In my work as a storytelling producer, improvisational comedy teacher, performer and life coach, I regularly come across clients who feel that they are “terrible” in social situations. Adults’ No. 1 fear is public speaking, second only to the fear of death! Jerry Seinfeld famously said that this means you would rather be in the casket than give the eulogy. I think that pretty much sums it up!
In my mind, “public speaking” takes on many forms. It can be standing in front of strangers and giving presentations, as most people define it, but public speaking can also be defined as giving a report in front of very familiar colleagues at work. Or, maybe it’s interacting with new people at a cocktail party or on a first date. It could be having a difficult conversation with an intimate partner or a family member.
We all know what it feels like to experience the nervousness, anxiety and “stuck” feelings when we have to be in front of a crowd or “on the spot” and discomfort starts to set in. The fear and anxiety that come from public performance are wildly common, and they don’t choose victims. I have served all kinds of clients in my private practice: entrepreneurs and executives, stay-at-home moms, human resources managers and elite private school students. All of them, regardless of their work, experience level or personality, had issues with confidence in the way they perceive that they present themselves to the world. I have worked with people who speak daily at work…and secretly, unbeknownst to their colleagues, have anxiety attacks in a bathroom stall because of it.
I believe that a lot of this social anxiety comes from not only our perception of how we are seen in the world but also, more accurately, our misperception of how we are seen and received. This misperception partly comes from the false belief that “all eyes are on me.” We all have trouble getting out of our heads to be present. In reality, we are far more likely to judge ourselves harshly than anyone else watching or listening to us.
While we overwhelmingly think of ourselves as awful public presenters, conversely, most of us think of ourselves as fantastic listeners. I actually think most people are far from the gold standard of listening that they believe they achieve. Why?
I have a few theories. For one, we are often distracted by competing interests. We are thinking about the list of things we need to accomplish at our desk; we are wondering what is happening in our Instagram feed; or we are wishing we could take a nap or regretting that we didn’t mow the lawn before the in-laws visit. Secondly, we run into a deeper issue. As human beings, we have trouble “releasing our agenda.” Out of our fear of others’ perceptions, we have trouble letting go of what we believe is going on in a social interaction.
Do they think I’m interesting? Will the next thing I say be intelligent? My family says I’m not funny…uh oh…am I not funny?!
In my improv workshops, we focus intently on the art and craft of listening. Can you let your guard down enough to reflect what someone is saying back to them, before adding your own information? This is a form of emotionally intelligent multitasking that each of us needs in our conversational toolkit.
When you come across someone who you believe is a fantastic listener, what are the traits that make them so? Perhaps they make great eye contact. They may use facial expressions mixed with verbal cues to show that they are interested. And, they typically ask great questions. Questions show that the listener is authentically invested in the conversation and that the listener is able to release any personal agenda — or rather, what he or she wants to get out of the interaction.
The irony of being stuck in our own thinking or agendas is that if you check out of the conversation to push what you want to say instead, you are losing the thread of the conversation anyway. You will likely miss the point, and your comment will be irrelevant! This reveals how locked into our minds we can be.
So, how can you become a better listener by releasing your agenda?
The improv rule of agreement, “yes, and,” is a great start. “Yes” is a validation of other people. Even if you don’t literally agree with what they are saying, you are showing them that they have been heard and that you value their perspectives. Once you have heard what they have said and say “yes,” you then add your “and.” Your “and” is the bit of information that you want to get across, after listening.
If this exchange continues, it builds a great two-way conversation. Most of us believe that we say “yes, and” most of the time, when really we often say “yes, but.” Raise your awareness to how often you say “yeah, but…” or “no, but…” and try to change it to “yes, and.”
When you’re interacting with others, whether in a group or one-on-one, remember to check in with your agenda and try to release it. Make eye contact. Look to validate other points of view with empathy, and then add your own information. You’ll be present, you’ll be invested and you’ll look confident. The beauty is that once you can become a better listener to others, you can often become a better listener to yourself. When you feel like all eyes are on you and the social anxiety is coming on, you can listen and respect yourself. You can say, “Yes, here I am getting a bit nervous…and, I know I’m capable of having this interaction.” Saying “yes, and” internally is powerful. I think that is something we all can agree on.
Taylor Williams is the creative director of Guts & Glory GNV, a live storytelling organization. She is a creative consultant, personal coach, performer, MC and writer. She has been studying and performing improv comedy and storytelling for 10 years. She facilitates workshops using the takeaways from improv, storytelling and mindfulness to help organizations listen more deeply, connect with authenticity and have more FUN. She has developed and taught undergraduate and graduate level courses on women’s issues, career development and optimal performance at the University of Florida, George Mason University and George Washington University. She has been a personal coach for over nine years and focuses on empowerment, resilience and self-awareness through her private practice House of Yin. Taylor grew up in Gainesville, FL and played volleyball at the University of Florida. She loves being back in her hometown.