The half-hour documentary on Radio 4 yesterday, Hell is Other People, raised some interesting issues for those of us who struggle to put ourselves across confidently in one context or another. Unfortunately, the programme’s brevity meant it presented a somewhat skewed and simplistic impression of these issues but, nevertheless, it’s gratifying to hear social anxiety discussed on the BBC airwaves.
Social anxiety and social phobia are terms used to describe being excessively nervous about interacting with fellow humans. Although technically it encompasses fear of public speaking, social anxiety/social phobia tends to refer to fear experienced in unstructured social situations, such as parties or conversations at a bus stop. While it’s generally considered socially acceptable to be afraid of public speaking, far less sympathy is expressed for those who would rather go hungry if getting hold of some food involves having to talk to someone. Really, though, these are two sides of the same coin.
In our initial correspondence, many of my clients make comments along the lines of: “It’s funny, in small groups I have no trouble interacting with people. I’m not shy. Actually, I’m the life and soul of the party. But as soon as I’m asked to give a presentation I get into a panic”. (For ‘presentation’ read also lecture, training course, speech or any other form of public speaking.) My guess is that a survey of the nation would point to this being the ‘normal’ way round, yet, as Byron Vincent demonstrates in the radio programme, some people feel safer on stage with a few hundred in the audience than they do around a table in the pub chatting with a few friends.
Whether you fear addressing a group but enjoy one-to-one conversation or vice versa, it’s useful to remember that other people feel the opposite. It’s useful because it puts the activity into perspective and reveals the irrationality of the fear. If what terrifies you lies well within the comfort zone of another human being, this shows how subjective your fear is – and thus, that you can change how you feel about it. Some people are afraid of flying, for example. If you’re not, you probably find it hard to identify with the paralysing anxiety suffered by those who are – and the same principle applies in social and public situations. Social phobia and public-speaking phobia are genuine and horrible, but they are unfounded.
These fears can be overcome, without a doubt, by anybody and everybody, but that’s not to say it’ll happen easily or without a lot of work. This was an aspect of Hell is Other People that I found frustrating and potentially misleading: the condensed nature of the programme risks giving the impression that conquering social anxiety is simply a question of putting a few theories into practice and Bob’s your uncle. In reality, whether it’s macro or micro interactions that scare you, there’s a great deal of mental discipline involved in freeing yourself of a phobia and your liberation will be a process, not an event. If you have a bad day, this is not a sign you’ve failed and the theories are rubbish, it’s a blip on your upward trajectory.
But it’s not only about mental discipline. The psychological work on strengthening your self-esteem and robustness is vitally important but it’s only half of the answer: you also need to prepare carefully and avoid setting yourself up for failure.
If your fear is of public speaking, you’re lucky because the procedure is straightforward. Make sure you know exactly what you’re going to say and familiarise yourself with the techniques of effective delivery. Practise until you’re completely in control. In the vast majority of cases, this will be more or less all you need to do to overcome your fear.
If you’re anxious about informal interactions, it’s more difficult to prepare for these, though you can do a lot more than you may realise. For example, if you know what sort of subjects are likely to come up, you can rehearse out loud any contributions you’d like to make to the discussion. And you can prepare the ground before you speak. Instead of starting a conversation with someone who’s focused elsewhere, either talk to somebody who looks more ready to chat, or give your remark some preamble to get the person’s attention before you say what you want to say. Don’t make it harder for yourself than it needs to be. (If you’d like some help with less structured social/professional situations, such as interviews or learning to speak up more confidently in meetings, do get in touch.)
Whichever side you’re approaching from, if you’re anxious about talking to people, you can change this! Just remember, as you picture a situation that fills you with dread: some people love doing this… and you can learn to too.