When it comes to the things that really scare us, you want to face your fears in a gradual way, starting with situations that are slightly stressful and building up to more anxiety-provoking scenarios. Think of it as a stepladder, with each rung a little more stressful than the last. Don’t move on to the next step until you’ve had a positive experience with the step below. For example, if talking to new people at parties makes you extremely anxious, here is a stepladder you could use:

  1. Go to a party and smile at a few people.
  2. Go to a party and ask a simple question (e.g. “Do you know what time it is?”). Once they’ve answered, politely thank them and then excuse yourself. The key is to make the interaction short and sweet.
  3. Ask a friend to introduce you to someone at the party and help facilitate a short conversation.
  4. Pick someone at the party who seems friendly and approachable. Introduce yourself.
  5. Identify a non-intimidating group of people at the party and approach them. You don’t need to make a big entrance. Just join the group and listen to the conversation. Make a comment or two if you’d like, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
  6. Join another friendly, approachable group. This time, try to participate a bit more in the conversation.

Tips for making conversation

Some people seem to instinctively know how to start a conversation with anyone, in any place. If you’re not one of these lucky types, these tips will help you start talking when you first meet someone:

Here are some easy ways to engage in conversation with someone new
Remark on the surroundings or occasion. If you’re at a party, for example, you could comment on the venue, the catering, or the music in a positive way. “I love this song,” “The food’s great. Have you tried the chicken?”

Ask an open-ended question, one that requires more than just a yes or no answer. Adhere to the journalist’s credo and ask a question that begins with one of the 5 W’s (or 1 H): who, where, when, what, why, or how. For example, “Who do you know here?” “Where do you normally go on a Friday?” “When did you move here?” “What keeps you busy?” “Why did you decide to become a vegetarian?” “How is the wine?” Most people enjoy talking about themselves so asking a question is a good way to get a conversation started.

Use a compliment. For example, “I really like your purse, can I ask where you got it?” or “You look like you’ve done this before, can you tell me where I have to sign in?”

Note anything you have in common and ask a follow up question. “I play golf as well, what’s your favorite local course?” “My daughter went to that school, too, how does your son like it?”

Keep the conversation going with small talk. Don’t say something that’s obviously provocative and avoid heavy subjects such as politics or religion. Stick to light subjects like the weather, surroundings, and anything you have in common such as school, movies, or sports teams.

Listen effectively. Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can’t concentrate on what someone’s saying if you’re forming what you’re going to say next. One of the keys to effective communication is to focus fully on the speaker and show interest in what’s being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal cues like “yes” or “uh huh.”