The other day I had an insightful conversation with one of my clients about feeling shy and uncomfortable to interact with people in English, whether in formal or informal contexts.
It reminded me of lots of moments in which I felt the same way while interacting with people in groups. Very often, I didn’t feel comfortable to participate in conversations because I thought people would find me stupid if I gave my opinion, commented on what they were saying, or even made a joke. I felt terrible in these situations because I associated this shyness and discomfort with my lack of proficiency in English. Then, I would always think “When will I finally feel comfortable interacting with people in English? I’ve been studying for so many years and this feeling never goes away.” I have recently found out that most of what I used to feel come from a process that I named Negative Magnification.
What is Negative Magnification?
In general, we are used to focusing more on what we believe are negative aspects of our personality than positive ones. The problem is that learning another language is like looking at ourselves through a magnifying glass, which leads us to become overly critical of who we are and how we behave. Seeing shyness as an overly negative thing is one of the results of this process.
"Communicating in another language is like looking at yourself through a magnifying glass."
Observe yourself through mindfulness
I’ve been reading a lot about Mindfulness lately and, although it doesn’t make me an expert in the subject, it allowed me to get some insights into my own neurolanguage® coaching practice in order to help my clients. If you are not familiar with this concept, the definition given by the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the University of California can shed some light on your understanding:
“Mindful Awareness is the moment-by-moment process of actively and openly observing one’s physical, mental and emotional experiences.”
Ok, but what does mindfulness have to do with improving your communication in English? What I want to propose here is that you observe your physical, mental, and emotional experiences when you are interacting with others in your FIRST language. But, why the first language and not the second? Well, do you remember I told you that I used to feel very shy and uncomfortable to interact with people in groups?
When feelings like that arise, the first thing we usually do is to blame our lack of proficiency in English. In our minds, our shyness and discomfort to participate in conversations are results of not knowing English very well. Does it sound familiar to you? However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, this is usually a lie that we unconsciously tell ourselves. Do you want to find out if you’ve been telling this lie to yourself? It’s simple. Just ask yourself: Do I feel in a similar way when I have to participate in conversations using my native language?
To be able to answer this question you need to apply mindfulness to observe yourself as a whole when interacting with people in your first language in different contexts. To illustrate my point, let’s pick a specific context such as first day in a new job. It’s lunch time, your colleagues are hanging out in the cafeteria and you approach a group of people who are talking about something you are not so familiar with. In this context, how do you think you would feel?
afraid of being judged if you open your mouth?
intimidated by not knowing anybody?
shy to jump in the conversation?
If by using mindfulness you come to recognize that you have some of these feelings when communicating in your first language, chances are that you may feel likewise while communicating in a second language. To make things worse, the negative magnification effect is added when you are communicating in a second language, which makes you feel much worse because you start over criticizing yourself. Therefore, negative feelings that seemed to be small become huge when you are communicating in English.
Reducing negative magnification through mindfulness
It took me years to realize that my discomfort to participate in conversations in English wasn’t always due to my lack of proficiency in the language. When I started observing myself more closely, I realized that I felt in a very similar way in Portuguese. Why? Because I am a shy person, no matter the language I’m using. In contexts where I have to communicate with people in a group, I often hesitate, lose track of what I was saying, or even get distracted and not always make sense of what people are saying. Sometimes I feel shy to express my opinions and even keep them to myself because I fear being judged. So, if I behave like that in my native language, how can I expect to behave differently in English? We expect to be talkative and outgoing in English. However, these characteristics are not always associated with language, but with our own personality.
Once I realized that, I stopped being so tough on myself. If I feel uncomfortable to interact with people in a specific situation, I first ask myself “Am I feeling like that because I don’t feel confident speaking English or because this is a trait of my personality?” If I go with the first option, I try to identify the points that I need to improve in my communication to be able to interact more confidently next time I experience the same situation. But, if I go with the second option, I just relax and say to myself “it’s ok if you don’t feel like interacting now. Just relax and be yourself. You don’t need to be talking if you don’t want to.” Actually, just by recognizing that I sometimes start participating in the conversation because I feel more powerful, confident, and relaxed. Acknowledging and labelling our emotions is important to control feelings of anxiety and stress. It doesn’t mean they will disappear, but they will certainly be more under control.
"Developing mindfulness to observe ourselves in the present moment is crucial to identify emotions we feel in different situations, why we feel them, and what we can do about them."
It's important to emphasize that this was MY experience while observing myself. I am sure you will be able to identify other characteristics in your communication that may have nothing to do with shyness. In some cases, even the opposite may happen. For example, you may be very extroverted in your native language, but introverted in English. This would be a topic for another article. There is no one-size-fits-all theory, explanation, or strategy that will have the same results or be true for everybody.
The point is that we need to be aware of the negative magnification phenomenon so that we can stop making unfair demands on ourselves that only bring us a feeling of frustration and inadequacy. Let’s be kind to ourselves.
All these points that I brought up can’t become an excuse for you not to work on your self-development, which may involve your communication skills among other things. So, if by observing yourself you notice things that are hindering your communication, even though they may be characteristics of your personality, and you feel bothered about them, go ahead and work on that. It’s your decision! Human beings have the amazing capacity to evolve, improve their skills, and change their mindset.
I hope this article can help you become more aware of the way you communicate in your first and second language so that you can develop strategies to become a better communicator and feel more confident in your communicative skills.