Many people who are my acquaintances (that is, we’re friends or colleagues but don’t know each other extremely well on a personal level) are sometimes surprised to find out that I consider myself to be an introvert. They see me as someone who is a regular presenter seemingly comfortable at public speaking in class or at conferences, often attends social functions where I appear at ease when networking, and has no problem singing or playing trumpet in front of a group of people with my band.
Yet, behind the façade, after each of these activities I prefer to step-away quietly and sit in my office or on my couch and take a few deep breaths. I need to de-stress, reflect, and re-energize myself. Not only do these activities often make me nervous (still after years of doing them), but they also wear me out quite a bit. I especially find myself feeling awkward at networking activities or when I meet someone new. All of these experiences are classic feelings that many introverts have.
To define: introversion is a personality trait. Personality traits are thought to be stable characteristics that get to the core of a person’s being. In other words, a personality can be thought of as tendencies or preferences that facilitate particular behaviors within a context. A personality is an aspect of who an individual “is” and many popular conceptualizations identify introversion as a dimension of personality that individuals may possess (including the Myers-Briggs and Big Five personality categories; Judge, Bono, Ilies, & Gerhardt, 2002). In popular culture, introversion is often used synonymously with “being shy” but it has been more thoroughly defined academically as being energized by quiet and reflective time (as opposed to extroversion in which individuals are energized by being around others).
Being an introvert can be challenging at times. Because they often prefer quiet or alone time, some introverts can seem cold, aloof, or even antisocial to others that are more extroverted in nature. Introverts may also experience challenges in connecting with others while engaging in face-to-face networking or in seeking out mentorship; both of which are activities needed to help achieve one’s career goals.
But, there are things introverts can do to combat these challenges. From my personal experiences, four strategies have helped me and maybe they will help you as well. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that I will address mentorship and networking more, so I will focus primarily on these activities in my comments below.
- Be purposeful. To me, being purposeful can take two meanings with regard to networking. First, being purposeful can suggest engaging in an activity in which you serve a purpose that makes interacting with others feel less awkward. For example, at a recent networking event, I offered to volunteer to take pictures throughout the evening. By assuming this role, I was able to interact and meet many more attendees than I might have otherwise while also feeling comfortable doing so because I had a task in which I was engaged. Second, being purposeful can also mean understanding that networking has a purpose. Whether it’s to promote an idea you have that will benefit a larger group or help advance your own personal career, you will likely need to engage in networking at some point in your life. Just understanding networking’s importance can go a long way to introducing yourself to someone new.
- Recognize that others may be as nervous as you. There are more introverts out there than you might expect and so it’s safe to assume that others may also be uncomfortable at networking events. One tactic I’ve used to ease my nervousness is to approach someone that I see sitting alone at a function. I find myself interacting a lot more comfortably with this person as I understand that she or he may also be uncomfortable networking (hence sitting apart from others). Knowing this calms me and allows me to be a bit less nervous. It allows me to see that I’m not alone in feeling awkward while at a networking event.
- Seek out others that understand introverts. A mentor can help in so many ways (such as serving as a career model, offering emotional support, and opening up social connections) that cannot be ignored. Yet, when choosing a mentor, many individuals focus on the obvious person who has had experiences of interest to the would-be mentee. However, not enough consideration is often given with regard to personality fit. This would include (but not necessarily be limited to) finding someone that recognizes introverted behavior and is comfortable (and good with) interacting with introverts. From my own experiences, I’ve had several mentors who were sensitive to my introverted nature and would engage in interactions with me or introduce me to others in a way that made me feel comfortable. These individuals have been invaluable in my life.
- Practice makes perfect. Many of my undergraduate students are not happy when they find out that they have to present in my classes. It is common for people to fear public speaking and, for introverts, giving presentations can be very uncomfortable. To help alleviate their fear, I often tell my students that I am not always comfortable speaking in front of people even though I do it often (and hopefully effectively) as part of my job. I let them know that, if I can do it, they can do it which I hope gives them self-efficacy in their ability to present well. I further reinforce this by telling them that, at some point in their career, they are likely to have to speak in front of a group of people. I emphasize that our classroom is a “low-stakes” environment where their audience is friendly and no serious negative implications can occur (except, of course, maybe a slightly diminished overall grade, though point values for presentations are often outweighed by other assignments). In other words, they can use this presentation assignment to grow and develop into effective communicators through practice. I realize that, not only did I train myself to be more comfortable speaking by seeking out “low stakes” presenting opportunities throughout my career, I also became more comfortable meeting other people through networking in “low stakes” situations. In essence, I became better at these activities through practice that could not be detrimental in any way.
So, do you consider yourself to be an introvert or extrovert? Do you think any of the strategies noted above might be helpful to you or to others you know? Do you use any other strategies as you grapple with the challenges of introversion? I’m always interested to hear your thoughts. Write me below, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Michael J. Urick, PhD, MBA, MS
Judge, T. A., Bono, J. R., Ilies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. 2002. Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.