Building good relationships with other people can greatly reduce stress and anxiety in your life. In fact, improving your social support is linked to better mental health in general, since having good friends can act as a “buffer” for feelings of anxiety and low mood. However, for some people their anxiety can contribute to their avoidance of social situations, and prevent them from building relationships. This is especially true if you are socially anxious and desperately want to make friends but are either too fearful to do so or are unsure about how to reach out to others.
Unfortunately, one of the consequences of avoiding social situations is that you never have the opportunity to:
- Build up your confidence interacting with others
- Develop strong communication skills that would increase the chance for successful relationships
For example, if you are afraid of going to parties or asking someone out on a date, your lack of experience and/or low confidence will make it even MORE difficult to know how to handle these situations (like what to wear, what to say, etc.). Often, people have the necessary skills but lack the confidence to use them. Either way, practice will increase your confidence and improve your communication skills.
Why Are Communication Skills Important?
Communication skills are the key to developing (and keeping) friendships and to building a strong social support network. They also help you take care of your own needs, while being respectful of the needs of others. People aren’t born with good communication skills; like any other skill, they are learned through trial and error and repeated practice.
3 areas of communication that you may want to practice are:
- Non-verbal communication
- Conversation skills
Note: Of course, there are many aspects to effective communication and you may want more specific help in certain areas (e.g. learning how to deal with conflict, presentation skills, giving feedback, etc.). For more specific help, please see the “Recommended Readings” list at the end of this module.
A large part of what we communicate to each other is nonverbal. What you say to people with your eyes or your body language is just as powerful as what you say with words. When you feel anxious, you might behave in ways that are designed to avoid communicating with others. For example, you may avoid eye contact or speak very softly. In other words, you are trying not to communicate, likely to avoid being judged negatively by others. However, your body language and tone of voice does communicate powerful messages to others about your:
- Emotional state (e.g. impatience, fear)
- Attitude towards the listener (e.g. submissiveness, contempt)
- Knowledge of the topic
- Honesty (do you have a secret agenda?)
Thus, if you are avoiding eye contact, standing far away from others, and speaking quietly, you are likely communicating, “Stay away from me!” or “Don’t talk to me!” Chances are, this is not the message that you want to send.
One of the biggest challenges for someone with social anxiety is starting conversations and keeping them going. It is normal to struggle a bit when you are trying to make small talk, because it is not always easy to think of things to say. This is especially true when feeling anxious. On the other hand, some anxious people talk too much, which can have a negative impression on others.
Assertive communication is the honest expression of one’s own needs, wants and feelings, while respecting those of the other person. When you communicate assertively, your manner is non-threatening and non-judgmental, and you take responsibility for your own actions.
If you are socially anxious, you may have some difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings openly. Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn, especially since being assertive can mean holding yourself back from the way you would normally do things. For example, you may be afraid of conflict, always go along with the crowd, and avoid offering your opinions. As a result, you may have developed a passive communication style. Alternatively, you may aim to control and dominate others and have developed an aggressive communication style.
However, an assertive communication style brings many benefits. For example, it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and resentment. It also gives you more control over your life, and reduces feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, it allows OTHER people the right to live their lives.
Barriers to Behaving Assertively – Myths about Assertiveness
Myth #1: Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time
This is not true. Being assertive means expressing your point of view and communicating honestly with others. Often, you may not get “your own way” when you are assertively giving your opinion. But telling others how you feel and trying to work out a compromise shows respect for both yourself and others.
Myth #2: Being assertive means being selfish
This is false. Just because you express your opinions and your preferences does not mean that other people are forced to go along with you. If you express yourself assertively (not aggressively) then you make room for others. You can also be assertive on behalf of someone else (e.g. I would like Susan to choose the restaurant this week).
Myth #3: Passivity is the way to be loved
This is false. Being passive means always agreeing with others, always allowing them to get their own way, giving into their wishes, and making no demands or requests of your own. Behaving this way is no guarantee that others will like or admire you. In fact, they may perceive you as dull and feel frustrated that they can’t really get to know you.
Myth #4: It’s impolite to disagree
This is not true. Although there are some situations where we don’t give our honest opinion (e.g. most people say how beautiful a friend looks in her wedding dress, or we only say positive things on the first day of a new job). Much of the time, however, other people will be interested in what you think. Think how you would feel if everyone always agreed with you.
Myth #5: I have to do everything I am asked to do
False. A central part of being assertive is setting and keeping personal boundaries. This is difficult for many people. With our friends, we may worry that they will think we are selfish and uncaring if we don’t do everything they ask. At work, we may worry that others will think we are lazy or inefficient if we don’t do everything we are asked. But other people cannot possibly know how busy you are, how much you dislike a particular task, or what other plans you have already made unless you tell them. Most people would feel badly to learn that you had done something for them that you really didn’t have the time for (e.g. writing a report that requires you to work all weekend) or that you really dislike doing (e.g. helping a friend move).
Below are links corresponding to the three areas of communication just outlined. In each section you will find information described in two important steps that can help you get started in identifying your specific difficulties, and improving your communication skills to help you begin building successful and meaningful social relationships.
For more information on overcoming social anxiety, effective communication, and increasing assertiveness, see:
- Antony, M. & Swinson, R. (2000). Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Techniques for Overcoming Your Fears. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
- Antony, M. (2004). 10 Simple Solutions to Shyness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
- Burns, D. D. (1985). Intimate Connections. New York: Signet (Penguin Books)
- McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: The Communication Skills Book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
- Paterson, R. (2000). The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and In Relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger