Skills for Shyness and Social Anxiety: Part 1

posted Oct 13, 2012, 6:16 PM by Andrea Umbach, Psy.D.   [ updated Oct 13, 2012, 6:22 PM ]


For individuals who are shy or have social anxiety, it can be very hard to feel comfortable interacting in social situations. These situations can range from one-on-one conversations, group meetings, social events, or performance situations. Oftentimes, it is difficult to speak up or express an opinion due to fears of not knowing what to say, making mistakes, and ultimately being judged by others. Unfortunately, this often leads to avoidance of social situations in order to decrease uncomfortable feelings.

Over the next few weeks, I will discuss several skill areas that socially anxious individuals can practice to begin feeling more confident in their ability to face anxiety-provoking situations. And honestly, these are skills we all need to remember and practice at times. Today’s topic is…




Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication is an extremely important part of social interactions. We communicate with others not just with words but also with nonverbal messages through eye contact, body language, gestures, voice quality, and facial expressions. Think of what someone’s nonverbal communication might look like if they were not interested in talking with you and then what it might look like if they are ready to engage in a conversation with you. How might you be able to know if someone is open to communicating, and how can you also express this to others?

1. Eye Contact: As simple as it might seem, it is sometimes very difficult to have appropriate eye contact during conversations. However, it is important to actually look at the person or people we are speaking to. Eye contact is tricky because the optimal level is actually somewhere in the middle. We don’t want to avoid contact, but we also don’t want to stare. It is sometimes easier to practice looking at someone while they are talking and then work your way to looking at people while you are talking.

2. Body Language: In order to have eye contact you have to have your body oriented toward the people you are talking to and also have your head up, not looking down at your hands or feet. It helps if you can sit up straight and even lean forward rather than hunching or slouching in your chair. You also have to take physical distance into consideration. Again moderation is key, not being too close or too far from the people you are talking to.

3. The Hands: Many people struggle with what they should do with their hands when they are in social situations. We often fidget with items near us, clench the chair, or cross our arms; however, this can be distracting or unwelcoming. The goal is to relax your body, letting your arms and hands rest on your lap or at your sides. In some situations you may be holding onto an object like a plate or notebook. A bonus is being able to use appropriate hand gestures when speaking.

4. Voice Quality: When we do speak, it is important to have appropriate voice quality. We want to speak at a volume where others can hear us, but are not blown away, as well as at a moderate pace. Tone is also important as we want to speak in a confident manner and have our vocal tone match the emotional tone of the content we are speaking about. For example, imagine someone telling you they are very excited about going on a trip, but they have absolutely no excitement or inflection in their voice.

5. Facial Expressions: Lastly, your facial expressions should also match the emotional tone of the content you are speaking about. For example, we do not want to be smiling when we tell someone we are sorry that they had a rough week. Also, a friendly expression like a smile tells people we are interested in talking, while a frown or serious expression may appear that we are busy and uninterested.

It may be helpful to do a quick self-evaluation and determine how well you use these skills. You also might behave differently in different types of situations. The next step is to pick one skill to work on and practice it as much as possible. For example, if I struggled with facial expressions I could practice smiling when I was by myself, then smiling whenever I passed someone in the hall, and then smiling in social interactions. It is all about picking something to work on and gradually working your way up to using this skill in more challenging situations.