When most people think about performance anxiety at work, they likely remember a dreadful job interview, a time where you said the wrong thing to your boss or a too-long presentation to a room of stern-faced leaders. These situations can certainly spark some nervousness, but for me, it was social settings that would sometimes trigger my performance anxiety.
When I started my career at a trading company early in my twenties, I was one of few women in a male-dominated industry. I worked hard to be seen as an equal to my male colleagues, but there was always one situation in which I was chosen to be the point person: entertaining. I was often the point person for dinners, cocktail events, any social business engagement where my company needed to entertain a group of people. Being an introvert, this was not my favorite part of my job. Sure, I could handle it, but I certainly didn’t like it.
One day, I was assigned to entertain a delegation of Japanese businessmen who could barely speak English. I was supposed to spend the entire day with them, giving them tours of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade and then later take them out for an elegant dinner in one of the city’s finest restaurants.
My anxiety of having to having to field the conversation for hours over dinner with a severe language barrier overcame me, and I experienced a panic attack. Anyone who has experienced a panic attack knows the feeling – of what feels like a heart attack or impending death. It seemed to come out of nowhere. I called my boss and told him I was too sick to attend the dinner.
Once I calmed down, I spent the evening reflecting on the events of the day and what prompted this unprecedented experience for me. Sure, I didn’t want to go to dinner with this group, but the day with them hadn’t been that bad. Whatever this was, I understood I needed to get over it, so that it didn’t hinder my career and opportunities in the future.
I started reading books on business anxiety in social situations and found How to Work a Room, which is now a classic because it’s a handbook that gives you every pragmatic situation and trains you how to be more effective in each.
What I found in my research is the concept of “being interested, not interesting.” It’s also discussed in Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. It may seem paradoxical, but it holds a lot of truth. Being interested is essentially being a good listener, and being willing to talk about others rather than focusing on yourself.
Studies have shown that people find it incredibly rewarding to talk about themselves. On average, people spend 60% of conversations talking about themselves. It seems natural, especially when you don’t know the person you are talking to very well. We may tend to divert the conversation back to ourselves because we don’t know what else to talk about. But if we make the conversation all about ourselves, it can be perceived as self-absorption and a lack of empathy for others.
If you walk into a social situation trying to be interesting, you are actually creating performance anxiety. You want to perform well, yet you are encouraging self-consciousness that will hinder your performance, not help it. You are being thrown off your game because of your mindset.
If I ever find myself in this situation, even very mild feelings of performance anxiety in a social setting, I immediately change my mindset to being interested rather than trying to be interesting. I walk into the room and look for the person who I feel is the most uncomfortable person, perhaps someone who is alone, or someone who is standing to the side of the room sizing things up. I walk right up to them with the objective of making them feel comfortable. I engage with them, with the focus on them, not me. After I do this with one or two people at an event, I find myself more comfortable; I’m now in my element.
Now, it’s not always obvious who you should approach first. Look for people who aren’t genuinely engaged yet. You’ll find that there are generally little cliques at social events, so look for a solo person or a couple who isn’t in a deep, connective conversation. This is when understanding how to read body language is important.
When you focus on the other person in a conversation, it helps reduce internal thoughts of anxiety about your own performance. People want to talk about themselves. And if you are like me, you love to listen. I love to hear peoples’ stories, in fact, it’s what I do all day for a living as an executive coach. I am in my comfort zone the minute I switch the focus from me to the other person. It’s a great strategy to employ at any social event you find any discomfort in.
Going for It
Once you master this strategy of entering a room and becoming interested with those who appear to be uncomfortable, it’s time to stretch yourself. The next time you’re at a social event, walk into the room and identify the most powerful person in the room and start a conversation with them. The same rules apply – make it about them, not you. Who knows what connection you could make?
This reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with a young man who was very successful, good looking, articulate and thoughtful. Every parent would want their daughter to marry this guy! Marshall (not his real name) and I were in a social setting and the conversation turned to dating. This was before online dating existed, so I asked him how he met women. Marshall said he and his group of male friends go out to bars, look for other groups of women and infiltrate. He shared his strategy with me: Don’t approach the really beautiful ones because he felt they were out of his league. He always approached the above-average women for the best return.
I was shocked by this because based on my impression of him, Marshall could get any girl he wanted. I asked him if he wanted to go up to the most beautiful woman in the room, and he said of course, every guy does. But he said he didn’t feel comfortable approaching women like that. But having worked with a supermodel coaching client before, I knew that most beautiful woman wanted guys like Marshall to approach them. They were tired of the cocky, older guys who flaunted their wealth but had little substance.
I challenged Marshall to engage a beautiful woman in conversation by focusing on her rather than himself the next time he was out (I also advised him to ditch his pack of guys). Fast forward, he starts to do this regularly, he becomes more comfortable and eventually ends up marrying a woman he would have assessed was out of his league. Just being reminded that he was worthy of having that interaction was enough to change his strategy and his mindset.
This is what happens to us socially. We limit ourselves because we are trying to look good, but internally, we feel like we aren’t good enough. Imposter syndrome, where we believe our success is more a matter of luck than true ability could be at play, or we may feel pressure to perform at a certain level or even be the wittiest person at the party. Don’t be interesting. Just be authentic and interested. Ask genuine questions. The humility, respect, concern and empathy you demonstrate in these situations will take you far in business and in life.