I’m not a naturally outgoing person, but I’ve learned from working at larger companies where I don’t know everyone I pass in the hallways, that’s it’s a simple thing to smile and say, “Hello.”
Most people will respond back in kind. The more outgoing ones will say, “Hi, how are you today?” Then there are the few that stare straight ahead like you’re wearing the One Ring. (Or pretend something on the opposite wall suddenly became very interesting.) When I pass someone like that, I think to myself, “You work in programming, don’t you?”
Not that I’m demeaning programmers. My good friend and former business partner is a programmer. It’s just that people in our industry tend to be more technically-minded, detail-orientated, or artistically creative personality types. And these personalities tend to be introverted.
Now, being an introvert doesn’t mean you’re shy. But it does mean that you’re probably not a “people person.” If you’re not sure whether you are one or not, here’s my definition—someone who regularly strikes up conversations with complete strangers in the supermarket checkout line.
When my ten-year-old gets annoyed with his mom (who’s been ignoring him by talking to a complete stranger in the supermarket checkout line), he’ll say to her, “Mom, you’ll talk to anyone.” We just look at him and say, “Really? And so will you.” My older son, who’s more like me, won’t talk to just anyone—but he’ll talk your ear off about Team Fortress 2 or Portal.
Introverts are uncomfortable meeting new people. And most of us are content with that … until we’re faced with the need to sell our services. We’re told that this type of business is about networking and building relationships. Suddenly we find that we do need to “strike up conversations with complete strangers”—if not in the supermarket checkout line, then at networking meetings, chamber of commerce events, or any anywhere else we think might provide an opportunity to make a connection that could lead to a project.
So how does an introvert become more of a “people person” without it being unnatural or seeming contrived? When researching this topic, much of what I read focused on external changes: smiling, making eye contact, remembering people’s names. While these are important to do, I want to focus on something internal—how to be more comfortable in your own skin.
Whenever we’re uncomfortable in an unfamiliar or social setting, it’s because we’re worried about how others perceive us … what do they think of me, how articulate am I? Being uncomfortable is about being self-conscious and self-centered. The solution is really quite simple: become other-conscious and other-centered. The next time you find yourself in a “socially awkward” situation, here are two things you can practice.
Pretend you’re the host.
Suppose you’re invited to your new girlfriend’s cousin’s backyard barbeque. You can probably count on 99 percent of the people being complete strangers. Try this:
Position yourself near the door or gate. As guests show up with their hands full of lawn chairs, ice chest and food, offer to help them. Show them where the pot-luck table is, how to get to the backyard. And be sure to introduce yourself.
Instead of worrying about what to say, try listening.
When I see someone like my wife, who can be entertaining and conversational at the same time (some people call that “charm”), I often feel like I need to be the same in order to establish relationships. But the downside of her personality is that, oftentimes, after “talking” to someone for a length of time, she knows absolutely nothing about that person (except maybe the person’s name, if she took the time to remember it). She’s had to learn to do the opposite, and listen more.
But the trick is not simply to listen, but to first ask questions … then listen. With a simple technique, you can keep people talking for hours.
When I first heard about this, I looked for opportunities to practice it. One December, at our company Christmas party, my boss at the time was making the rounds, saying his goodbyes. He told me that was leaving early because he was coaching his son’s hockey game. Knowing he was a huge hockey fan (his kids were in leagues as soon as they could walk) I started asking him questions: How long have your boys been playing hockey? What positions do they play? After each answer, I’d ask a follow-up question: How’d you get started coaching? Did you play as a kid? He kept saying he had to get going—that he was going to be late … then he’d talk about hockey some more. Then I’d ask another question. It began to become a game—how long could I keep him here? When he finally left, it was as if he had to physically break himself free from the conversation and force himself towards the door.
I probably made him late. (I hope his wife wasn’t mad.) But what do you suppose he remembers more—being late, or getting the chance to talk about the sport he loves best in the world?