9 Things to Know When Talking to Someone With Social Anxiety Disorder

Help a person with SAD open up.

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Entering a conversation with someone who is shy or who has a social anxiety disorder (SAD) requires a bit more effort on your part. People with SAD experience anxiety in both one-on-one and group situations and often need time to get comfortable before conversing.

Tips for Chatting With a Socially Anxious Person

There are a number of steps that you can take to encourage someone with SAD to talk more and participate in the conversation.

Share Things About Yourself First

Many people who are shy or socially anxious may enjoy listening to others more than talking about themselves, since they often fear being humiliated and judged. Tell stories and share things about yourself before asking too much of the person with SAD.

Use Open-Ended Conversation Starters

When you do start to ask questions of the person who has SAD, be sure to ask open-ended conversation starters such as "What did you think of the Oscars last night?" Stay away from a series of questions requiring yes/no answers as the other person could start to feel as though it were an interrogation.

Be Patient

When you ask questions, be sure to give the other person ample time to respond before jumping in with more comments. People who are shy or socially anxious may need more time to formulate their answers to questions since they often have a fear of speaking up.

Give a Compliment

Providing positive feedback and letting the other person know that you are engaged and interested in the conversation will go a long way toward encouraging further sharing. Compliment the other person on some aspect of the conversation. For example, say "I really liked your perspective on stay-at-home parents."

Hone In on Interests

If you know the person with SAD has a keen interest in a particular area, ask questions about that topic. You may find that once the person begins to talk about something familiar and engaging, the conversation flows more freely.

Watch Your Body Language

Be careful not to invade the personal space of the other person and avoid adopting an "in-your-face" type of conversation style. Match your body language and the way that you talk to the other person to make them feel more comfortable.

Avoid Personal Questions

Unless you know the person well, do not ask overly personal questions. Many people with SAD struggle with self-expression and have a fear of intimacy. Save those types of questions for more intimate conversations that take place after the getting-to-know-you stage.

Don't Interrupt Their Train of Thought

It takes courage and effort for them to open up and interruptions will interfere with their train of thought and could trigger feelings of anxiety. Do your best to not interrupt the person with SAD when they are talking.

Suggest an Activity

When leaving the conversation, indicate that you enjoyed speaking with the other person. If appropriate, extend an invitation to get together for an activity. Most shy or socially anxious people are more relaxed while engaged in a mutual task than when participating in small talk.

Research Findings

In 2016, a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that socially anxious participants contributed less during a conversation than non-anxious peers, which led to them being less well-liked.

In another study published that same year in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, individuals with SAD were found more likely to avoid eye contact during conversation. The results indicated that avoidance of eye contact was a distinct trait of social anxiety.

If you're talking to someone with SAD and not only do they fail to look you in the eye but they seem uninterested in what you are saying, what are you likely to conclude?

  • That person is distracted and not paying attention to you.
  • That person might even have something to hide.

If the person you are speaking with has SAD, both answers may be partially true. However it is their social anxiety that is distracting them, and what they are trying to hide is likely their fear of being embarrassed or rejected, the fear that you will notice their hands shaking, or any number of fears related to this disorder.

So try to remember to be patient and avoid any snap judgments. The person with SAD is interested in what you are saying and often wants to know more. 

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cohen L. National Anxiety Center. Social Anxiety and Small Talk: The Nuts and Bolts of Making Conversation. November 15, 2017. 

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness.

  3. Goman CK. Forbes. The Art and Science of Mirroring. May 31, 2011. 

  4. Mein C, Fay N, Page AC. Deficits in Joint Action Explain Why Socially Anxious Individuals Are Less Well-LikedJ Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2016;50:147-151. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.07.001

  5. Howell AN, Zibulsky DA, Srivastav A, Weeks JW. Relations Among Social Anxiety, Eye Contact Avoidance, State Anxiety, and Perception of Interaction Performance During a Live ConversationCogn Behav Ther. 2016;45(2):111-122. doi:10.1080/16506073.2015.1111932

Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."