Improving conversational skills

Postby Ivan_J » Mon Sep 03, 2018 5:03 pm

Hi guys, I have a background of social anxiety and have done a lot to face up to my fears of meeting more people. However this has been through work where I greet and help a lot of people but do not have many conversations with them. I have also done public speaking classes and attended some Meetup groups. So I realize my conversational ability is limited and needs to be worked on. This includes initiating conversations without feeling awkward or a burden, and having things to say.

Anyway, I went for a drink with a woman who gave me her number a few days ago, and it didn't go too well. I missed a lot of conversational leads she gave, and for some reason the conversation never got personal or deep. It seemed like small talk about tourism as she was travelling. There was lots of smiling and she was friendly but no rapport ever developed. Also there were two or three awkward silences. So she seemed to want to go her own way after an hour, and that was that.

Has anyone here improved this skill by going out to have conversations with strangers? I always feel awkward starting conversations and have a thing about doing so at work as I mostly deal with guests who might not want to talk. There are loads of books but they have mixed reviews. I live on my own but would like to find a way to have meaningful conversations everyday so I can improve and learn. It is very frustrating to feel awkward and not be able to take a conversation to a more meaningful level.
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Postby laureat » Mon Sep 03, 2018 6:32 pm

first of all you need to accept who you are

if you have memory problems and cant speak your mind good enough, accept yourself as you are, dont see that as a weakness, dont bully oneself about it

when you free oneself from the pressure you start to do what you love to do, you start to do what you can do, and that is exactly what you need to do, not what you are told
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Postby Ivan_J » Mon Sep 03, 2018 6:57 pm

Hi Laureat. I have tried to take time away from really pressuring myself for a few years by focusing on work and studying, but the way I see it the lack of conversational ability I experience is a weakness that I need to work on.

Self acceptance to me would be accepting that I am working on these skills but I think my judgement of my own lack of social skills is accurate. I have experienced the same reaction from people in the past. A lack of small talk or conversation can make other people uncomfortable - that just seems to be an objective reality.
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Postby Richard@DecisionSkills » Tue Sep 04, 2018 1:01 am

It sounds like you have an expectation that in an hour of conversation deep rapport be developed. Given this expectation you attempt to force it. You then struggle to understand why the conversation consisted of awkward silence and lack of meaning.

Building rapport is not something that can be forced. It is a product of experiencing a genuine connection between what another person has to offer and your interests.

If for example a person is only interested in video games, then they will struggle to develop rapport. If another person discusses flowers or tourism or art or philosophy, it results in silence and a feeling of no connection. Only a conversation about video games will result in rapport. Good luck, but this is what many individuals face if they have a very narrow range of interests.

Therefore, developing rapport is a matter of asking questions and then feeding off the interests of the other person. They will offer up their interest, e.g. travel and tourism and then it is your job to respond. If you have no interest in travel/tourism, then you offer up an area of interest, e.g. the topic of hypnosis. If she has no interest, she will then offer up another topic. The idea is that rapport is built around topics of mutual interest.

In many cases people simply fail to connect because there is no commonality or shared interest. It is small talk followed by each going their own way.

An easy way to build rapport with almost anyone is by getting them to talk about themselves and then just build from whatever they offer. You like to travel? Really, where was the favorite place you traveled, how long did you stay, what did you do, where will you go next?
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Postby Ivan_J » Tue Sep 04, 2018 7:21 am

Thanks for the reply. So I met the lady on Saturday, but yesterday evening I was going back through the conversation questioning what I could have said. She mentioned some music she likes. The trouble is I was not that familiar with the genre she mentioned so felt I could not use it as a conversational lead. I was actually into a similar style of music in the past and that was a possible thing we had in common. I was watching Youtube videos and it suddenly hit me that she was almost talking about her emotion / fascination with that music but I just didn't get that at the time. Again, on an emotional level I experienced the same thing in my late teens and early twenties.

So there are two things that strike me about this. One is that a more skilled conversationalist would have asked about music, and possibly got to her feeling about the topic even if they didn't have that in common. I think I avoided talking about that because I didn't want to sound ignorant or too narrow in my interests. My ego stopped me being interested out of fear.

The second thing is that I think my interests became narrow and I stopped listening to new styles of music / being curious because of depression in the past. This is the first time I have really gone into detail and realized how it effects my interactions with people and makes me seem boring and not interested. I suppose similar things have happened socially in the past, but thinking about this last night was an eye opener. It kind of burns to miss out on talking about something emotional that we might have had in common but I guess that's why it will be etched on my memory. It's part of the learning process.
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Postby lifelonglearner » Tue Sep 25, 2018 3:24 am

Hello Ivan, thank you for opening up about your struggle and seeking help in improving it.

I would like to start out by saying that every single person on planet Earth has nervousness when talking to a specific person or kind of person. There are people out there that experience anxiety when speaking to their love interest, others that experience anxiety speaking to anyone of the opposite gender, and still others that are anxious speaking to anyone in general. This list continues; some people experience complete workplace anxiety, others experience it only when speaking to their boss, and so on and so forth.

Recognizing this major truth is crucial because it leads me to the best answer that I can give to your question: There is no best solution to tackle your social anxiety. Everything you read, watch, or study will give names and tags to all of the same subjects or disorders or phobias, but at the base of it, only you will be able to find the key to your specific struggle. While it very well may be suggested by someone else, or even someone else on this forum, the truth of the suggestions are that they are only guesses and cannot guarantee success in your life. Your job is to try whatever you find interesting, and see what eventually works for you. Do not lose perseverance! This can be a long and tedious task. That being said, I will suggest a few ways that I and some of my friends or family have overcome bits and pieces of social anxiety. Let it be noted that social anxiety is never completely overcome; as I mentioned before, there will always be nervousness at various times for everybody.

1. Practice, but not with strangers. This is obvious, but the not-with-strangers part was my own invention. No matter how many times I attempted to write out what I would say beforehand, speaking to strangers was always different from speaking to my friends and family. What I've learned from my experience is to use the 'safe zones' to build confidence in your speech and technique. Also yes, I did say technique; some people apparently think of what they will say right as they are saying it, while some others will plan as far ahead as several sentences! Find what works for you. After finding your own speaking style and subjects that you feel that you can thrive in whenever the conversation moves that way, work on details to get you there. This is almost like practicing a role on a sports team; not everyone can dominate in every position, so the players will perfect their personal strengths instead. Part of that practice is to practice setting up the situation so that your strength may be showcased. Once you feel like you can squash any and every dull moment at a family party, you may branch out to strangers. But even then, try to focus on PRACTICE. Treat every encounter as a lesson, even if it's an hour-long drink that doesn't go so well.

2. Study your personal body (and facial) language. Some of what you will be communicating will be picked up through words, but did you know that a supposed 80% of communication occurs through body language? This is an incredible tool for any speaker, but it is ESPECIALLY helpful to beginners. I don't remember where I picked it up, but when I was younger I learned the skill of the comfortable half-smile. Whenever I would find myself stumbling, stuttering, forgetting, or even shaking, I would take a deep breath, note where my hands and feet were placed, and adjust accordingly. Feet would spread slightly (nervousness naturally draws your limbs inwards for protection, so your feet will almost always be too close together during this step), hands would go behind my back, I would straighten my posture, look my partner directly in the eye, and smile a smug half-smile. The silence might be awkward, but so would stuttering! This feigns confidence immediately, but the hidden strength of this strategy is that you can comfortably transition into what I call the 'escape phrases'. These include saying things like, "I'm rambling, aren't I?" or "Anyways, you understand my meaning." Understanding body language not only strengthens the times that you are speaking, but it also improves your skill at escaping tough situations and keeping yourself on top.

3. Last of all, learn how to learn. This was mentioned a little bit at the end of the first step, but it's important enough to go into detail for its own step. Being able to learn to speak past social anxiety is one thing, but learning how to teach yourself to improve that speaking skill is by far the superior method. Suppose you bought yourself a book titled "Guaranteed Social Anxiety Solutions Part 1". You would only be successful to the end of the book, at which point you go to buy a new one. If you were instead to master a class' content on how to use daily situations to improve social skills, you would be supplied with unlimited material to practice with.
Now, I know that step is way easier said than done. You mentioned that you've already taken classes, also. My suggestion for this point is to find whatever helps you improve (see step 1), and find other situations where those things are found more frequently. Some people benefit from working on family conversations - try having a conversation ready every time that you come home. Others benefit from going directly to friends and talking about mainstream topics (as one would with a stranger) - think about the friend you're going towards and prepare a list of movies that you both might have seen. Others benefit from practicing 'topic switching' with say, a significant other - try to have another subject in mind while you're talking. It doesn't matter if the subject is unrelated; you can usually get by with, "Okay, do you mind if I say something really quick?" or "Oh, this is off-topic, but...". It's all about practice, learning about yourself, and studying how you learn. If you take away only one thing from this, it should be: "Forget other people. You can be the quietest person in the world as long as you love yourself. But if you really want to improve, then improve for yourself. Improve by your own means. Improve on your own time. Improve as far as you think you should. Improve with goals and reasons devised by you alone."
I'd love to see where else you go with this! Take care.
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