get to a restaurant or movie theater. If you’re comfortable with it, you might even buy someone a drink or you might offer others a taste of what you ordered. You could even order an appetizer or desert for everyone to share.

Another form of generosity can be intentionally including the people around you. Be the first to introduce one person to another and be quick to invite third parties along. If you and a coworker are talking about an upcoming festival, for example, suggest that anyone else in earshot is welcome to come along.  Small touches like this help people sense that you aren’t self absorbed and will make the effort to bring positivity to their lives.

Don’t over analyze, but observe. We already talked previously about not slouching against the wall during social functions, lost in your own thoughts about yourself and others. But while you’re engaged with others, it may be helpful to pause maybe half way through the experience, and briefly reflect on how things are going. Have you been talking more than others? Is there someone who hasn’t got to say much? Are you talking louder or more excitedly than others around you? Are you getting carried away and telling long or inappropriately personal stories? Are you interrupting? Notice the norms around you and try to adjust the way you’re projecting yourself to take others into more consideration.

One mistake people sometimes make is spending too much time venting about negative events or relationships in their lives. As a rule, casual social events and conversations with new friends aren’t a good place to vent or seek support for these serious issues. It is important to seek support for these challenges elsewhere, however, whether that be through formal therapy, a long time trusted friend, church, or other networks. When you feel supported, you’ll be less likely to just dump a story about your long-standing feud with your sister on a stranger.

If you mention a complaint or a negative aspect of life, that is fine and even authentic. It can be good to be vulnerable about challenges. But that vulnerability should start small. The first few times you meet someone, limit the amount of time you focus on deep or negative issues that impact you. Mention you have a divorce or that life feels overwhelming because of how demanding your small children are. But only make two or three statements about that. Don’t go on about it for more than a minute or two. As you hang out more, gradually open up about these things or add more detail if you so desire. As trust builds, sharing and self disclosure of this nature will become more appropriate since friends become more invested in you and more ready and willing to offer support over time.

Don’t fear rejection. When we’re kids, and our identities are still forming, we often feel intensely vulnerable. And if we experienced any kind of rejection in these formative years (which most everyone did), it can instill in us a disproportionate, exaggerated fear of rejection that lasts even into adulthood.

As an adult, you have the chance to set realistic expectations for new social interactions however. You can frame them ahead of time, reminding yourself that some conversations will probably go well, while others may–due to circumstances you often can’t control–feel awkward or even unpleasant. The great part is, as an adult, you likely have freedom over your social schedule. You can choose to walk away from any uncomfortable interactions and only invest more time and energy in connections that make you feel good.

It can be helpful sometimes to remind yourself that the worst case scenario–that someone won’t like you or won’t want to develop a deeper friendship with you–isn’t really that bad. Sure, it may sting a little. But a social interaction that doesn’t pan out isn’t going to destroy your life. You’ll still live where you live, work where you work, and life will still go on as normal. And the great part is, that one person or group who doesn’t click with you? They don’t have any say over how the rest of the almost 8 billion people on the planet connect to you. In just a few days time, that momentary feeling of rejection will be a distant memory, and as long as you keep trying to practice good social habits, your attention will soon be focused on other more positive connections.

Just like other skill sets in life–whether they be related to playing music or sports, cooking or speaking a new language–it may be a bit awkward as you make your first attempts at socializing with new rules. However, just like other areas of learning, repeating these practices will gradually begin to feel normal, like a new way of life. The most important thing is to try something new, something different than the unsuccessful methods you’ve used in the past, because one thing is certain: Great friendships won’t just magically form if you do nothing.



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