When someone can’t drive a car they hire an instructor to teach them. When they want to learn about journalism, or how to write short stories, they take a course. They certainly don’t consider themselves weak or sick.

They simply lack the skills and knowledge to do whatever it is they want or need to do. But for some reason, many people think of shyness as a weakness – even a sickness. In reality, shy people are just like those who need help with their driving or writing techniques: They just need some instruction.

About half the population lack some important communication skill. We can all think of a social situation in which we don’t perform very well. Shyness is not a sickness. Just a lack of social skills.

Other research shows two interesting trends

First, people who lack communication skills tend to seek positions which keep them out of contact with other people. No matter how capable they are, their inability to communicate keeps them from contributing their best. This often causes them personal frustration.

Second, many executives regard oral communication skills as the most important criteria for promotion. This means shyness costs everyone – individually and collectively. Shy individuals lose the chance to grow and contribute to their full potential, and the rest of society loses their valuable contributions.

Why do people stay shy?

Recently some articles by psychologists referred to ‘the disease of shyness’. They referred to fear, poor self image, inferiority complex, low self-esteem, alienation, social anxiety, and other disturbing terms to explain shyness.

But shyness isn’t a disease. All shy people do not have similar symptoms nor do they have the same causes for their shyness.

Diseases do have common causes – bacteria, viruses or chemical imbalances. The symptoms are usually the same in each case and doctors can identify them consistently. Diseases are treated with a common therapy.

Shy people are shy for many different reasons and in different ways. For example, a survey of more than 3,000 shy college students revealed some were shy because they lack experience in talking, while others were shy because no one ever told them talking skills are important. Others simply don’t know what to do in certain situations, and most don’t know the procedures for organising their conversation and making it interesting to their listeners. Some are afraid of being punished by authority figures.

People who claim to be shy are not shy all the time or in all situations. They just can’t perform well in a situation that is important to them. When they talk about their shyness, they seem to forget completely the many situations in which they speak quite competently.

In what situations do shy people have problems?

Research showed people often become shy when:

Asking and answering questions. Many people are unable to ask and answer questions on the job or in class. They can’t respond spontaneous­ly to task-oriented conversations and prefer to be silent rather than “incriminate themselves” by giving an inept or foolish answer

Looking for a job. Almost everyone feels uneasy during a job interview, but shy people often confine their answers to mono-syllables. They can’t talk convincingly about themselves and their skills.

Many are quite intimidated by professionals like lawyers, doctors, police and professors.

Speaking out in meetings. Most shy people admit to being intimidated during committee meetings. They nod agreement at ideas with which they do not agree rather than attempt to refute the arguments of people whose glibness frightens them.

Speaking on the telephone. Some shy people are unable to use the telephone. They’re afraid they’ll make a mistake.

Meeting new people. Shy people often have a hard time when they are introduced to new people. Unfamiliar with the standard routines of social greeting and introductions they simply don’t know what to say.

Making conversation. Even more distressing is the inability of shy people to make small talk or casual conversation which will help them know someone better. They fall silent and hang around the outside of a conversation circle and call themselves “good listeners”.

What can shy people do to free themselves of their inhibitions?

First, they must realise their shyness is not a sickness and it can be resolved. Then they must decide to acquire better speaking skills. There are specific skills which make the difference between effective and ineffective speakers. To overcome shyness, people must have the abilities to:

  • Size up a situation to determine how speaking could change it. To do this they must be able to identify roles people are playing, who has influence to take action, and what reasons could be used to get these influential people to act. Shyness is not a sickness. It’s just a lack of skill.
  • Set reasonable goals for themselves. Goals must be specific and refer to their speaking behaviour, not to their desire for responses from the listener (“I want to talk about xyz”, rather than “I want the other person to…”)
  • They must learn to distinguish the possible from the desirable. Unrealistic goals are probably the most frequent source of social failure.
  • Identify the relevant audience. They must pick out the people to whom the message should be directed and be able to tell them why they would benefit from complying with what they request. (Aristotle said, “The fool tells me his reasons. The wise man persuades me with my own.”)
  • Devise game plans for themselves. Eg: How will they enter the room? Once in, who will they approach first? What will their opening line be? (They would have this prepared and practice it at home.) How will they get into a position to speak to a group? If they are required to give talks or speeches they will need to master these common situations. They will need to understand their own capabilities and justify being invited to speak.
  • Organise their ideas. They must select a residual message, the most important idea which must remain with the audience when everything else is forgotten. Then build their presentations around these ideas clearly and logically. To do this they must be familiar with the seven basic structures of communication: description, classification, comparison, association, time, argument and refutation. They must also be able to get attention and end definitively. When engaging in social conversation they must be able to do all this and take turns at speaking and listening too.
  • Phrase their messages so they neither patronise listeners nor go over their heads. Words must be connected grammatically so listeners won’t be confused by faulty syntax.
  • Shy people must be able to plan, rehearse and, where necessary, prepare speech notes. They should also be prepared with alternative responses to the best, worst and most likely things listeners could ask in response to their talk.
  • Deliver their messages in a loud, clear voice. They must also make their message interesting enough to keep listeners attentive.
  • Observe listeners to get visual feedback. They must be able to spot declining attention in their audience and adapt to it. They must also be able to capitalise on signs of excitement in the audience.

Some shyness treatment programmes claim people can become fully effective citizens and workers as soon as they overcome their basic anxieties. Unfortunately, while they may become less anxious about their shyness, they can still be unskilled at their work. Job skills and people skills are quite different. Remember, learning any new skill requires proper tuition.

Reproduced for Educational Purposes.