I'm done with freezing up when I talk. Help me become a better conversationalist.
September 16, 2011 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm done with freezing up when I talk. Help me become a better conversationalist.

I admit it. I stay quiet most of the time. I try to avoid one-on-one conversations because inevitably, I freeze up and don't know what to say and how to respond.

I've tried to read books and practice getting better. I try tricks like thinking "why?" to people's statements.

But it's hard, and I need to get better fast because avoiding the people I used to be great friends with just because there are awkward silences during our conversations is truly affecting my friendships, relationships, and life in general.

What are some suggestions on becoming better at having conversations? How do I avoid freezing up all the time? How do I become like some of my friends who jump into a conversation and have it flow perfectly?

Thank you so much.
posted by suburbs to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I find that freezing up is a manifestation of general anxiety. Lots of cardio exercise, e.g. running or cycling long and hard tends to fix it for me. Meditation also, and 12-step work.
posted by krilli at 3:06 PM on September 16, 2011

I have a friend just like that. I spent the whole morning with her. She's delightful.

I can't talk about the inside of her head, but I can talk about what I saw as I was getting to know her. She's an anxious and very shy person in general. She knows this; she tells people this. That, in itself, is a huge help, because it helped me to remember "Oh, she doesn't hate me, she's just shy." And so I didn't get weirded out by awkward conversations - and there were a LOT of those, let me tell you.

She mostly accepts invites to go do things. Not indiscriminately, of course - I couldn't talk her into going to see Conan with me - but even though being social is not easy for her, she makes an explicit effort to do it. This, again, made it easier for me to draw her into my social life and reminded me to include her in things.

She has figured out that a vodka and soda makes conversation easier for her. It really does - I can tell pretty much instantly when the alcohol's hitting. I'm not saying you need to carry a flask around, but do consider that there may be a biochemical component here that can be addressed in a number of ways.

Familiarity has helped us a ton. I like her a lot, and did even when she was awkward and kind of hard to talk to. I can be pretty good at putting on the "oblivious friendly person" mask and bulling through that sort of thing, and over time she realized that a weird pause didn't actually screw up our friendship, or even our conversation. And so she was able to relax about it, and then like magic there were fewer awkward pauses. If you have any big friendly puppy-type friends, they may be good people to practice on.

And seriously, conversations have pauses. It's really not that big of a deal. You may be avoiding your friends for something that doesn't actually bother them at all.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:19 PM on September 16, 2011 [8 favorites]

I need to get better fast because avoiding the people I used to be great friends with just because there are awkward silences during our conversations is truly affecting my friendships, relationships, and life in general.

I think you might be better putting your energy to looking at why you feel you need to avoid these people you used to be "great friends" with. Have your friends actually said anything like "You know, suburbs, we've been friends for years but since you can't always immediately respond to what I say with a witty quip I don't want to know you anymore"? Or are you reading things into their words or actions that you think mean there's a problem, and which you think mean the problem is you?

My guess is that few or none of your friends perceive this as the problem you perceive it as, and that many, most, or all of them like you and enjoy spending time with you.
posted by Lexica at 3:43 PM on September 16, 2011

Have you tried going on walks with friends, or playing shuffleboard, or road-trips? Or just having coffee staring at each other across a table awkwardly? I remember reading somewhere that people talk more easily when they are spatially positioned side-by-side, rather than across from each other. In my experience this is true, especially for difficult conversations or situations where I'm feeling particularly anxious. Maybe try this, and see if it helps you 'practice' to the point that flow becomes easier for you?
posted by stellaluna at 3:45 PM on September 16, 2011

I always ask people about themselves. I know that's a chestnut but it really does work. Everything from what's up with their family to best book they've read lately to what they would do if they heard a weird sound in the night to how they envision God to who they are hoping wins the Presidential election in 2012 (and why). Not only do you get endlessly interesting answers, but then you find yourself focusing on the topic, rather than your discomfort.

It does help as well to explain your own tics. I tend to nod or say "uh huh" when others talk, and periodically I have to tell people I'm not affirming, just indicating that I'm listening carefully. So you may want to let people know at times that you're being quiet because you're thinking or noticing, not because you disagree or have lost interest.
posted by bearwife at 4:08 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't be afraid to make small talk that might seem too boring, obvious, cliche: "How was your weekend?" "Where are you from?" "What do you do?" You don't need to show what a genius you are at every turn. Most conversations start out very mundane and (at best) gradually turn into something more interesting. The small-talk phase helps people get comfortable with each other. Conversation is more often about making a connection than sharing information or impressing someone with your brilliance. After you have a conversation with someone, they'll probably remember very little of the specifics of what you said, but they'll remember you as a person overall. Just showing up, being alert, and having a good personality is usually more important than thinking of the exact right thing to say.

You might find this website useful: Succeed Socially.

And I know you said you've already read books on this, but if you haven't read Leil Lowndes (who says she used to be painfully shy), check out How to Talk to Anyone or Goodbye to Shy. I like that she isn't trying to pitch any unified theory; instead, she uses a fun and engaging "[huge number of] tips" format. Each book gives 90-100 tips, so it's pretty easy to find at least some useful advice (and feeling free to skip over the tips that aren't going to work for you).

Possibly useful old AskMe questions:

How does one mingle effectively?

How to start a meaningful, interesting conversation?

What are the best questions you've ever been asked / asked someone to get to know them better, build closer friendships/bonds, find out secrets and interesting tidbits about their lives and worldviews?

Cultivating Genuine Interest in Others

What books, training, or simple advice can you give me in becoming a more interesting conversationalist at work and especially in meeting new people?

I especially like the FORD mnemonic from that last thread.
posted by John Cohen at 4:27 PM on September 16, 2011 [15 favorites]

Take improv classes. The first level is not about performing, or being funny, or acting, its purely about freeing your mind so you can react and converse without needing to think it through first. (My class had several very shy people who were in the course to solve precisely the kind of problem you're describing.)
posted by Kololo at 5:11 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try doing things with the other person. Conversations are always awkward when you're just sitting there, having to come up with something while the other person is staring at you.
posted by mleigh at 5:59 PM on September 16, 2011

I've always been fine with one on one conversations but was *terrified* of public speaking, and of course got put into a situation where I was forced to do just lots and lots of public speaking. The best way out of being stuck, the one thing that I've found always springs me when I'm breathless, stupefied, caught in that fear? (drum roll) Copping to the fact that I'm scared. Easy-peasy.

I'll say something like "Damn, I just *hate* when I get scared this way -- don't you just hate when you get scared this way? (look around, heads nodding all over the room) -- I'm so poor at public speaking. The only way I've found to allow me to continue when I get scared like I am right now is to cop to it." I say this to that room full of people and that fear then melts like snow on the stove.

It seems that what it's about is that I'm trying to look like I'm not scared when I am, I'm trying to look cool. But I've never, ever been cool, I suspect I won't be, I'll just have to stagger along being with the guy in my mirror, so I may as well enjoy this thing, as best I can, and the way I've found to do that is just be honest about it, which is what I'm so afraid of doing.

So -- tell these people. Cop to it. Say "Dang, Myrtle, I just never know what to say, I get all bound up, and I like you so much! It's really annoying."

Alternately, you could just become friends with a dope like me, who one to one goes on and on and on and on, then on some more, and you'll get so goddamn annoyed and want to talk and tell *your* piece that you'll finally run my big fat ass over, you'll bust out with "Hey! Shut! Up! THIS is what I think about xxxxx! And here's why!" and you're off and running.

posted by dancestoblue at 6:10 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much. This is incredibly useful.

Really excited to put these things in motion and change things.
posted by suburbs at 7:36 PM on September 16, 2011

The biggest thing that's helped me become better at sustaining conversations is remembering to ask people that they ask me. Sounds like a no-brainer, but for most of my life, it just seemed like a weird and awkward thing to do. Someone would ask me what I do for work, and I would answer, and then just wait for the next question. Which is kind of a conversation killer, but I never really noticed, because I'm just not a big fan of small talk. To me there's no such thing as uncomfortable silence. Most of the time I wish everyone would just shut up already. But that's not how the world works. So I finally just started reminding myself to just parrot people's questions back at them. And it usually works. People love talking about themselves.

I still have trouble when the burden of the conversation rests purely on my shoulders. I just take a win some, lose some attitude with those situations.

I think the biggest lesson to learn is that if you suffer through the small talk long enough, the natural rhythm of conversation will lead towards deeper more interesting conversation, which is easier, because chances are you'll end up talking about something you're genuinely interested in, or have knowledge of.

The flip side is just coming to grips with your own conversational style and owning it. I've always been a pretty quiet person. My good friends know this, and don't seem to care. I tend to date super talkative people, who always seem to enjoy having someone just listen to them go on and on.

Lastly, I find it important to know when I have the energy to try, and when I don't. If it's a day when I'm tired or feeling overly "in my head", so to speak, i'll actively avoid most social situations. Caffeine also seems to help loosen my tongue up some. But it also ups my anxiety a bit so I'll get a bit chatty, and then start overanalyzing what I'm saying and clam up. Most people don't seem to notice, though. Which is the biggest thing to remember. It's more about the flow of the conversation than it is about the content of the conversation. If it feels like an easy back and forth, everyone's happy.
posted by billyfleetwood at 7:51 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Take your time. There's no rush, even when dealing with a mile-a-minute gabber like a New Yorker or Bostonian. When someone asks you something, think about the question, and ask for clarification. Serious, ask about what they're asking about. That's a clear avenue to conversation, and it will slow things down and clarify things for you, so you're not left lurching about trying to construct something to say. No-one will think you're stupid. Everyone will think you're thoughtful.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:06 PM on September 16, 2011

Always remember that silence is not as uncomfortable for other people as it is for you.

I used to be really quiet and awkward and I felt awful about it. Years later just about everyone I knew then said they thought I was a quiet wise type.

Of course now that I am blabbermouth they know better.
posted by srboisvert at 1:57 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's another non-obvious one: Hydration! Or dehydration ... Dehydration could be a part of it. Try drinking a couple glasses of water. Big brains are high-maintenance ...
posted by krilli at 2:28 PM on September 17, 2011

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