The Social Anxiety Window
This post is part 2 of a 3 part social anxiety series. Please click here if you’d like to read part 1 before continuing. Otherwise, read on.
There is something I call the “Social Anxiety Window.” This is the amount of space and leeway where people feel comfortable when having a social conversation. For example, some people feel they can engage in light small talk and prefer to keep the conversation focused on the other person. This keeps the topics on the surface and avoids bringing oneself (or even both) into the conversation. This is representative of a fairly tight window.
For a socially anxious person, having a tight window for acceptable conversation tends to reinforce the anxiety because once the other person has said their part, it leads to conversation jumping. Searching for different topics in a conversation tends to be a more difficult mental exercise, as opposed to expanding a topic into broader conversation. What often happens with social anxiety is there is more focus on thinking of the next question to ask to keep the other person talking, rather than trying to find a way in to engage with what is present.
A tight window makes the fluidity of the conversation quite difficult, and also impedes the conversation from being able to take its own shape between the two people. It becomes heavily constricted by the limits of the window. Meaning — if you don’t feel comfortable bringing yourself into the conversation, the conversation weighs completely on the ability for you to generate questions the other person can continue to respond to; and if there are only certain topics you feel are safe to discuss, then the conversation can only go as far as the topics you feel safe with (for some — this may be just the weather, or surface conversation about family or work).
On the flip side, a more open window indicates a person is more willing to take risks by bringing themselves into the conversation (risks of judgment or rejection by allowing themselves to be more known), and also allowing more room for comfort with topics. Rather than simply small talk, a person may bring up an issue they are having at home or work, or otherwise, that seems to fit in the conversation; or may bring up something passionate to see if the other person can relate: sports, TV shows, dating, hobbies, etc. Not only is there more room to be yourself in an open-window conversation, but it allows more possibility of connection by finding common ground in emotional areas.
Listening for cues for where you can bring yourself into the conversation, as well as where you can deepen the conversation, helps open both of your windows for more fluid and connected conversation. It can take topics deeper and can bring in a variety of topics. The closed window is more constricted and reinforces anxiety, whereas the open window allows room to breath and relaxes anxiety.
Obviously, the whole conversation isn’t completely up to you alone, as there are two people involved. Hopefully the other person will ask you questions as well, and hopefully they will have an open enough window that can assist in you opening yours a bit more. But it’s how one approaches a conversation in this area that can make a significant difference in the level of comfort/discomfort one experiences.
Why is it important to understand your own Social Anxiety Window?
If you can understand the limitations with which you approach a social environment and where you may actually reinforce the anxiety, you can take steps to open the window in these areas. Don’t expect it to be an overnight change, but as you become more comfortable with the adjustments, you’ll see it start to pay off. Next time you’re in a social conversation, try some different things to help open your social anxiety window:
- Branch off what the other person is saying and include something about yourself on the same topic (“I so understand what you’re saying.. .that happened to me last week… ).
- Branch off what the other is saying, and introduce a new topic (“Oh yeah… that reminds me of this time when… “).
- Ask about something that interests you to see if they can connect. If they can’t connect to it, ask what they like to do. (“….I like to get out and run when I have a moment of free time… that’s not your thing, huh?… What do you prefer, what’s your thing?”
- If the other person is talking about something emotional or passionate, ask more questions (use the active listening skills from part 1). It’s OK for the conversation to stay on the other person when it seems they could use support.
- If you’re passionate about what you’re talking about and the other person seems interested in it, don’t be afraid to say more. It’s OK for the conversation to stay on you for a bit. Just remember to eventually bring the conversation back to the other person, if they don’t do so first. (If you’re both passionately into what you’re talking about, you won’t have to think so much).
Essentially, what we’re going for with the Social Anxiety Window is the ability to create a balance between bringing the other person in and bringing yourself in to connect, while allowing room for more depth to more topics that go beyond the general small talk. There is more emotional risk with this, but just like with relationships and love, one can’t have the rewards without taking the risks along the way.