By Linda G. Ritchie, Ph.D.
Shyness refers to a tendency to withdraw from people, particularly people who are unfamiliar. Shyness and other forms of social anxiety are common and they prevent people from fully experiencing life. Everyone has some degree of shyness. In fact, a person without any shyness at all is probably one who does not make good judgments about maintaining appropriate boundaries between people.
A bit of shyness is a good thing. However, when a high level of shyness prevents a person from engaging in normal social interactions, from functioning well at work, or from developing intimate relationships, it presents a problem. Fortunately, it is a problem that can be alleviated.
People who are shy may see having a good conversation with others as an unattainable goal. However, with enough practice and using the right techniques, mastering the art of having a good conversation with others can enhance the quality of social life.
The first skill to acquire is making eye contact. Shy people may avoid eye contact at all costs. This only perpetuates self-focus and anxiety. When you are listening to someone else, maintain steady eye contact with that person. If you are doing the talking, vary your eye contact. Also, understand the value of smiling, which is a nonverbal cue that you are approachable and interested in talking to the other person.
Listening is half of a good conversation and is perhaps even more important than talking. Allow other people to complete their thoughts. Encourage the other person to talk by maintaining good eye contact, using gestures such as nodding your head in agreement, and making supportive comments or asking brief questions.
People who are shy frequently say that they cannot go up to another person to start a conversation. This represents avoidance. Start out by initiating as many brief interactions throughout the day as possible. Smile and say hello when you pass someone. Tell the checkout person to have a good day. Make a comment in the elevator, such as, “Isn’t this the slowest elevator in the world?” Before long, making the initial contact will seem easy.
Finally, learn the value of small talk. Many shy people say that they don’t want to waste their time on trivial talk or that they don’t know what to talk to other people about. It is important to understand that people need the small talk before moving onto heavier topics. Small talk can comprise anything from commenting on the weather to griping about the price of gas. In order to avoid conflict, however, it is best to dodge talking about religion or politics – at least initially.
If you determine that shyness is adversely impacting on your quality of life and have been unsuccessful in attempts to overcome it, working with a skilled therapist may be of value to you. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques have proven to be particularly effective in helping people overcome shyness and get on with their lives.
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