5 Tips For Being an Introvert in an Extroverted Office
March 12, 2012 • comment(s)
I've always been an introvert. I'm comfortable in one-on-one situations and small groups, but put me in front of dozens of eyeballs and I start to sweat. Give me time to think about what I want to say and I'll ace that presentation, but if I have to improvise I get nervous and stammer. College classes with a participation grade made me want to break out in hives. It's strange because I was a Broadcast Journalism major. I performed in theater throughout high school. But it was different in those situations. I was in control. I knew what to say, and I was there to entertain and inform people. In some cases I was playing a character. When it comes time to speak off the top of my head, receive unwanted attention, or speak in front of a massive group of potentially judgmental people, I get nervous.
I always just assumed I'd grow out of this introverted phase, but I'm realizing it's just part of who I am. There's nothing shameful about it. With the fear of debating in public comes the ability to listen very well and to think and feel deeply. Being an introvert is tricky in the working world. You're surrounded by leaders and people with loud voices. Speak up or be trampled. Shout out that idea, stupid or not, or someone else will. This doesn't work well with my "think and analyze for several minutes before speaking" type of style.
Simple tasks that are required of all office workers seem daunting to those of us who live on the quiet side of the spectrum. For example, every week at work I attend a meeting with about fifteen other people. We throw out different ideas and give department updates. This may seem like no big deal to some. Just a typical day in the office. But for me, these meetings are nerve-wracking. It's hard to get my voice heard over more outspoken people. By the time I completely think my idea through, someone's already suggested it or we've moved on to a new topic. Also, I'm just more comfortable listening than speaking in big group situations. In fact, I prefer it.
Another example: Last week my boss critiqued me in front of a group of people. She did it half-jokingly, but I wanted to melt into the floor. It was public attention, and it was negative public attention. To an introvert, this is our worst nightmare. Again, to most people it's an awkward moment that quickly passes. I dwelled on it for hours.
If you're an introvert like me, here are a few ways to break out of your shell and make a mark for yourself in a loud world:
1.) Explain your style: I had several meetings with my boss where she expressed concern about how quiet I was during our weekly meetings. She took my silence to mean that I wasn't paying attention or that something was wrong. The truth was that I was just more comfortable listening during the meetings instead of talking. Once I explained this to her, she was able to understand where I was coming from and not feel as frustrated or confused if I wasn't as chatty as she expected me to be. I also learned that it's important that I speak up even if it's difficult.
2.) Plan ahead: When I know I have to go into a group meeting, I jot down a few things I want to say or discuss ahead of time. That way I don't feel flustered when it's my turn to talk. I know that my ideas are good and that I've covered everything I want to cover.
3.) Get to know your co-workers: I'm not saying you need to spend every night at Happy Hour with your cubicle neighbors, but feeling comfortable with the people you work with will help your shyness. When you go into a meeting and just see faces, it can be daunting. But if you go into the meeting seeing people you're at least friendly with, it helps to make the situation seem more relaxed.
4.) Free up brain space: I've learned that I need time to think about what I want to say when it comes to group situations. General chaos and disorganization make this hard to do because your mind is wandering to a million other places at once. There is nothing worse than trying to think about a question posed to you while simultaneously trying to remember if you sent that e-mail to a client. If you want to give yourself time to prepare for a presentation or conference call, make sure you're staying on top of other tasks at your job. Create lists, get a whiteboard, do whatever you have to do to keep everything in line. That way your mind is free of clutter and you're able to plan for the upcoming task.
5.) Don't be afraid to pause: The other day I attended a talk from a well-respected news anchor. One of the things he said that stuck out most to me was "Understand the power of silence." He explained that a well-placed pause is extremely powerful and effective. A pause can be an introvert's best friend. For some reason there's an invisible pressure to rush through a presentation, speech, or explanation as quickly as possible when a group is watching. It's like we're afraid that if we don't do it fast enough everyone will get up and leave. If you're nervous as you're speaking, take a pause. Give yourself a brief second to collect your thoughts, catch your breath, and think about where you're going next. Then continue. It may barely be noticeable to your audience, but it will be just enough time to allow you to refocus and feel calm again if the glare of eyeballs and scratching pens on paper is making you frantic.
It's not always easy to get yourself heard when you're a quiet person trying to separate yourself from extroverted types, but with planning and a little removal from your comfort zone it can be done. How do you navigate the business world if you're an introvert like me?
Lauren Levine is a writer of all things women and career, focusing specifically on arming young women in the workplace with the knowledge they need to succeed. Want more from Lauren? Follow her blog, Life With Lauren.