James, 31, was unsure, gauche, and lonely.
“Are there people in your life who you see often, get along with, and feel understood by?” I asked.
“Not really. I’ve never been able to make friends.”
James worked in a huge company. There were ample opportunities to mingle and mix. But he told me he just didn’t seem to fit in – that people (he assumed) thought he was ‘weird’.
And yet as I got to know James, who had come along for help with depression, I found him to be nice, funny, and sensitive. He was also knowledgeable and intelligent, with many different interests.
I asked James how people make friends.
“I don’t know,” he replied diffidently. “It just happens, I guess.”
I asked him how many steps there were to making a cup of tea. Something pretty simple and straightforward. He thought for a while.
“Well, if you make a cup of tea using a teabag, I guess you have to: (1) Get a cup, (2) Fill a kettle with water, (3) Switch on that kettle, (4) Place the teabag in the cup, (5) Pour the boiled water into the cup, (6) Go to the fridge and get some milk, (7) Pour some milk into the cup, and (8) Remove the teabag. So I guess about eight steps!”
“So there are eight steps to making a cup of tea, but making friends ‘just happens’?”
He got the point.
The art of connection
Forming relationships, getting close to people, is sometimes a side effect of life circumstances and does sometimes seem to ‘just happen’. We work closely alongside someone, we mix in the same social orbit, and, bit by bit, we get to know someone. Or we pursue the same hobby and have lots in common, and eventually we become part of their life and they become part of ours.
But even then certain qualities are needed to deepen, strengthen, and maintain those relationships. And understanding what these qualities are doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
James had friendships online but felt ‘safe’ keeping people at arm’s length. And yet he desperately wanted ‘real friends’, people he could talk to, laugh with, and share experiences with.
Many of James’ primal emotional needs remained unfulfilled, I noticed. And ruminating about these unmet needs seemed to be fuelling his depression. At one point he even described himself as “starving for company“.
James hadn’t been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum and he didn’t seem to me to have autistic traits which might interfere with understanding social cues and context.1 James’ social difficulty seemed to be primarily a result of simple shyness and the fact that he had experienced an extremely isolated childhood in which many of the usual social skills had never been learned.
Of course, we all naturally vary in our personalities. Some people are more naturally gregarious and extraverted. But whatever our natural tendencies, we can all learn to be better socially.
So what social skills might we want to help our socially unskilled clients develop?
Skill one: Calm, clear, and comfortable
Even when a client is skilled socially, if they become too anxious when interacting, those skills will fade quicker than a gambler’s lucky streak. Extreme anxiety stops clear thought and perception.2
I recall trying to talk to girls when I was a teenager. I felt like a cross between a first-time ski jumper and someone negotiating a minefield blindfolded! It’s always harder to think and speak clearly when we become agitated.
So I taught James to relax deeply with me, then I began guiding him to hypnotically experience socializing while feeling deeply calm. This helped prime his mind to naturally respond with calm, not fear, in social situations.
Extreme fear not only makes speech difficult, it also focuses attention on our own emotionality. So the idea of focusing outward rather than inward when socializing is vital to consider when treating socially unskilled clients.
Skill two: It’s not me, it’s you
Socially anxious people focus inward, on their feelings. At least one study found that people who consider themselves shy in social settings have much worse recall of external details of the environment because they’ve been looking inward, not outward.3
Fear when socializing tends to make us so self-absorbed that we miss what is going on ‘out there’ with other people and generally in the environment.
By being naturally calmer, James started noticing what other people were saying. He stopped worrying so much about how he was coming across or feeling and instead focused outward – which was so much more enjoyable!
I also set him a task: When he accepted an invite to lunch with some colleagues, I asked him to notice three elements of his environment (such as the colour of the walls, the number of staff, and so on) and to learn three new things about any of his colleagues. This, along with his calmer mindset, primed him to focus outward, rather than constantly thinking, “How am I doing; how am I feeling?”
In this way, James was able to show an interest. And showing an interest is intrinsic to good socializing.
Skill three: Listen and learn
Sometimes clients feel that to be great socially they need to be the ‘life and soul of the party’. To be fun, vivacious, hilariously funny, and loud.
Such people can sometimes be attractive company – especially at an actual party. But if you are not naturally that ‘showy’ you can still be great socially, perhaps even better in many contexts.
A major part of social anxiety is self-consciousness, which is greatly alleviated by focusing strongly on someone else. A fascination (even if forced at first) with another’s conversation not only increases your comfort levels, it also makes them feel interesting. You never have to worry about what you’re going to talk about if you know you can get other people to talk.A major part of social anxiety is self-consciousness, which is greatly alleviated by focusing strongly on someone else. You never have to worry about what you're going to talk about if you know you can get other people to talk.Click To Tweet
The best social situations are the ones in which you actually forget about yourself and become focused on what is going on with other people. If a major social skill is being able to focus outward, actually listening to others is a natural way to do this.
People like people who listen to them – really listen, and make them feel valuable enough to be worth paying attention to.
Cultivating an interest in other people
James was sensitive and, when calm, was able to cultivate an interest in others. We rehearsed the kinds of open questions he might ask people. I talked about the importance of congruently feeding back to people what they had told him.
We also talked about the importance of sometimes expressing appreciation to other people. For example, saying to an amusing friend, “You are so funny!” is a way of letting them know you value them.
I told him about a friend of mine who, each time I saw him, would ask me about something I’d forgotten I’d even told him. “How’s that project going?” It showed that he was interested and that he’d actually listened.
Now, this sort of thing can be overdone. After all, it’s not natural to interrogate someone or creepily recall everything about them! But doing this sometimes will show that you are not self-absorbed and that you are able to truly connect with others.
James told me that he felt people had seen him as aloof. And certainly, shy people are sometimes seen as aloof and uninterested in others when really they are simply nervous.
James began to ask his co-workers the occasional question and really listen to what they had to say. He made an effort to sometimes ask them about things they had told him on previous occasions. People, it seemed, actually began to like him. One session he turned up and told me jubilantly how he’d made everyone laugh.
But when we socialize it’s an exchange of attention. This means we can disclose stuff about ourselves as well as learning about others. This needs to be done right, though, if we are to build deeper relationships.
Skill four: The art of knowing how, when, and how much to talk about ourselves
Whether it’s my face or my demeanour or whether this just happens to everyone, I don’t know. But I’ve had complete strangers in the park or in line for a taxi tell me their deepest fears, hopes, relationship entanglements, and even sexual problems!
Talking about yourself too much and too early in conversation can be a major turn-off for the other party. Good initial small talk is often characterized by discussion of subjects not personal to either party, or by an exchange of personal views in a balanced way.
So immediately describing your deepest desires and darkest fears to a stranger may freak them out. But for James it was the opposite. He rarely if ever spoke about himself.
A time and a place for everything
I suggested that when it comes to revealing information about ourselves, there is (or should be!) a natural, progressive rollout. That as time goes on it becomes more natural for people to share more about themselves.
This is one part of the process of turning acquaintanceship into friendship. As conversations and relationships progress, disclosing personal facts (small, non-emotional ones first!) leads to a feeling of getting to know each other.
I discussed with James small things he might feel comfortable discussing about himself with people. He didn’t have to suffuse people with detail, but just here and there talk about himself. Actually, this was the first time he’d had therapy, so already he was getting some practice talking about himself with me – something he had, bit by bit, started to feel more at ease with.
Of course, we can’t assume every social contact is there to give us therapy. But if those we meet are genuinely friend (or more) material, they will be interested in knowing at least some aspects of our lives. James began to disclose more about himself, no longer assuming people wouldn’t be interested.
So both listening and disclosing are ways of building rapport. But there are other methods, too.
Skill five: Building rapport
Rapport is a state of understanding or connection that occurs in a good social interaction. It basically says, “I am like you, we understand each other.”
Rapport occurs on an unconscious level, and when it happens between two people you can see it because their language, speech patterns, body movement, and posture seem to mirror and match.
Rapport is an unconscious process, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be increased as part of social skills training.
Without wanting James to be too conscious or adopt these aspects of rapport too obviously, I taught him about how:
- Body posture ‘mirroring’ or movement ‘matching’ occurs naturally between people when they are getting on well.
- By sometimes subtly adopting a similar posture or facial expression to the person you’re communicating with, you can increase the feeling of ‘we together’ rather than ‘you and I’ as separate.
Just knowing this seemed to give James more confidence. But of course he wasn’t to overdo this – and actually, he was to let it happen naturally as a consequence, not just a cause, of good rapport. As a follow-on to this, we addressed eye contact.
Skill six: The eyes have it
I’d noticed that James didn’t look at me much at first. I asked him a question in our first session:
“James, if we were to watch a video of you in a social situation, what would we see?”
He described hanging back, not communicating, and looking anxious.
“And where would you be looking?”
He thought for a moment and suddenly looked me in the eyes. “At my feet,” he told me, laughing nervously.
I didn’t want to make him feel bad about this or be more self-conscious, so we looked at eye contact only in later sessions, after we’d addressed other aspects of his depression and really gotten to work on the social aspect of his life.
When the time felt right, I suggested that if we don’t look at someone when talking with them they might well feel that we:
- are ignoring them,
- are untrustworthy, or
- don’t like the look of them.
“This doesn’t mean you have to stare at them like a voyeur in a nudist colony!” I added hastily. “Too much eye contact too early on in a relationship can be unsettling too.”
Research on attractiveness has shown (not surprisingly) that smiling while looking directly at someone makes you appear much more attractive.4 This research was specifically focused on romantic attraction, but generally, I think, some eye contact with anyone will make us seem more confident, authentic, and attractive as a friend too.
And what of James?
Relationships: The stuff of life
Relationships are what bring meaning to most people’s lives. Social connection matters to both health and happiness.5
There were other factors to James’ depression, which we addressed. But the biggest aspect seemed to be his sense of disconnection from people. Once he began to make friends and enjoy other people his life started to, at first shyly but soon more exorbitantly, blossom.
He told me that no man is really an island, and I suggested he never need be again.
Use Your Client’s Inbuilt Virtual Reality Simulator to Rehearse Social Situations
The best thing for social anxiety is relaxed practice. But that’s difficult if you’re socially phobic. Which is why Mark uses hypnosis with his shy clients. Using hypnosis you can keep your client calm and collected while they rehearse social encounters – building their skills and preparing them to succeed. You can learn therapeutic hypnosis online with Mark here.
- This phenomenon is known as the amygdala hijack. See Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. (10th Anniversary edn). Random House Publishing Group.
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