Social anxiety interferes with all aspects of normal life, from relationships with friends and family to how we experience the world around us. And with the Christmas holidays well and truly over, no doubt a lot of you have found it challenging going back into the work environment.
The workplace is a distillation of the wide world, often forcing together different types of people into unnatural surroundings and asking them to co-operate and perform tasks for the good of the business. This creates a situation where social anxiety has to be confronted on a regular basis: either because of the challenging environment of working alongside other people or because of the potential for that environment to change.
Social anxiety operates at both a day-to-day level in the workplace (having to deliver speeches, meeting new co-workers, dealing with confrontation, meeting deadlines, talking in meetings or using the phone) but it can also influence careers by limiting the ability to network and attend business social events, or by increasing the fear of promotion and extra responsibility.
Like it or not, our lives are often governed by how we perform in our careers, so it’s important to identify potential triggers in the workplace and learn skills to manage those fears. And there’s certainly no pointer that social anxiety can prevent success – plenty of the world’s top businessmen (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is notoriously shy) have combated a natural inclination to be reclusive and introverted in order to reach the peak of their professions.
The daily grind
Your workplace is one of the most challenging environments when it comes to coping with social anxiety at work, whether it’s a large office or call centre, or a retail store, or even an outdoors job alongside other people. Here’s a range of triggers to social anxiety to be aware of:
Speaking on the phone:
Because of the lack of body language and the potential for the unexpected, making a phone call can easily trigger social anxiety. Good tools to help combat this in the workplace is to make careful notes about what you want to talk about; prepare for the potential for having to leave a phone message or arrange a more appropriate time to call; and practice making phone calls at home, starting with simple calls to businesses to ask straightforward questions and moving on to more complex issues.
Speaking in meetings:
Either delivering keynote speeches or simply raising points in group discussions can be tough for those with social anxiety. Like many other situations, you will feel much more relaxed if you are well prepared. Don’t rely on your memory, which can easily fail you under stress, but prepare cards or notes if you’re having to give a presentation or take notes during the meeting to help gather your thoughts if you want to bring up a point during a discussion. Try to be confident about your material and rehearse if you’re giving a speech. If possible, visit the room where the meeting will be held in advance so that the location feels more familiar when the time comes. If you are using any presentation aids, such as powerpoint slides or projectors, make sure that you know how to operate them or that the people operating them have everything they need from you. Unexpected problems during your speech may destabilise you. During your speech, find some friendly faces in the crowd and talk to them (without staring!) rather than to the whole room. It is easy to think of an anonymous crowd as judgmental, and remembering that you are actually facing a group of individuals, who are interested in what you have to say, should make you feel much more comfortable.
Most jobs and industries require work to be completed by hard and fast deadlines – and the stress of meeting those times can trigger avoidance tactics in those with social anxiety. Worse, they can cause people to avoid roles for which they have all the right talents, simply because they fear the repercussions of working under stressful conditions. Again, a key tool to have at your fingertips is preparation. Avoidance itself can lead to anxiety, so being organised and prepared will help you remain calm as the pressure of the deadline ramps up. Working with others can also help ease the burden of a stressful workplace and, although it can be hard asking for help from co-workers, confronting that initial anxiety of discussing a problem with a colleague can save a greater deal of anxiety as deadline approaches.
Meeting new co-workers:
Being “on-task” and performing your job well is obviously instrumental to a successful career, but nowadays “soft” skills such as being a team player and networking are being gauged as equally important. Those with social anxiety can be at a disadvantage in these traits in the workplace because the disorder is often misinterpreted as aloofness or unfriendliness and sets up a vicious circle in which it’s tough to gain the confidence to work closely with your co-workers and the confidence of your co-workers. The key to meeting new colleagues is to start small and gradually challenge yourself out of your comfort zone. For example, don’t start with trying to approach a large, closely-knit group of colleagues who have worked together for years. Try to find people on their own by the water cooler or the photocopy machine or in the car park, and start a brief conversation. Break the ice with co-workers by greeting them each morning with a cheery “good morning”… it’s a simple line but it sets them up to think of you as an approachable person. As you get positive responses, you will find it easier to talk to more and more people.
Dealing with confrontation:
Having to deal with problems at work, and potentially confronting people, is often a stressful situation, even for those who don’t suffer from social anxiety. Whether this is a colleague or a line manager, the best plan is to make an appointment, or ask the person for a convenient time to talk, so that they are in the right frame of mind to listen to you. Then prepare what you want to say in advance, think about what they might say, and practice presenting your arguments as well as responding to theirs, making notes if you are worried about forgetting. Of course, you can’t control everything, but it will help you feel more confident.
The career path
Once you have got to grips with the day-to-day requirements of your role – and learnt the tools to be able to tackle social anxiety in those everyday situations – it’s likely you will want to turn your attention to your career. Social anxiety need not be a barrier to professional ambition, success at a trade or specific skill, or even the desire to run your own business. So here’s a range of tools you can learn to use to help you forge ahead in your chosen career.
Networking and business meetings:
Again, the key here is to be prepared – it’s likely that a room full of people you don’t know is one of the toughest crowds you’re going to have to face but that’s not to say it should be avoided. That avoidance is going to be a far more emotionally draining thing to deal with in the long run. Instead, arm yourself with introductions about who you are, what you do and who you do it for – and relax into the meeting, remember people often warm to someone who really listens to them so don’t be afraid to remain quiet while others do the talking. Your instinctive response might be to arrive at the last minute so that you can avoid talking to people. However, by then, groups will have naturally formed and it will be much harder work to join in so, counter-intuitively, the trick is to arrive 10-15 minutes early so you will be able to meet people as individuals and conversations will be less intimidating. Arriving early will give you the chance to start a conversation or maybe introduce a new arrival to someone you are already talking to – either way, you will then be able to blend into a “unit” that will grow as more people arrive. Two things to avoid: controversial conversation topics (it’s good to watch the news for a couple of days before any meetings so you have a good supply of smalltalk – but steer clear of anything confrontational) and don’t use alcolhol as an ice-breaker (it might be sold as a tonic to calm the nerves and lower inhibitions, but it is frowned on in networking and business situations, does not leave you in control of your situation and can become a harmful prop for social situations).
What’s a pretty nerve-wracking situation for most people turns into an incredibly tough situation for those with social anxiety – mainly due to the openly charged atmosphere of a face-to-face meeting in which they’re being judged and evaluated. How you react in an interview situation has a huge impact on whether you get a job and advance your career – often regardless of the abilities which have won you an interview in the first place. Your key tool to a successful interview is always readily available: it’s the knowledge you have which got you to the interview. So visualize how the interview will go; prepare well by learning about your potential role and any new company; organise how you are going to answer obvious questions such as why you want the role or what your duties have been in previous jobs; take your time answering questions – interviewers would rather listen to a well-composed and truthful answer, than any silence-filler; be prepared to ask questions of the interviewer – this will display confidence but also help you gauge how much you want to work for them; and don’t give in to negative thoughts – there’s likely to be faltering moments in any conversation, especially when there’s lots at stake, just don’t allow those thoughts to create a downward spiral.