Editor's Note: This article was authored by Stefan Ravalli, for the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM). Thanks, Stefan!
I remember going to parties and looking around in amazement, wondering, “How are people so easily, fluidly speaking to one another? How are they finding anything to talk about?”
Social interaction took a lot of mental effort for me. It was awkward, bewildering and exhausting. I could become comfortable around people I already knew and trusted, but strangers felt like a curious, undiscovered new species of lifeform.
I don’t know if I got into customer service as an act of cruelty to myself or because some part of me knew that it was the fiery medicine that I needed. Painful, fumbling repetition allowed me to eventually look more socially competent, but for years I still found myself avoiding actually connecting with others. In customer service, it’s actually all-too-easy to hide behind scripted, procedural conversations which will certainly get the job done, but not do much to cultivate customer relationships.
Some part of me suspected that I needed to cultivate this skill of genuine relating in order to be successful in my work. Actually, relating to others seemed to be more of a basic human competency, which the quality of my whole life probably depended on. But I felt helpless to change this - especially since improving social skills seemed to require more than just the ability to “perform” them, they needed to seem effortless and natural. That meant you probably needed to actually want to engage with people. Speech needs to be purposeful and caring, and listening needs to be curious and enthusiastic. It turns out you can’t fake this stuff.
And if you struggle with this and feel similarly hopeless (for so many, it’s all been made worse by the isolation of COVID) there is nothing more understandable - humans are complicated and mysterious (even to themselves).
I realized later that the source of my social anxiety came from the very natural fear of triggering or upsetting someone. I myself carried a whole inventory of these triggers - origins unknown - so I could only assume others had their own profile of yuck-switches that I was bound to step on eventually. I didn’t want to trigger any such revulsion because, like many people, I generally wanted to be liked. And triggering someone somehow came to mean that the person I was speaking to didn’t like me. And not being liked somehow came to mean that I failed at being a human being.
I felt like there was little I could do to avoid such an unpredictable response of upsetting someone and being classified as "failed human no. 106” in their mental archive so attempting to connect didn’t seem like it was worth that risk. So I just decided it was better to avoid it altogether.
I remember listening to an interview with modern renaissance man Robert Anton Wilson where he was talking about how uniquely and complexly we each filter our reality. He concluded with, “It’s amazing we can communicate at all.” I thought, “Exactly!”
And yet he turned out to be an incredible communicator. It seems that even in knowing the perils and consequences of reaching across the void and attempting to understand a separate, self-enclosed consciousness, you can still develop the readiness to leap anyway.
For years I looked for tricks and communication models to follow, but those did little to provide that most important and elusive ingredient of strong socialization: authenticity. It wasn’t until I discovered meditation that I got access to this. And it’s long been found that meditation and mindfulness naturally leads to better social ease and joy, but to improve your social life with these tools, you don’t need to just meditate and wait with the hope that the greater calm will eventually lead to other humans seeming less terrifying. Awareness practices like meditation just speed up the process by which you discover and dissolve the false beliefs and emotional blocks you have around socializing.
So, for anyone who wants to improve the social element of their work, and turn those procedural conversations into authentic connections, I want to share the key ways that you can address and unwind your social blocks today. Below are some mindful practices to achieve this. Generally speaking, these are considered mindful practices - not just meditation practices - because they aren’t applied in isolation (i.e. quiet room with eyes closed). They involve developing an in-action awareness that gets you more comfortable and competent at driving around this funky little thing called a human mind. Try them in any situation…and then try them again.
Take Control of Your Mind’s Story About Who You Are
So much of your behavior is based around nothing more than a story you’ve been telling yourself about your identity. This story might really seem true, but that’s just because it’s a deeply-grooved habit. For example, one story might be “I never know what to say” or “I am socially awkward.” The next time you’re about to engage with someone, take a moment and do as many of the following steps as you can:
Feel your body breathing. Slow and deepen your breath.
Notice your thoughts. Most likely they’re telling you who you are (one of your mind’s favorite pastimes). Note the tone of the words you’re speaking to yourself (i.e. harsh, caring, cruel, dismissive, etc).
Note how these words are making you feel. Scan your body and really sense, in your bones and sinew, the physical response you’re having to this story.
Be fine with what you’re feeling. It’s helpful to incorporate the word “of course”. For example, “Of course thinking I’m socially awkward doesn’t feel good.” or “Of course I feel nervous about speaking to this person. Making a good impression is important to me.” So often, uncomfortable feelings are made worse by us thinking we shouldn’t be having them.
Return to the story you’re telling yourself. Let’s say that story is, “I am socially awkward.” Ask yourself, “Why am I choosing to believe this?” This question is so powerful, because it doesn’t even need an answer. First and foremost, it plugs you into the fact that all self-belief is optional. And once that is understood, then you can become open to perspectives about yourself that actually serve you.
Visualize the likely outcome of the conversation. If there are potential consequences, picture the most realistic, undramatic projection of those consequences you can come up with. For example, “I might say something they disagree with...I guess that would give them a chance to give their opinion...I’ll feel uncomfortable for a minute...but then I’ll find some common ground...ultimately we’ll probably both learn something and benefit from interacting.”
Visualize how you would handle things if they were easy - as though you were totally comfortable with yourself and ready for any consequences an interaction might bring Trying seeing through the eyes of that version of you. What are your thoughts? How are you behaving?
Establish Personal Responsibility
Sometimes socializing is so difficult because we take on too much responsibility for how others are feeling. We’re so worried about “making” them uncomfortable that we become apprehensive and neurotic about everything we’re saying and doing. But, although people certainly feel things in response to others, that feeling is the result of their own legacy of experiences leading up to that moment, not some particularly horrible and invasive thing that you did.
Here’s how to start establishing and reinforcing these crucial boundaries between yourself and others.
Before engaging with someone, visualize individual glass domes closing around you and them (like something from The Jetsons). Acknowledge that you’re each an autonomous vessel and that neither of you can control the feelings and behavior of the other. Don’t worry, this won’t prevent you from connecting with them. The opposite is more likely to happen since you’ll feel the personal safety to do so.
Get curious about the feelings and needs of others. If someone gets mad in response to something we say, we might immediately think it’s because something is wrong with us. Try telling the other person that you notice that they’re bothered and that you want to know more about what’s causing them to feel that. The more they tell you about their experience, the clearer it will be that it’s the result of their own history and not about you in particular.
Throughout the day, notice any time you’re blaming someone else for how you’re feeling. Notice the words your mind is using to describe the interaction, “He/she made me sad.” Replace that with a description of what happened - the kind of neutral description a video camera would capture. “He/she did this. In response, I chose to feel sad.” The more you take responsibility for your own feelings, the more likely you’ll be to allow others to do the same and stop lashing yourself every time someone has a reaction you don’t like.
And don’t worry these practices will not make you careless about how you speak to others because, “It’s all their drama anyway.” The ability to listen and learn inevitably leads to the opposite: more compassion, understanding and the desire to avoid further suffering. Continually using practices that make you more and more aware of yourself inevitably leads to appreciation of your humanity, rather than fear and condemnation of your foibles. Applied socially, this leads to an appreciation of the humanity of others, which is a key foundation of social connection.
Stefan Ravalli is a meditation and mindful service teacher. His education project ServeConscious seeks to give people and businesses the tools to transform their service roles through mindfulness and make service a medium for growth, power, and transformation.
Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM) is a membership association of researchers, educators, and executives, with a shared mission to bring science-based neural training into the mainstream of business, healthcare, education, and government. We're working to create a global community of shared experience, conduct research, define standards and practices, develop educational programs, and determine the measures, metrics, and analytics for organizational mindfulness.