Melanie Lindner, Forbes.com
Dr. Mark Goulston thought himself a coward. At parties he would stand by the chip dip, never approaching people and rarely meeting anyone new. “My father was shy,” says Goulston, “so I grew up thinking that ‘assertive’ meant ‘pushy.’ “
A psychiatrist in Santa Monica, Calif., Goulston knew all about social anxiety–and still he couldn’t beat it. Then his first child came. “I wanted to be someone my daughter would grow to look up to, and I didn’t feel at that moment that she would,” he recalls. So at the next party he and his wife attended, Goulston set a goal for himself: “to meet three new people and have them be glad to have met me.” Twenty-five years later, Goulston, 60, writes and lectures about overcoming anxiety and guides patients through the process.
Most people have some level of social anxiety, especially when it comes to meeting new people. We focus on the embarrassment and the rejection rather than the opportunity of a new business partner, sales prospect or friend. For some, making the first move can bring on everything from tense muscles to a slamming heart.
“Some of us are wired to enjoy making the first move in a social or professional setting, while others are more inhibited,” says Byron Reeves, communications professor at Stanford University. “But it has nothing to do with intelligence or potential for success.”
Don’t look for patterns. Some people can call upon their suave selves in a professional setting but clam up at social functions; others can do their best George Clooney at a party but break out in hives at the thought of talking to new customers.
The good news is there are ways to cope. Dr. Goulston’s strategy is something he calls the “FTD delivery.” Hook strangers by asking how they feel, what they think, or what they have done or would do about a given topic. Focusing on them is a form of generosity–not off-putting aggression.
Beyond the ego-stroking, there is another benefit to making the conversation all about the other person: It takes the pressure off you. “When a person is focusing on themselves–wondering if they are blushing, sweating or trembling–their anxiety level increases,” says Dr. Andrew Gottlieb, a clinical psychologist based in Palo Alto, Calif.
In stressful encounters, self-induced head-fakes are powerful palliatives. Before approaching someone, look for physical characteristics that remind you of a close friend or relative, suggests Dr. David Barlow, founder and director emeritus of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. Maybe the person’s hair is like your mother’s; maybe he smiles like your best friend. Focus on the similarities, and you can convince yourself, if only for the moment, that you are comfortable with a complete stranger.
Another trick is to rehearse icebreakers with a friend before going to a meeting or party. Practicing in advance helps you brainstorm things to say and build courage, says John Baldoni, a corporate communications consultant in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Bottom line: Believe in yourself and leave the chip dip behind. Says Goulston: “The best thing you can do is be sincere, generous and helpful to people–and hope that they are kind enough to reciprocate.”