Whether it’s at work, at a party or on a date, we often find ourselves in conversations that test our confidence. When talking to people we perceive as more intelligent, more powerful, more personable, more talented or more attractive, it’s normal to feel inadequate or intimidated. We worry this more-impressive person will judge us, think less of us or reject us.
There’s no shame in struggling in these social situations, said therapist Melissa Weinberg of Open Lines Counseling in Baltimore.
“We’re social creatures, and naturally we care a lot about what others think of us, especially those we respect, people who have some social standing over us or anyone we’re attracted to,” Weinberg, who specializes in treating anxiety, told HuffPost. “Rather than feel weird about it, beat yourself up or avoid situations, remind yourself of the universality of the experience.”
Below, experts offer tips on how to hold your own with people you find intimidating.
First, change the tone of your inner dialogue.
Self-talk is the way we speak to ourselves. For many of us, it’s that negative inner voice that’s always telling us we’re boring, unlikable, socially awkward and destined to screw up. Positive self-talk may not come naturally to everyone, but it’s something that can be cultivated with practice.
“People may rarely talk to themselves in a positive tone that is reassuring and supportive, yet it is pivotal in setting the mood and tone for your possibly intimidating social interaction,” said Kendra Witherspoon Kelly, a licensed professional counselor at the Resilience Project in Atlanta. “Say things that highlight your positive attributes or even the parts of you that are in progress of becoming better. Shine on yourself some!”
Some examples of positive self-talk might be: “I’m anxious about attending this work event, but I’m proud of myself for getting outside my comfort zone,” “I’ve never had a problem making friends in the past — so why would this be any different?” or “My small-talk skills are still a work in progress, but I ask great questions and I’m a good listener.”
Figure out the gist of what you want to say beforehand.
You won’t always be able to prepare for these conversations, as they sometimes happen on the fly. But when you can, it may help ease your nerves if you think about what you want to say ahead of time. You don’t need to write and memorize a whole script; coming up with a few bullet points should do the trick.
“We’re social creatures, and naturally we care a lot about what others think of us, especially those we respect, people who have some social standing over us or anyone we’re attracted to.”
– Melissa Weinberg, therapist at Open Lines Counseling
“The more ready you are before the interaction, the more confident you’ll be,” counselor Caris Thetford wrote in a post for The Muse. “This may not completely nix your nerves, but that’s OK — a touch of anxiety can help you perform under pressure. The idea is to reduce or prevent crippling fear.”
Remember that this person is human, too.
No matter how much status this other person has, they have physical and emotional needs just like you (and everyone else). To remind yourself of this commonality, try using the phrase “just like me,” said communication coach Jennifer Kammeyer, who teaches leadership communication at San Francisco State University.
“Say to yourself, this person eats breakfast, just like me. This person feels sad, just like me. It helps to shift your perspective of the person from ‘intimidating’ to ‘human,’” she said.
Know what value you add to the conversation.
Pinpoint your strengths: Maybe you’re a great storyteller, a creative problem-solver or have a wealth of knowledge on a particular subject.
“Before you engage, remind yourself why you are there,” Kammeyer said. “Somebody else invited you to the meeting or the social engagement for a reason. Tell yourself why you were invited and how you are adding value.”
“Somebody else invited you to the meeting or the social engagement for a reason. Tell yourself why you were invited and how you are adding value.”
– Jennifer Kammeyer, communication coach
Let that thought empower you to be yourself in the conversation. Sure, you might turn the volume up or down on certain parts of your personality, depending on who you’re talking to and the setting. But whether you’re chatting with the head of your company or an attractive acquaintance at a barbecue, it’s still “you.”
“Communicating as our authentic selves allows us to be free in our conversations,” said Amelia Reigstad, a communication consultant and coach in Minneapolis. “Know yourself, how you react in situations and how you best communicate. To be an authentic communicator, give thought to actively listening, respecting yourself and others, taking responsibility for your own feelings, and know that showing emotions in conversations is OK.”
Be aware of your body language.
During the conversation, try to stay physically grounded in your body, as that can help you feel more mentally steady, too.
“Stand with your feet hip width apart or sit with your knees hip with apart and both feet on the ground,” Kammeyer said. “Don’t cross your legs or your arms. Focus on the feeling of your feet literally grounding you. Focus on your posture being upright with a strong belly and back. Grounding yourself physically helps with confidence.”
Dive into the interaction before you psych yourself out.
“The longer you linger and avoid getting engaged in the conversation, the more stuck in your fears you will remain,” Weinberg said.
Then take a deep breath and tune into the here and now — focus on the sound of the other person’s voice, the color of their eyes or the texture of your clothes. That way, you’ll be more present in the conversation and less preoccupied with how you’re coming across.
“Obviously, this is hard to control, but try to bring yourself to the present moment, notice that your attention is creeping inward to your own fears and discomfort, and remind yourself to listen,” Weinberg said. “Get yourself out of your head and physical sensations by turning your attention to the present, grounding yourself through your senses.”
Embrace the discomfort.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re in an anxiety-inducing social situation is trying to force their way out of those uncomfortable feelings, Weinberg said. But it’s a paradox: The more mental energy you exert trying not to feel anxious or intimidated, the more anxious or intimidated you end up feeling.
“The more you try to get rid of it, the more intense and distracting your anxiety will become,” Weinberg said. “Practicing acceptance and allowing the presence of anxiety is a much more adaptive strategy. Even though it can understandably be uncomfortable to practice, it can teach you that anxiety is tolerable.”
We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.