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Breaking the Ice: Gay Men’s Conversational Skills and How to Use Therapy to Overcome Shyness

Gay men with social anxiety can use Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to build their social skills.

As a psychotherapist in private practice focusing on gay men, I love the diversity I see in my work.  No two clients are alike, except for one issue that I see frequently – which is social anxiety.  Many guys come to me and want help to overcome shyness.  One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve learned in my work hearing people’s fears and concerns behind closed doors is that people with social anxiety think they are the only ones who have it, like they are the only ones who are terrified of parties and public gatherings because they don’t know what to say, or they are afraid of negative evaluation.  The truth is, we all have this to some degree, so relax – we’re all in the same boat.  These days, gay men often meet on Internet web sites – which can help break the ice with public profile information – but there are still plenty of situations where we must meet guys in person in bars, clubs, and parties.  So how do you break the ice there?  Here are some notable success tips for how to meet that special guy in a public setting:

1.  Be aware of your mind’s self-talk – Self-talk is the little silent monologue that runs in the back of our head throughout the day.  In cognitive therapy, it is the place in the mind where the real work is.  If your self-talk is negative, such as “Dang; he’s cute; he won’t want to talk to little old me,” then you’re probably right.  But you can change that thought to, “OK, he’s hot, but I’m not afraid to talk to him and ask him out.  He’s only human.  All he can say is no, and he might say yes.  I’m going for it.”  You can see the difference changing that thought might make to your body language, posture, facial expression, and voice.  You’ll make a better first impression with a positive mind-set.  Even if your efforts are unsuccessful, and the guy throws you shade, that says something about him and his insecurities in being rude, not about you.  Stay positive and move on to someone else.

2.  Make him feel interesting – If you do meet someone you like, or want to make a good impression on anyone, make them feel like they are the most fascinating person on the planet.  Keep good eye contact; don’t let your eyes wander.  Ask him how he spends his time, and what activities he enjoys.  Even if you have to pretend a little, act as if tax accounting (or whatever he says) is the most fascinating profession you’ve ever heard of.

3.  Ask open ended questions – Don’t ask questions that have a “yes” or “no” answer, like, “You live around here?” or “Having a good time?”.  Ask open-ended questions that ask him to comment on something descriptively, such as, “I just moved to Hollywood;   Where do you live?”, or, “How do you like this DJ?

Sometimes getting a grip on social anxiety sometimes means de-constructing and understanding how even casual social interchanges work.  If you really notice, all conversations have a beginning, middle, and end, kind of like writing a term paper.  The beginning is about breaking the ice, which is making that transition from strangers who aren’t talking, to acquaintances who are.  Tips for breaking the ice include:

  • “Hi,  my name is ______.  What’s yours?”
  • “Cool haircut.  Where do you go to get it?”
  • “Great car.  How do you like driving a ________?”
  • “Hi.  I noticed you earlier and wanted to say hi.  I’m _______.”
  • “Fun crowd tonight.  What’s going on?”

The middle of a conversation can be trickier.  One tip is to ask questions in sequence that give you a little bit more information each time you converse, picking up on something to follow up on in the last sentence the person said, like this:You:  Whereabouts do you live?
Him:  Not far.  Over in Hollywood near Highland.
You:  Nice area.  How do you like the changes over there?
Him:  They’re good.  Lots of new stores in the area.
You:  Which ones do you like?
Him:  I like shopping at Hollywood and Highland.  Cool clothes there. Which ones do you like?.
You:  I like the new American Apparel.  I found a lot of stuff there.  Where is your shirt from?  It’s nice.
Him:  From this little store my friend works at near Hollywood and Fairfax.
(For something to say next, you could follow up on: 1) friends who do interesting work; 2) friends who work in clothing; 3) things about the Hollywood and Fairfax area; or 4) where to get good clothes.)

One of the hardest social skills in conversation is knowing when the conversation is over, and how to end it graciously and move on.  You can usually feel it a little, such as when a pause is particularly long and you both feel like you’re running out of things to say.  Some ideas for closing the deal are:

  • It was great talking to you.  I need to go find my buddy again before heading out.  Can I call you sometime?  I’d love to go out with you if you’d like.
  • I would love to chat more, but I have to run to the rest room.  I’ll be around for awhile, but in case I miss you, it was great meeting you.  Can I see you again sometime?
  • I wish I had more time, but I have an early morning with my trainer and have to run.  Can I email you?

Note that while you are initiating the goodbye, you’re also asking HIM for his contact information so that YOU have control on whether you contact him again, not just giving your card or phone number to him and then waiting for him to call (which he might lose or forget, even if he likes you.) Or, to move things closer to hooking up, say something like,

  • “I’m really glad I met you.  What are you doing later?  You want to come over for a while?”

For some people, these kinds of social skills come easily, because they have developed a positive self-talk and these skills are second-nature.  For others, they are skills that have to be developed and practiced.  Role-playing this in the safety of therapy sessions can help you rehearse for real-world situations.  When you have mastery of these skills, you can evolve from a quiet wallflower to someone who meets more people and has more fun.

Would you like more information on how to cope with shyness?  Consider having some therapy or coaching sessions focused on troubleshooting this in a way that’s customized just for you.

Call/text for more information, or to schedule an appointment, at 310-339-5778.

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For California residents, for more information about psychotherapy services, here.

For residents outside of California, or outside of the United States, for more information about coaching services, click here.

Ken Howard, LCSW, CST, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW #LCS18290) in California, and an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist.  He has been a specialist in working with gay men and gay male couples since 1992, and is in full-time private practice.  He provides sessions in his office in Los Angeles, as well as webcam and phone sessions all over the world. He is the author of the book, Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want!, and is a former adjunct associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.