Think of Someone Scary
When you're in a pressure-filled conversation, your inner voice asks, "Do I sound stupid? Am I gesticulating too much?" Instead of listening to the other person, you're sidetracked, thinking about what you're going to say next. The amygdala—the part of the brain that registers the fear of social rejection—may be firing as well, making it even more difficult to concentrate. It can help to call to mind someone who once intimidated you with her authority or charisma but no longer does. Perhaps you got to know her and realized that she, like everyone, has her foibles. The same thing is true of the person standing before you. You just don't know her shortcomings yet. Remembering that previous experience can have a calming effect.
Susan Cain is the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking ($26, amazon.com). She lives in the Hudson River Valley, in New York.
If you get trapped in a boring talk with a friend or a family member whom you can't escape, the best way to get engaged is to formulate questions in your head. Even though you don't speak them aloud, asking yourself, "What can I learn from this?" or "How can I contribute?" helps you mentally dig in to the topic at hand. Crafting answers to these questions also enables you to do an informal wrap-up at the end of the talk, by saying something along the lines of "It sounds like what's important here is..." Just the accountability of knowing that you'll have to process and condense the main points will keep you focused.
Larina Kase, Psy.D., is a cognitive behavioral psychologist based in Philadelphia and the author of The Confident Speaker ($19, amazon.com).
Look at Your Feet
I've been around actors for 20 years, but often I'll get starstruck—and therefore distracted—when I meet someone for the first time. I recently met with one celebrity whom I've admired for years and found it hard to listen. To stay centered, I used a grounding technique that I learned from a theater and dance teacher years earlier: If you feel like you're having an out-of-body moment, focus your entire mind on your feet. Fixate on the physical sensation of them on the ground and visualize roots shooting down from them into the earth. This simple action connects you to your body and makes you feel present.
Melissa Rosenberg is a three-time Emmy-nominated screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles. Her most recent film, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, opened November 2012.