What is the best way to overcome shyness?

Probably the best way to overcome shyness is Systematic (or Graduated) Desensitization. This is contrasted with a technique called "flooding," in which the shy person is immediately exposed to a feared situation. This experience is supposed to be cathartic.

This is the advice that is often given shy people. "You've got to mix and mingle with people-that's the only way you're going to overcome your shyness! Go to a party, and plunge right in!" This is something akin to telling someone who's deathly afraid of water to plunge into the deep end of a swimming pool!

Systematic desensitization, on the other hand, involves discovering what you are afraid of, breaking that feared activity down into smaller steps and finally taking those steps on one at a time, gradually moving from the easiest step to the most difficult.

The first step toward practicing systematic desensitization is to list those situations which cause you shyness or anxiety. The list should be arranged in increasing order of difficulty; that is, with the easiest interactions listed first, progressing down toward those which cause greater and greater anxiety. To make this task easier, below is a list of social situations arranged in what I think will be roughly increasing difficulty for most shy people. You can use this list as a framework for your own list. The list progresses from the mildest social situations to the most difficult.


  • Conversing with a close relative
  • Calling information and asking the operator for a telephone number
  • Calling a local store and asking about the price and availability of an item you want to buy
  • Asking a clerk in a store for the location of a certain product
  • Asking a store clerk for information about a certain product.
  • Asking a reference librarian for help in finding certain information
  • Making brief conversation with a store clerk while having your merchandise rung up, or with a waitress while placing an order
  • Entering into a lengthier conversation with a store clerk or waitress
  • Conversing with a friend of a member of your family
  • Conversing with a friend of an older member of your family
  • Initiating a conversation with a member of your church who's your own age
  • Initiating a conversation with a member of your church who's older than you
  • Initiating a conversation with a church leader
  • Conversing with a distant relative
  • Talking to your hair stylist or barber while having your hair cut
  • Initiating a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line at the grocery store or movie theater
  • Initiating a conversation with a stranger while waiting in the doctor's office or repair shop
  • Initiating a conversation with someone while waiting at a bus stop
  • Introducing yourself and entering into a conversation with a new neighbor
  • Introducing yourself and entering into a brief conversation with a classmate
  • Introducing yourself and entering into a lengthier conversation with a classmate
  • Initiating a conversation with someone in the school cafeteria
  • Initiating a brief conversation with a classmate of the opposite sex
  • Initiating a brief conversation with an attractive classmate of the opposite sex
  • Initiating a lengthier conversation with a classmate of the opposite sex
  • Initiating a lengthy conversation with an attractive classmate of the opposite sex
  • Raising your hand and volunteering information in class
  • Volunteering information in a class in which you are not required to raise your hand
  • Participation in a "round-robin" discussion in class
  • Asking your teacher for clarification on something you don't understand in private
  • Asking your teacher for clarification on something you don't understand in front of the rest of the class
  • Initiating a friendly conversation with a teacher or instructor before or after class
  • Returning defective merchandise to a store
  • Returning merchandise to a store because you decide you don't like it
  • Asking for satisfaction from service personnel, such as a car mechanic
  • Asking your doctor a list of questions that you want answered
  • Asking your doctor for clarification on something you don't understand
  • Carrying on a regular conversation with your doctor
  • Starting a conversation with a new co-worker
  • Starting a conversation with your boss
  • Going with a buddy to a party attended by people whom you know
  • Going with a buddy to a party attended by strangers
  • Going by yourself to a party attended by people whom you know
  • Going by yourself to a party attended by strangers
  • Going with a friend to an office party or picnic attended by co-workers, their friends and their families
  • Going by yourself to an office party or picnic
  • Going to a club or organization meeting and striking up a conversation with the people there
  • Asking someone you find "average-looking" out on a date
  • Asking someone you find attractive out on a date
  • Going out on a date with someone you find "average looking"
  • Going out on a date with someone you find attractive
  • Meeting your date's parents
  • Spending an evening with your date's parents
  • Dancing at a social event
  • Going to a singles bar and striking up a conversation with people there
  • Calling local employers and asking for a job interview
  • Going to a job interview
  • Going to a very important job interview
  • Giving a speech in front of a small group
  • Giving a speech in front of a large group
  • Giving a speech in front of a very large group

Paste this list of situations into your word processor. Eliminate any situations that aren't a problem for you, and add any that may not be included. Next, arrange them in ascending order of difficulty. After you have done so, print them out.

The next step is to tackle these shyness-producing situations one at a time, progressing from the easiest to the most difficult. To do this, you must set goals for yourself.

Set aside a couple of weeks for each shyness situation. Every day, make a deliberate point of getting into a situation in which you will have an opportunity to practice a skill on your list which you have set aside to practice during that week. When you have practiced a particular skill on your list every day for two weeks, move on to the next one. Continue this way until you have worked your way completely down the list.

This technique doesn't work perfectly, because life doesn't always hand out experiences in the order we've decided would be best, but don't worry; the technique will still be effective.

Another tip: most of these situations can be made more challenging by increasing how much time you spend in that situation, or by increasing the difficulty in some other way. For example, you may have no trouble asking a librarian to help you find something, but entering into a brief conversation with him or her may be a little more difficult. Or, a short conversation with someone you meet at school may be easy, but a longer one may be more challenging. In this way you can "fine tune" your graduated desensitization regimen in a way that allows you to achieve a very smooth increase in its difficulty level.

One of the easiest ways to begin is to try striking up little conversations with store clerks. This gives you an opportunity to practice overcoming your shyness every time you pick up a magazine or buy a candy bar. The conversations don't have to be long ones, and you can close the conversation whenever you wish. Another advantage is that since you have no need to see these people again, you have no reason to be upset if you say something you later decide was less than brilliant. Of course, make sure there isn't a long line of other shoppers waiting behind you when you try this technique!


What is visualization?

"Visualization," "imaging," or "cognitive behavioral rehearsal" is the process of creating detailed mental pictures of behaviors you wish to assume. It can be a useful supplement to your other efforts at overcoming shyness. In effect, it is a way of practicing in your mind behaviors that you wish to acquire in real life.

And research shows that visualization can really help. Researchers at Louisiana State University found that people could actually increase the amount of weight they could lift by visualizing themselves doing so.

Daydreaming is a form of visualization. The difference between visualization and daydreaming, however, is that there are gaps in daydreams, and we picture some hypothetical event that will probably never take place. In the visualization process, by contrast, we picture something that is more likely to happen and imagine the step-by-step process by which we will handle it.

You need to practice visualization when you know you can relax without fear of interruption. Try to choose a time when nobody else is home, or, if this is not possible, go to a room by yourself and hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door. (It is okay to tell people what you are doing.)

Before you begin your visualization session, you should relax for a few minutes. You need no special regimen. If you are familiar with yoga, meditation, or another relaxation discipline you may practice it briefly before beginning visualization. Otherwise, kicking off your shoes, putting your feet up, and going into a quiet mood will be fine.

It is important, however, to be relaxed when visualizing because you want to subconsciously associate a feeling of relaxation with the social situations that you are about to mentally rehearse. When you actually enter into a situation you visualized, you want to be able to recall that relaxed state vividly.

When you feel you are sufficiently relaxed you are ready to start the visualization process.

1: Close your eyes and picture the scene that causes you shyness as vividly and accurately as possible. Picture the people who are involved in the scene. What do they say? How do you respond?

2: If you are visualizing something that happened in the past, picture the scene as it actually happened as vividly as possible. What is it that was difficult about this situation?

3: What did the other person (or people) say? What did you say? What do you feel was inadequate about your performance?

4: Now visualize the exact same scene again. Picture what the other person said to you. But this time, picture yourself responding as you wish you had responded. Or, if you initiated the interaction, picture yourself doing so as you wish you had, effectively, self-confidently. If you have trouble knowing what this would be, think of an outgoing person you admire and picture how he or she would handle the situation. Imagine yourself behaving the same way.

5: Now picture how you think the other person might have responded to you had you acted the way you wished. Then visualize your next move or statement, his or her response, and so on, until you think the interaction is completed.

6: If you are visualizing something that will happen in the future, you must make a number of suppositions. Who do you expect to be talking to? Is it likely to be a man or a woman? Have you met this person before? What is the setting? What do you wish to accomplish with the interaction? How should you approach this person? What do you think you should say? What do you expect the other person to say? How will you respond? Visualize this scene repeatedly until you think you have worked out all the details and have determined what your best approach will be and how you will respond to various possible behaviors on the part of the other person. Picture yourself being relaxed, friendly, confident.

The important thing to remember when visualizing is not simply to think "I must be more outgoing," but to actually see yourself being more outgoing. See every step of your desired behavior as if it were projected on a movie screen. Just as you mentally "see" various scenarios acted out when you daydream, so must you "see" them when you visualize. As with any other skill, your ability to visualize will improve with practice.

A few other tips: First, be realistic about what you're visualizing. Don't see yourself as being the "life of the party" right away. Instead, look at the graduated desensitization list that you made up in the previous section, start visualizing the first thing that causes you shyness, and work your way up from there.

20-30 minutes a day is a good amount of time to devote to visualization.


How can I become a better conversationalist?

While the shy person generally wants to be seen as friendly, he or she often has trouble making conversation right off the bat with a new acquaintance. Also, much of the nervousness associated with shyness stems from the fear of not being able to think of anything to say. So improving conversational skill can help relieve much of the anxiety commonly associated with shyness.

My advice to the average person would be, "Give the other person a chance to speak!" To converse means to exchange thoughts and opinions. Conversing is not lecturing; it's an exchange. However, since most shy people's problem is not one of talking too much, but too little, my advice to them is exactly the opposite: you must make a hobby of thinking of things to talk about, of constantly storing up conversational subjects for later use.

It is often helpful to try to think up potential conversational topics in advance of situations in which you know that some conversation may be appropriate. Constantly consider how the people and activities going on around you could be good topics for conversation. At odd moments throughout the day, imagine yourself running into new acquaintances and the subjects you could discuss with them.

What about getting someone to talk about his or her pet interests? In this case, you will increase your edge if you know something about the subject under discussion. Read magazines and the newspaper. (Reader's Digest seems to be designed with conversation in mind, with its moderate-length articles on a wide variety of subjects.)

It has been said that the best conversationalists know a little about a lot of things. Of course, it is impossible for you to have personal knowledge about everything. But the human mind is a vast storehouse of knowledge. You will find that you can relate to almost every subject if you apply the following techniques.

  • Ask Questions (obviously)!
  • Think of someone else you know who relates to the subject. For example, if you meet somebody who's in, say, the naval reserves and you have a friend or a cousin who is as well, this is a great common ground for conversation.
  • Bring up something you've read on the subject (this is where all that reading comes in handy).
  • Bring up something that you have personal knowledge about that relates to subject under discussion. For example, say the other person's joy in life is skiing. You've never done any of that, but you have enjoyed ice skating. These two activities are similar enough that you may find you have much common ground for discussion.
  • The more conversation you have with people, in fact, the better conversationalist you will become. This is true for two reasons: first, you get more practice at conversing. Second, and less obviously, the more people you know, the broader will be your range of contacts and shared knowledge, and therefore, the more subjects you will be able to indirectly relate to.

Remember that first impressions are important, and the first conversation you have with each new person you meet will set the stage for the future relationship. Therefore, when you are introduced to someone you expect to meet again, you should do the following things:

1. Learn that person's name.

2. Enter into a conversation with that person, and focus the conversation on that person.

3. Remember the facts that came out about the person in the initial conversation. This is extremely valuable, as it will ease much of the difficulty of thinking of things to say in future conversations.

For example, in subsequent conversations you can ask about the other person's children, hobbies, interests, and any other facts that came out about the other person in the prior conversation. Therefore, cultivating a good memory about people will make you a better conversationalist and will ease much of the fear about what to say to people in subsequent meetings. If you apply this technique successfully, you will also never have to worry about running out of things to talk about, as the previous conversation will always suggest new lines of discussion for the current conversation.


How can I deepen the conversation?

Small talk is very important. It is the social lubricant by which people get to know each other. However, many shy people complain that they don't know how to move beyond small talk to more substantial, and therefore more interesting, subjects. In their second, third, fourth, and fifth conversations with a person they still find themselves hung up on such trivial topics as the weather or the quality of food in the cafeteria! Therefore, let's explore some of the many ways you can deepen a conversation:

  • Give your opinion on something. "I think Mr. Bramage was a more interesting instructor than Mr. Hill because..."
  • Ask the other person's opinion on something: "Who has been your favorite lecturer so far? Why?"
  • Politely disagree with the other person: "Well, I agree with you that progress can't be stopped. However, I don't agree that knocking down historic structures is a form of progress..."
  • Introduce a controversial topic or opinion into the discussion: "I was reading about an expert in the newspaper today who said there is not a single scientific shred of evidence to support the existence of E.S.P."
  • Think of how something the other person just said leads to a deeper topic. "Your mention of orange juice reminds me of something I heard about the cancer-fighting benefits that are claimed for it, as well as other fruit and vegetable juices. Do you believe that?"
  • Introduce politics into the discussion-but do so carefully: "Are you voting in the next election? Why?" (Or, "Why not?") Or, "Do you have a political affiliation? Why do you feel that way?" If you find that the other person not only shares many of your viewpoints, but enjoys talking about this subject, you may have a rich source of conversation here. (Of course, you can talk politics even if your viewpoints conflict, but you have to tread very carefully in this case.)

The old "Dale Carnegie" technique of asking questions ("Where are you from?" How do you like it here?" "Where did you live before this?") is a good way of starting a conversation and showing interest in the other person. Think up lists of questions to ask people under various circumstances. In fact, your initial conversation should be focused on the other person.

Be careful, though; if the other person gives short answers or you ask too many questions in rapid succession, this technique will start to sound like a third degree rather than a real conversation. This idea is no substitute for being able to talk well yourself.

Find more conversational tips in the section on dating.


How can I make friends?

If you are still in school, take adult education classes, or join clubs or organizations, you should succeed in forming a goodly number of acquaintances. But how do you go about turning some of these acquaintances into friends?

First, you should acquire an instinct for judging which acquaintances are likely candidates for friendship. If you find a conversation you have with somebody to be stimulating, and the other person seems to enjoy it too, that is certainly a good sign. Maybe the other person shares one of your interests or passions. If so, you can take the next step toward friendship immediately.

More likely, you will decide that a person is a good candidate for friendship only after several conversations with him or her. This is why places such as classes, clubs, church, and organizations that allow you to come into contact with the same people repeatedly will probably be the most promising as far as making friends goes.

If you find that you enjoy the other person's company and he or she enjoys yours, the two of you are certainly good candidates for friendship. How do you know if the other person enjoys your company? Simple: the other person will continue to seek you out for conversation.

Congratulations! You have found a potential friend. The next step is to invite him or her to some activity not far removed from the setting in which you normally find yourselves. For example, arrange to eat lunch, go for a walk, or study together. This will allow the two of you to gauge your compatibility with each other in a relaxed, casual setting. The best sign of a mutually rewarding friendship is when the other person reciprocates your invitations to lunch and to other activities.

The final step towards sealing your friendship is to invite your friend on more elaborate outings together, say a game of tennis, a trip to the museum, an expedition at your shopping mall, or attendence at a local concert.

It is important to emphasize that making friends, like so many other things in life, is largely a numbers game. That is, the odds of any single person you meet becoming a close friend are small. But the more people you meet, the greater will be your chances of truly connecting with someone-of finding someone who shares your enthusiasms and enjoys your company as much as you enjoy his or hers. This is why you must overcome the reticence that accompanies shyness. If you fail to strike up conversations with new people, you will be severely cutting your chances of making friends.

FREE Conversation Mind Map!

Did you know that all conversations follow virtually the same step-by-step process? Making conversation with anyone is a simple "paint by numbers" procedure once you know the technique!

That's what my new "conversation mind map" is all about! This amazing flowchart will show you how to start a conversation, how to keep one going, how to deepen it and take it to the next level, and even how to get the other person's contact information so you can meet him or her again!

Simply fill out the form below to receive your FREE copy, and also get a free subscription to the author's weekly Overcoming Shyness ezine. (Your email address will never be shared with anyone and you can, of course, unsubscribe at any time.)