When I walk into a room full of people, I’d like to give an impression that would attract the smart, interesting ones. I often avoid public events because I feel self-conscious entering alone. I’d like to be able to attend gatherings without feeling that I appear lonely, fearful, dumb or shy. Can you rid me of this old unpleasant feeling? It seems all I’ve done in adulthood to overcome it is to adapt a cold, aloof appearance (so I’ve been told.) I always make friends I enjoy, eventually, but would rather speed up the process!
–Conspicuous ( ♀ Duncan)
Interesting how your response to fear is exactly the opposite of mine – where you become the aloof and elusive mystery woman (one might call this fight), I become the overly chatty and somewhat irritating show-off (flight) (well, I’m not that bad any more… but there certainly was a time!). My point being, however, that your unpleasant feeling is a response to the fear of vulnerability.
As humans we are constantly wrestling with vulnerability. On a primal level vulnerability is bad. We need to protect ourselves from being exposed/taken advantage of/hurt to stay alive. On a conscious level, however, we need to be vulnerable in order to connect and cultivate bonds with others. Thankfully, most of the time we are not in peril and can focus on achieving the connection and belonging that we long for. Nonetheless, new circumstances, people and places still seem to trigger the animalistic fight or flight response in us, leaving us to resist the urge to barricade ourselves behind the food table at parties. Okay, so that’s a bit extreme, but the dichotomy is indeed present, irregardless of what the rational brain would have us believe.
In order to for the conscious part of you to win, you need to see the importance of vulnerability in interpersonal interactions. It sounds completely backwards, but your true power (as in personal power) lies in being making the choice to lay yourself naked before the world, rather than have it made for you. And, from my experience, deep connections with others only happen when we have the courage to hide nothing.
I know what you’re thinking – there must be a sweet spot here – and I agree. I’m sure you have met the opposite of yourself – the oversharers. Oversharers are people who don’t seem to be able to read social cues and end up talking too loud, about inappropriate things, to the wrong people, in the most awkward moments. Actually, I’m willing to bet that it’s the fear of being perceived as an oversharer (and socially punished as such) that drives many observers like yourself to hide out behind perfect social etiquette. Both ends of this pendulum swing are intense – neither the oversharer or the observer are particularly comfortable with others, nor are they exactly approachable. The sweet spot in between is the person who is able to enter and exit conversations with ease and grace, sharing moments with others that are meaningful and memorable, but how do you get there?
I look at the social scene like a dance floor because it was the first place that I really understood how to have a meaningful conversation with a stranger. I went to a dance workshop one time where I didn’t know a soul (amongst 80 other women) and I felt incredibly lonely. I decided it would be best if I just danced my heart out, because we were there to do that, but I found that I intimidated others and ended up dancing alone most of the time (oversharer). As time went on, I felt more and more shy, and didn’t feel like I could even make eye contact with anyone (observer). Then, in the afternoon, the teacher came and danced with me. She was wonderful, she made eye contact and smiled, and followed my moves for a little bit, then I followed hers… and suddenly I got it. It’s not about giving it everything I’ve got, it’s about creating a common dance – a foundation where we can share what we’ve got.
I learned that I can’t expect to dance well with others if I march up to people and impose my dance style on them, expecting them to jump in and match me. Likewise, I don’t enjoy dancing very much if I only move my feet, keep my head down and my eyes on my watch/phone/etc. the whole time. I realized that if I dance energetically, copying what others were doing and throwing my own moves in once in a while, I would find myself included in spontaneous circles of dancers; smiling, making eye contact and dancing with others in ways that I’d never ever danced before.
How does this apply to conversations at public events? What I suggest to my clients who are looking to develop a stronger, more charismatic, social presence, is that they start to create a common language with those around them by becoming an amazing listener. Begin to approach conversation with the philosophy of truly understanding another’s perspective from inside their head, rather than from behind all of your own ideas and thoughts.
Start by listening with your whole body – try softening your body by taking a few slow breaths. Then look around and become aware of others body language (you’ll probably notice they are as tense as you feel!) Finally, relax your shoulders, smile with your eyes and say hello to someone nearby, following up with a question that requires a story answer – how did you meet the host? How did you get involved with this organization? Smile again, breathe and ask questions to deepen your understanding of their response and if the person is worth talking to, they will probably ask you the same. If not, enjoy the freedom of letting them know that you enjoyed talking with them, but you’d like to mingle a little.
By becoming an amazing listener and giving another person this quality of attention, you are being vulnerable while simultaneously encouraging them the opportunity to do the same. A good conversation is when both people begin to listen carefully, encouraging and cultivating a deeper and deeper level of vulnerability, which forms a bond. It’s meaningful and memorable.
I know that resisting the primal fear in favor of dropping into surrendered vulnerability is not this simple. I know from experience that it takes practice, and it is going to take a little swinging back and forth to get the pendulum to settle in the middle. But the pain of trying will most certainly be less than the pain of looking chilly and aloof.
I’d love to hear what you find works, and doesn’t! Thanks for a great question,