This past week I spoke with two separate individuals who are afraid to talk with strangers. I wondered if their mom’s told them not to ever speak with people who they didn’t know. But these weren’t kids at all! They were completely competent, successful adults. One was a 40 something supper savvy single mom and the other is a great looking 20 something single young guy. They look completely different from one another yet they share a fear of socializing that plagues millions and millions of people.

In the communication classes that I teach, I often ask for a show of hands of people who don’t enjoy small talk. Nearly everyone raises their hands. It’s a great opportunity for the people in the class to see just how many other people share this feeling. Then they explain that they often feel lonely in groups because they stand there and just don’t quite know what to say. When I ask people how many people feel like that, nearly everyone says that they do too.

Allowing the people to understand that they are not alone in this feeling is a very comforting feeling for many of the people. Many of them haven’t discussed this openly with others so it’s quite freeing for them in the classes.

This past week, these two new clients shared their stories. The young guy rides the subway every day and sees a beautiful woman that he’d like to meet. His fear is that the other riders would hear him trying to pick her up and he’d make a fool of himself. I sent him back out into the world this week to start conversations with other people on the subway who were less threatening to him. I encouraged him to speak to whoever is standing next to him, whether it’s an older woman, a child or a guy his own age. I explained to him that practicing in low stress situations is one way to build his communication and small talk muscle. The more he practices it the easier it will get.

The 40ish woman I coached is a beautiful woman on the outside. She dresses snazzy and up to date. She’s got a good job and is a pleasant and fun conversationalist. Yet, she’s got intense fear around strangers. She is so petite that she sometimes feels slighted in conversations. I asked if she felt that was a “deficit” and she said absolutely YES.

Both of these people would appear to have it all on the outside, but in their heads, they’re running around like scared children, barely keeping it together.

I encouraged them both to start looking for small opportunities to talk with the people who come across their paths. They can talk about the weather or anything practical and the best thing to do is to ask questions and then be interested in the answers. If they act genuinely interested in other people, people will start to enjoy their company more. The more they are interested in OTHERS, then the less they’ll be in their own head worrying about themselves. I challenged my petite client to joke with others about talking over her head and because she is small, would they please speak up? Using humor can definitely disarm others and encourage them to engage with those who feel they have a deficit.

Learning to communicate well is a skill that can be used for an entire lifetime. Words and conversation can fill a persons’ heart, time and bring out the best in others. Learning to make others the focal point is the best thing we can do to encourage others to chat. Conversation isn’t something to fear and getting good at it is something worth pursuing. It may be one of the only things we are able to do our whole life. Why not “do” it well?