Sunday, February 22, 2009

Overcoming Shyness

When I was younger, especially as a teenager in high school and college, I would never participate in group discussions. I’d spend my time squirming in my sit wishing I had the courage to raise my hand. When in social situations, I would nod and smile but never speak first. One fellow student in high school gave me the rhyming nickname “Snotty Cotte” because I never spoke to people. After he spent some time getting to know me, he admitted he was wrong. I was terribly shy, not standoffish.

Perhaps you know the terror and awkwardness of meeting someone and having nothing to say. An awful silence fills the space. All your inadequacies flitter through your mind paralyzing any confidence to start a conversation. Knowing that my silence gave people a terrible impression only left me feeling more inadequate.

Lately, I think most of the people in my life would be surprised to learn that I was shy. Several people have described me as outgoing, and I admit that I schmooze my way around town. What happened?

As I grew to hate meetings, conferences, and clubs, I started to notice when these social situations weren’t painful. One time in particular at a youth leadership training, I observed how everyone was nervous. One fellow smiled and asked me a question. When I answered, a conversation followed and eventually others joined in the discussion. Relief spread across our faces because we were no longer in a scary situation filled with nervous glances. We were all put at ease and made great progress together that day.

I had paid careful attention. I knew that one simple question had completely changed the situation. Everyone had been just as nervous and uncomfortable then felt relief to get past these jitters. I marveled at the thought, “I should do that.” What if I was the person who started the conversation and improved the situation? But really, I didn’t think I had the confidence or energy to make it happen.

For a couple of years, I silently observed interactions. More and more I noticed how a simple gesture or question made introductory situations better. Eventually I had enough confidence to find something to say to the people next to me in groups at school, home, seminars, trainings or church.

Now I blurt out questions or comments. Sometimes I really have to think about an introductory topic, but I realized we are all the same. No matter the wealth or religion or occupation, underneath, most people want to connect, even if just to pass the time while waiting.

Many people don’t enjoy small talk or the dreaded cocktail conversations, but with some effort, the conversations can become more meaningful. The art of conversation can carry people beyond the trite.

Underneath I’m still shy and nervous but to all the world, I’m talking.

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