How to Talk to Someone Who Has Social Anxiety Disorder

Tips for Having a Conversation With Someone Who Has SAD

Help a person with SAD open up.
Talking to someone with social anxiety takes patience. Yellow Dog Productions / Getty Images

Entering a conversation with someone who is shy or who has social anxiety disorder (SAD) requires a bit more effort on your part.

People with SAD experience anxiety in both one-on-one and group situations and often need time to get comfortable before conversing. There are a number of steps that you can take to encourage someone with SAD to talk more and participate in the conversation.

  1. Tell stories and share things about yourself before asking too much of the person with SAD. Most people who are shy or socially anxious enjoy listening to others more than talking about themselves.
     
  1. When you do start to ask questions of the person who has SAD, be sure to ask open-ended conversation starters such as "What did you think of the Oscars last night?" Stay away from a series of questions requiring yes/no answers as the other person will feel as though it is an interrogation.
     
  2. When you ask questions, be sure to give the other person ample time to respond before jumping in with more comments. People who are shy or socially anxious may need more time to formulate their answers to questions. 
     
  3. Compliment the other person on some aspect of the conversation. For example, say "I really liked your perspective on stay-at-home parents." Providing positive feedback and letting the other person know that you are engaged and interested in the conversation will go a long way toward encouraging further sharing.
     
  4. If you know the person with SAD has a strong interest in a particular area, ask questions about that topic. You may find that once the person begins to talk about something familiar and engaging, the conversation flows more freely.
     
  1. Be careful not to invade the personal space of the other person and avoid adopting an "in-your-face" type of conversation style. Match your body language and the way that you talk to the other person to make her feel more comfortable.
     
  2. Do not ask overly personal questions of the person with SAD unless you know him well. Save those types of questions for more intimate conversations that take place after the getting-to-know-you stage.
     
  1. Don't interrupt the person with SAD when she is talking. It takes courage and effort for her to open up and interruptions will interfere with her train of thought and could trigger feelings of anxiety.
     
  2. When leaving the conversation, indicate that you enjoyed speaking with the other person. If appropriate, extend an invitation to get together for an activity. Most shy or socially anxious people are more relaxed while engaged in a mutual task than when participating in small talk.

Social Anxiety and Conversation: Research Findings

In a study published in the "Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry" in 2016, it was found that socially anxious participants contributed less during conversation than non-anxious peers, and that this led to them being less well-liked. In another study published in "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" in 2016, it was shown that individuals with SAD were more likely to avoid eye contact during conversation.

What do these findings mean to you—the person talking to someone with SAD?

Don't trust your instincts! 

If someone won't look at you and doesn't seem interested in what you are saying what are you likely to conclude?

A. That person is distracted and not paying attention to you.

B. That person might even have something to hide.

Truthfully, if the person you are speaking with has SAD, these are both partially true. But it is their social anxiety that is distracting them and what they are trying to hide—their fear of being embarrassed or rejected, fear that you will see their hands shaking—any number of things.

So remember to be patient and avoid any snap judgments. The person with SAD is interested in what you are saying and does want to know more. 

Sources:

Howell AN, Zibulsky DA, Srivastav A, Weeks JW. Relations among Social Anxiety, Eye Contact Avoidance, State Anxiety, and Perception of Interaction Performance during a Live Conversation. Cogn Behav Ther. 2016;45(2):111-122. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1111932.

Mein C, Fay N, Page AC. Deficits in joint action explain why socially anxious individuals are less well liked. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2016;50:147-151. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.07.001.

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