I'm not going to lie: I am pretty nervous about writing to you because you are so honest and I don't know if I can handle the truth. But then again, I do want help so it has to be done.
My issue is super boring in comparison with some of the letters I have read before: I am incredibly shy. I'm not talking about the cute kind of shy (complete with light blushing and hair-flipping). No — I'm more of the bright red, stuttering, mind-blankedness, deer-in-the-headlights type of shy. It's like whenever someone outside of my immediate family talks to me, all sensible, interesting thoughts fly out of my head and whatever comes out of my mouth is either a) a one word answer or b) an awkward sentence with my voice cracking or most often c) a shy smile. I hate it because I want to be interesting and someone others want to talk to, but I think that I am just the last resort when there is no one else to talk to. I don't think that I have anything worthwhile to say so when the pressure is on, I don't say anything. And that makes the shy cycle worse. Ugh! Please help me!
Relax, Sparkler! There's no need to be nervous. After all, we don't rake people over the coals around here just for being painfully shy... that is, unless the shy person is also one of those monstrous fiends who pees all over the seat in the ladies' room and never cleans it up, in which case WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.
But I know you're not a seat-splatterer, right? (Um... right?!)
And as for your problem, you're absolutely correct: the more you don't say anything, the more you'll feel like you don't have anything to say. Your shyness is a self-sabotaging cycle, and every time you feed it, you make it harder to break. But the good news is, breaking it is so much easier than you think—because the secret to being a brilliant conversationalist isn't in how interesting you are. It's in how interesting you make the other person feel.
Which is why, if you want to be someone others want to talk to, the best thing you can be is a great listener.
So, rather than stressing out about saying something worthwhile, try this: give yourself the far easier task of prompting whoever you're talking with to share his thoughts. People love to talk about themselves, and they'll love you for giving them the chance to. All you need to do is start a sentence with the words "Tell me about...", and then finish it with something that you know interests the other person: "Tell me about your holidays," or "Tell me how you two met," or "Tell me about that guy who got arrested for sexually assaulting a rhinoceros at the San Diego Zoo."
Practice this—out loud, in private, until you've got a handful of prompts you can easily and comfortably access when you're feeling pressured to say something. And then, use them.
When you do, you'll find that conversations become much easier when you approach them as an opportunity to hear what the other person has to say—and that people respond just as positively to an interested listener as they do to a gifted speaker. You'll get a sense for the rhythm and flow of a good verbal exchange. You'll see that a conversation isn't a performance, and that making an awkward or boring or banal remark isn't a death sentence. You'll realize that talking is a pleasure even when nothing earth-shattering is said. And once you've gotten comfortable asking people to share their thoughts with you, I'll bet you anything that you'll start finding things to share with them.
Do you have a hard time talking to people? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.