Who or what makes you feel awkward? Asking for help? Doing video calls? Approaching strangers at networking events? Public speaking?
As well as hesitancy and timidness, other symptoms of social awkwardness can include, feeling anxious or uncomfortable in a social-setting and being overly self-conscious about every action you take. The science behind all of this stuff, which in its most acute form is a recognised mental health condition, along with its causes are massively complex meaning I’m better off leaving that bit to the experts.
That said, as ever, I’m happy to share my own personal experiences of how I removed the ‘awkward’ from most of my day-to-day interactions with others by bolstering my people skills. Trust me – nothing used to make me feel more awkward than entering a room full of strangers in my wheelchair and, as far as I’m concerned, if I can overcome such a fear anyone can!
For me and like many others, awkwardness can be put down to unhelpful ‘self-limiting beliefs’ centred around a fear of being judged or rejected. Or in some cases both.
Asking for help
For instance, during a conversation I had recently with a trainee solicitor on my outplacement programme the aspiring lawyer told me she didn’t feel comfortable asking contacts for help with her job search. Her reason for taking this stance was feeling embarrassed to disclose the fact that she wasn’t offered an internal newly qualified solicitor position to her network out of fear that everyone was laughing behind her back or because they’d simply refuse to help.
I asked the trainee a couple of basic questions, which I’m pleased to say did get her to reframe the way she viewed her situation and related fear of asking for help. These included:
- “Who” do you think is laughing at you? After thinking this question through carefully the trainee’s simple answer was that she couldn’t think of anyone significant.
- Whose opinions matter most to you? The trainee’s response to this question was her inner circle of contacts and everyone else could think whatever they wanted to because they’d soon find someone / something else to ‘gossip’ about.
- What would you do if the shoe were on the other foot? The trainee immediately replied by saying she’d offer to help…enough said.
- If you asked XXXXX for help, what’s the worst that can happen? The trainee quickly acknowledged that she may never get a reply, or her contact might politely fob her off by saying they don’t have time or aren’t in a position to help. She added, though it’s not great to receive negative responses / rejections there were plenty of other people in her network who’d be more than happy to help.
If you feel awkward asking others for help it’s also worth reminding yourself that just because someone declined to say yes to your request for help it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong (provided of course your request was reasonable based on how well you know the individual etc). Many people, including myself, are happy to share advice but put bluntly are quite reticent about agreeing to be a referee or broker introductions.
This has nothing to do with being cold or nasty – it’s simply because I’m cautious about sticking my head above the parapet and putting my name against stuff that I’m not 100% confident about. Consequently, someone would need to get to know me really well, inspire trust and wow me before I’d consider agreeing to put in a good word for them. So, a couple other tips when asking for help are don’t take it personally and be realistic about what you’re asking of the favour giver.
What about social interactions? Historically, when it came to meeting others my brain typically went into autopilot. Without even thinking about it first, I would feel anxious and embarrassed about how such individuals would react to me. Indeed, I’d go as far as concluding that nobody would want to talk to the ‘wheelchair user’ or ‘Asian person’. Besides, even if they did, without any common ground or interests what could I possibly say that would make them take an interest in me?
You see, herein lies the problem. Rather than focussing on the steps I could be taking to boost my social skills I was allowing that pesky little voice in my head tell me I’m no good at talking to strangers. So, I decided to tackle my self-limiting beliefs head-on and give people around me the benefit of the doubt by stopping myself jumping to conclusions about what they’re thinking about me. After all, if I felt awkward around non-disabled people, they’re most likely to feel the same when in my company.
I achieved this by doing the following. If someone offers to help by holding a door open or pouring me a drink then I simply say thank you. When asking for directions to the ladies’ room I try not to make anyone feel embarrassed about asking if I need help to get there. I make the first move and then engage in small talk with them in exactly the same way anyone else would do. But if that sometimes means discussing how as a wheelchair user I struggled with my journey to their offices then even better. I see it as raising awareness about disability-related issues and challenges.
Other positive and indeed effective steps I’ve taken to put myself at ease during social occasions include smiling more, paying genuine compliments, making better eye contact and asking open questions (and listening actively). I’ve also tried to make myself a more interesting person and broadened my horizons by reading more, having an opinion on current affairs and trying out new experiences that in the past I would’ve said no to. After all, the best way to stop yourself from feeling awkward is making the people around feel comfortable in your company as well as putting yourself out there.