By Leo Babauta
I’m a shy person by nature, not a natural extrovert and definitely not comfortable in large groups of people. So if you’re like me at all, then this guide is for you.
I’ve had to learn to be more confident in social situations, and it hasn’t exactly been easy.
But some things I’ve learned how to do over the years:
- Introduce myself to new people and quickly find common ground.
- Be semi-comfortable in a party where I don’t know most of the people.
- Be myself, or some version of that, rather than trying to impress people.
- Speak in front of a crowd of strangers (not comfortably, but I do OK).
- Talk comfortably one-on-one or in a small group, and not worry too much about whether people will like me.
- Make fairly authentic friendships with just a handful of deeper conversations.
I won’t be able to teach you how I did all of that in one article, as it took me years to develop these skills, but today I’d like to share some things that might help you become more confident, and then to practice more.
First, we should quickly answer the question: why even bother? If going into awkward social situations is so tough, why put yourself through that discomfort?
Because relationships matter. They matter more than almost anything else, if you want to be happy and healthy and have a good job or thriving business. You can survive without good relationships, but you won’t be living well.
If you learn to socialize fairly well, you can make a great group of close friends, have a slightly wider group of colleagues you trust and who like you, and maybe find your true love. At the very least, you’ll have a social network that will keep you from being too lonely and help you when you need to talk.
So it’s worth the effort.
You can’t read a guide to socializing and then instantly be good at it. You already know that. It takes practice — the more you do it, the better you’ll get.
But how can you practice if you don’t have the confidence yet? Having confidence makes it much easier to practice.
The answer is you do it in safer situations at first, and get a little practice there, and then move into less comfortable situations.
So practice socializing with friends or family or other people you know — this is Level 1. Then go into Level 2, where you have one stranger and one or two people you know, and get a little comfortable there. Then Level 3, where you have one person you know and a few you don’t. Then Level 4, where you meet a stranger but in a situation where you’re a little comfortable (your office or home or favorite hangout, for example). And Level 5 is where you meet one or two strangers in a strange place. Don’t go to Level 6 or 7 right away, where you talk to a large crowd of unknown people in a party, or speak in front of a crowd.
Each level should be a little uncomfortable, but not so full of fear that you freeze up. Learn to work in discomfort.
How to Gain Confidence
OK, here’s what I’ve found helpful:
- No one is free of self-doubts when it comes to socializing. They just seem more confident, but the self-doubts are there.
- If you try to be yourself, instead of impressing people, you can’t fail. Of course, there’s no single version of “yourself” — you’re a wide range of different selves, and which side you choose to show is up to you …
- But don’t be afraid to show the faults, the mistakes, the embarrassing moments, because sharing vulnerabilities makes people feel that you’re more authentic, and they trust you more.
- Trust is much more important than impressing people.
- Assume the other person has good intentions. Assume there’s a reasonable explanation for how they’re acting, rather than assuming bad intentions.
- Confidence comes with practice. So practice even if you’re not confident.
- The best way to practice a lot is to have fun when you practice. Play games with people — logic puzzles, group games, quizzes. Play a game with yourself, by seeing what kind of mnemonic devices you can come up with to remember people’s names (picture them as an animal or funny object related to their name?), or challenging yourself to see how long you can listen without thinking of what you want to say next.
- Listen, and be curious.
- Admit when you’re uncomfortable, and laugh about it. I’ve found this to be disarming — I say, “I’m not good at meeting new people, so feel free to laugh at me if I mess up.” I also admit that I’m horrible at remembering names, so I tell them I’m going to say their name a few times to remember it. And admit that I’ll probably forget it anyway!
- Try to find ways to go beyond the surface. Talking about your jobs and the weather are great, but what motivates the person? What drives them to get up out of bed? What are they passionate about? What are they afraid of? What embarrasses them? Be curious!
- Smile, and look them in the eye.
- Use their reactions to gauge interest rather than just talking.
- When you find yourself freezing up from fear, turn away from the thing you are imagining that you’re afraid of, and turn toward the present moment — see how your body is feeling, notice the things around you, pay attention to people’s faces.
- Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” The worst thing is usually that the other person won’t like you, which isn’t the end of the world. Your life isn’t worse if someone doesn’t like you, and is better if you make a friend, so the upside of interacting is much bigger than the downside.
This is just a start, of course, and you’ll find strategies that work best for you. But practice these ideas in semi-uncomfortable situations with people, and you’ll get good at them and gain the confidence you’re seeking.
Help with Relationships
If you’d like to try a mindful practice of working on relationships, join me and the rest of the members of my Sea Change Program this month as we work on the Mindful Relationships habit for November.
In this habit, we’ll have a plan and articles on the topic, along with a live webinar and forums where you can join an accountability team to help you stick to the habit.