Self-help to deal with my social problems?
April 16, 2006 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Is there a self-help book to help me cope better in social situations?

Are there any self-help books that can help me hold conversation better? I feel uncomfortable with people I'm not close to and have problems maintaining eye contact. I think it's becoming a real problem for me and I'd like to deal with it ideally without therapy. Can anyone suggest any methods to help me, preferably ones that aren't scams? Thanks
posted by saraswati to Human Relations (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I found the "Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook" extremely helpful - this book uses some cognitive-behavioral techniques (which is extremely useful for anxiety types of behavior) and I found the exercises very helpful. Good luck, it's something I still struggle with, but to a lesser extent these days.
posted by tastybrains at 7:25 PM on April 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know about books BUT the biggest secrets of conversation are REALLY easy to remember:

1. Flattery

2. Questions

3. Listen

"That's a nice hat. Where did you get it? Really? Where is that store?"

"This office space is great. How long have been in here? Yeah? Where were you before that?"

"That car rocks. What year is it? Is that better than the '64?"

Then just keep asking questions and let the other person do the talking until you feel you have something to contribute. It really helps if you pick something that you actually like, or at least can persuade yourself you like, or at least are interested in. For example, if someone is wearing a spectacularly hideous sweater, I will say "that's an amazing sweater (true), who knitted it for you?" and you usually find an interesting story follows.
posted by unSane at 7:29 PM on April 16, 2006

NB and a little sharing of yourself doesn't hurt, since it gives the other person some conversational traction:

"I had a hat like that when I was a kid" (allowing the other person to ask, eg, "where did you grow up")

"I should tell my boss about this building" ("where do you work?")

"I don't own a car" ("how do you get around?")

posted by unSane at 7:33 PM on April 16, 2006

Best answer: "How to Make Friends and Influence People" is a classic. A little smarmy, but time-tested.

But consider cognitive-behavioral therapy; at least familiarize yourself with it. It's different from what most people think of when they think of "therapy".
posted by mr_roboto at 8:02 PM on April 16, 2006

unSane basically nailed it. Listening, though, is hands down #1. If you listen to people, and show it (ie, ask them questions and show interest in what they say, don't just go "mm-hmm" over and over), you're already most of the way there.
posted by danb at 8:03 PM on April 16, 2006

As far as eye contact goes, in my experience it's the listener who keeps eye contact, while the speaker's eyes meander. In NLP the direction the speaker looks is relevant, but in general conversation it isn't. I always find maintained eye contact from the person who is speaking to be kinda creepy.

Personally I find people interesting. My wife often wonders why people talk to me so much. Maybe there's a connection...

Listen, want to know a secret? People love to talk about themselves.
posted by anadem at 8:30 PM on April 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with Mr Roboto. "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is useful, even if written in 1936. People haven't changed all that much since then, and even though some lightweight here dissed it the other day because of its age, by that reasoning Euclid's Elements and Darwin would be of no value.

There are a bunch of other ones, too, but for general, person to person advice that fast and useful, it can be of great use.

Toastmasters is also useful if you find you need training in general communications, but it's a little rah-rah for some folks.

Best thing is to get comfortable with yourself, even it that means you are quieter than some in social settings. Nothing wrong with that, and as unSane says, questions help a lot. There is sooooo much to find out about people.

It also helps to know that EVERYONE is a little uncertain at first when getting acquainted. Don't feel too alone if you feel uncomfortable!
posted by FauxScot at 8:41 PM on April 16, 2006

Best answer: Funny, I was thinking about this earlier today. In high school and college I was painfully shy and suffered pretty severely from social awkwardness. However, I had a roommate who was a supreme socializer, great at conversations, and extremely popular. I took a geeky approach to topic and decided to observe him to see what the secret was - what his scintillating conversational topics were, why so many people liked him.

I was shocked at the results of my observations. I realized that when I deconstructed his conversations and looked at them, they were somewhat void of content. He said a lot of really dumb stuff. He asked a lot of questions that were not exactly deep. He pushed himself on people assuming that they would like him and want to talk.

So why was this so successful? I realized at that point that I needed a paradigm shift in the way I viewed conversations. I had viewed conversations and socializing as a way to exchange information and grow intellectually. Therefore I never asked obvious questions, expressed interest only in the things I was really, deeply interested in, and pretty much kept silent the rest of the time.

After observing my friend and his successes, I saw that conversation with most people is not about information exchange - it is more like a "shared experience" and the subtext of every good conversation is "I like being around you". The words are not nearly as important as conveying that. So feel free to make obvious observations, ask inane questions ("how's the weather"), etc.

A few more tips from experience:
1. Most people want to interact, but almost everyone still has some fear of "breaking the ice". Short of walking up to someone and insulting them, there's little that you can say that is patently stupid in approaching a stranger. The best is to say - hi, I'm ____ and hold out your hand.

2. Conversations are like fishing - you sometimes have to throw out the line a number of times before you get a "bite". Try asking a number of questions or making a number of observations and see what leads to conversation. Sometimes a topic "hits" and sometimes it doesn't. Even good conversations and conversationalists hit awkward pauses - it is perfectly normal. Good conversationalists are able to bounce back from an awkward pause with a new topic.

3. In line with #2, you have to give the other person opportunity to hook you. If you are like me, you don't like forcing information about yourself onto other people for fear of boring them. However, if you do not reveal at least some personal info. unsolicited, there will be nothing for the other person to follow up on. When you answer a question, say at least twice as much as you normally would (even if this seems painful) and give a little hook for the person to latch onto for the next question.

Person asks you "Where are you from?"

Bad answer: "I'm from Seattle"

Good answer: "I'm from Seattle. I moved there right after college to get a job in the tech industry. I really like it there, but miss being close to family."

The first answer gives a person nothing to follow up on. The second answer naturally suggests several more questions: "Where did you go to college", "What do you do?", "What do you like about Seattle", "Do you have a really large or small family", etc. Then if you answer each of those questions with a "hook" the conversation will continue to roll along. Make sure you pick up on others' hooks as well.

4. Stay up to date on current events, pop culture, even if you don't really care that much about them. Check the headlines in each section of a web news portal every day. Then you can start conversations by referencing news events: "So, did you guys read that Iran has enriched uranium?" Or "I read somewhere that if Barry Bonds' elbow doesn't heal, he's out for good" or "I read that Basic Instinct 2 is bombing at the box office." You might not care about any of those topics, but you may encounter someone who does, and that might be your "hook".

5. Create situations that force you to socialize. The only way to grow the skills is to practice them, and the only way to practice them is to put yourself in situations that you now find awkward. Try striking up conversations with people throughout the day, just short, 30 second ones - the guy in the elevator ("It's raining hard out today, isn't it?"), the girl at the coffee shop ("Boy, things sure are busy in here today, aren't they?"), the person you pass walking in the park ("That's a huge dog - what breed is it?").

I would also highly recommend books by Leil Lownes. She gives lots of practical tips for social settings, and though some of them are cheezy, some are priceless.

In terms of maintaining eye contact, I still have problems with that :-) It is easier for me to look into the other person's eyes when THEY are talking, so maybe try starting there.

Hope this helps! Know that often introverts in the end wind up making the best conversationalists, once they learn the skills. You probably have a very rich inner mental life that makes great fodder for conversation if only you can learn how to "prime the pumps" of conversation to get them going. I've come a long way since the extremely shy college days, and I'm sure you can learn the same skills.
posted by sherlockt at 8:50 PM on April 16, 2006 [9 favorites]

yes, re eye contact I learned something from editing hundreds of hours of interviews for TV documentaries (which I used to make). Here's the rule:

When you are speaking, you only have to make eye contact once in a while to make someone feel comfortable. It is really amazing how long you can go without looking at someone. So long as you thrown them a flash of eye contact every now and then, you are fine. In fact, a long period of no eye contact really underlines whatever it is you say when you make contact.


1. Save the eye contact for the end of the sentence. if you make eye contact right at the beginning and then forever avoid their gaze, you look like you're lying.

2. Avoid continual eye contact as it makes you look like a serial killer

3. Avoid total lack of eye contact as it makes the viewer very, very uncomfortable... a sensation like not being able to breathe.
posted by unSane at 8:52 PM on April 16, 2006

As mr_roboto and FauxScot point out, Dale Carnegie is the all time classic on this. It's not really for everyone, but basically the take-home message from both his books and what everyone here is saying is that people are self-absorbed. They want to talk about themselves. If you can keep the conversation focused on things about the person you're talking to, he or she will walk away thinking of you as the best conversationalist ever.
posted by magodesky at 8:53 PM on April 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the answers. I'm going to pick up How To Win Friends And Influence People tomorrow and check back here to see what other great advice I can pick up. Thanks again!

PS: I think you're my more socially advanced twin, sherlockt.
posted by saraswati at 9:00 PM on April 16, 2006

just stumbled across this .. ignore the sexism because it's handy info, but accept my apologies if it's offensive or not useful to you:
Meeting Women
posted by anadem at 9:16 PM on April 16, 2006

Thanks for the compliment. . .The idea that ANYONE would use the words "socially advanced" to describe me just makes me laugh :-)

Oh, one more thing while I'm typing. . .I've also found the information on personality typing (read the book "Please Understand Me II" by David Keirsey) to be helpful in understanding (and therefore conversing with) others. One mystery to me has always been why conversations with certain people go so well, and with others it is just painful. It isn't always that either person is a bad conversationalist - often both do fine in talking with others, but not so well in talking to each other.

One of the dimensions on the Myers-Briggs type indicator is iNtuition vs. Sensing. (N vs. S). Basically, people who are Sensors process the world much more factually and through their five senses. They are much more likely to carry on conversations about the details of their day, what they are doing, what they are experiencing at any given moment. In contrast, people who are iNtuitives converse at a more abstract level - they are more symbolic, more theoretical, more "imaginative" in their conversations. In general iNtuitives converse really well with other iNtuitives, and Sensors well with other Sensors. This explains why sometimes a conversation just never seems to take off - the iNtuitive is talking about theories and abstract things (which the Sensor finds rather impractical and fanciful) and the Sensor just want to talk and talk about all the little details of the day (which the iNtuitive finds rather boring). Neither is better. . .just different. . .
posted by sherlockt at 9:25 PM on April 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I highly reccommend How to make people like you in 90 seconds or less. It talks about different types of people (kineasthetic, auditory, and visual) and how to use language to influence people. They also have it in Audiobook format.
posted by fvox13 at 10:04 PM on April 16, 2006

Best answer: Are you an introvert? The things you mention sound very much like characteristics of an introvert. Before you assume the worst, pick up a copy of The Introvert Advantage and see if you identify with it. If you do, you'll learn how to deal with extraverts in social situations.
posted by Serena at 11:00 PM on April 16, 2006

Lots of good techniques in here, but don't just focus on the techniques. I came out of my shell when I realized that the problem wasn't really about how to get other people interested in me. As an introvert, I just wasn't that interested in other people.

Dale Carnegie will give you all the techniques you need to be able to fake interest in other people, but if you're just faking it, people will pick up on it. Try to forget about any preconceived notions about other people and develop some sincere curiosity about how they live their lives, especially people who are very different from you. If you're genuinely interested in finding out about people, and comparing your experiences to theirs, conversation will flow naturally.
posted by fuzz at 4:03 AM on April 17, 2006

Best answer: To continue the pseudo-derail, here's more from Jonathan Ruach on introversion, with follow-up links.
posted by youarenothere at 4:32 AM on April 17, 2006

Although books such as "How to Win Friends and Influence People" might contain some useful techniques that effective conversationalists use, you won't become one by reading them because they leave out the essence. The most important thing is to be comfortable with yourself.

A healthy dose of self-acceptance and a positive outlook on life are probably the most valuable qualities you can ever cultivate. Once you begin to acquire these qualities, you will find that you'll automatically learn the required conversational techniques, given sufficient social exposure.

Unconditional self-acceptance will radically reduce your anxiety and fear of failure in any area of life. Being sufficiently relaxed, your wit, humor and interest in people will surface naturally. I used to think of myself a being quite a boring guy, but lately I've been amazed how easy it is to keep a conversation going: there's really nothing to it, it flows naturally once you're in the appropriate state of mind.

Some resources that have been -and still are- immensely helpful to me:Good luck!
posted by koenie at 7:49 AM on April 17, 2006

I strongly agree with koenie and fuzz. It's a huge temptation especially for techies to go out and find "techniques" that'll suddenly make you liked.

Yes, D.Carnegie can give you a check-list of to-do items for instant popularity but it's a superficial success. At worse it comes across as glib, manipulative or vacuous.

Sherlockt nailed it by calling conversation a "shared experience". A good conversation is about sharing and caring.

Steven Covey the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People made a good point about self-improvement books. A lot of them teach techniques, but what's more important are values and character.

To get over social anxiety, I do recommend Toastmasters. There is in the end no substitute for just getting out there in front of people.
posted by storybored at 12:21 PM on April 17, 2006

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