I am introverted by nature, and while it’s not an inherently negative trait, it was slowing me down. I was struggling to meet with clients, and even Interstates team members, whom I didn’t know well. Dreading meeting with strangers was affecting my ability to be effective. At times, I would feel sick to my stomach.
I needed to overcome this problem. In my role at Interstates, it was unacceptable. I needed to talk to and connect with total strangers like I could with people I had known for years. I decided to work on it, so when an opportunity came up to represent Interstates at the local Chamber of Commerce mixer, I decided it was time to jump in with both feet.
When I have something in common with others, it’s easier to talk to them. For instance, I joined the local Project Management Institute (PMI) chapter because the members were also PMs. At the Chamber event, it dawned on me: other people were in the room by themselves, looking at their shoes, not making eye contact with anyone. I tested my theory and, lo and behold, I found them—the introverts.
I started a conversation with one because I figured we had something in common – dreading being there. To my amazement, the person sighed in relief and began talking back. It really worked. I kept attending mixers monthly after that, sometimes weekly, and it just kept getting easier and easier to strike up conversations with strangers. I no longer felt sick to my stomach when I walked in.
I still didn’t enjoy it, but I had overcome my fear. I used this technique at the PMI chapter and eventually hired one or two of the candidates I met. I also joined the board of directors, went to their North American conference, and got to know many more strangers with whom I had much in common.
Finding people looking at their shoes was an effective trick, but really, I was paying attention to how I felt. When I had something in common with a person, my stress level was low. If I told myself I would likely have nothing in common with them, my stress level would be much higher. This pushed me to convince myself that I had something in common with everyone in the room. Sometimes it takes a while to find a common ground, but if I work hard, I find it.
This method has literally changed my life. I no longer get all tied up in knots when I need to talk to someone I don’t know. I look up their LinkedIn profile and other social media channels and learn what we have in common, and I feel the walls coming down. Today, I can go up to anyone and start a conversation without feeling the anxiety I felt in the past. I’ve even coached individuals at Interstates and in my peer group to try my method, and many have expressed similar success. The network of individuals that I can truly call my peers, as well as my friends, has grown exponentially.
My advice to other introverts is this: Although you’ll never be an extrovert, you can get better at socializing and feel way less angst. Stepping out of your comfort zone is not impossible. If you purposefully work at it, you can tear down your barriers, and you, and others, will notice the difference. Try it today, and start finding more enjoyment in your career and relationships outside of work.
Jeff Miller, Director of Project Management