Advice from an introvert: It’s time to speak up

I’m an introvert.

A lot of folks are surprised to hear me say that. We’ve seen you teach, they say.

And you were a managing editor.

And you coordinated media relations for a big health-insurance company.

That’s all true. I also can work a crowd, make conversation with people I don’t know, even seize the microphone if that’s what the occasion demands.

But sometimes, despite my best efforts, my introversion takes over.

Like during a faculty meeting I attended recently.

We were discussing, over a lunch of pizza and salad, how we teach ethics. Several of my colleagues jumped right in, taking positions, arguing points, challenging each other. The conversation was lively, sometimes intense.

I popped open another Diet Coke.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to talk. It’s just how I usually behave in meetings: hang back, survey the room, silently test my thinking against the others to see whether I’ll sound foolish when I finally speak up.

Eventually I did speak up and, while my observations certainly didn’t leave the others speechless (after all, they’re extroverts), I didn’t embarrass myself. I was glad I jumped in.

The experience reminded me, though, how challenging it is to be an introvert in an extrovert’s world. Sometimes we wait too long to join a conversation and it ends before we make our move. Some bosses mistake our silence for a lack of ideas, sometimes even for a lack of interest.

Fact is, we have lots of ideas — but we like to think about them before sharing.

That, according to my colleague Jill Geisler, is one big difference between extroverts and introverts: Extroverts want to talk out an idea as it hits them, while introverts want to think it through first. I’m not overly shy and I do like having dinner with others, going to a party, and being part of a large gathering. (At least sometimes.) But those activities don’t energize me; they drain me. I find my energy inside myself.

So bosses, be aware that there are people in your meetings, quiet people, who might need to be asked what they’re thinking. You might also:

  • Pull us aside after a meeting and get our take one-on-one.
  • Begin the meeting by asking everyone to write down a few thoughts on the issue at hand, in order to even the playing field.
  • Hand out, or at least announce, an agenda ahead of time to give us a chance to collect our thoughts.

Yes, bosses (especially you extroverted bosses), you might gain a lot by being more aware of the introverts in your midst.

But let’s also be clear: Introverts, we need to look out for ourselves.

For, as Jill also says, being aware of our tendencies might explain us, but it doesn’t excuse us.

If we want to be effective in an extrovert’s world, we need to assert ourselves, test our comfort zones, and take some risks — without abandoning our unique gifts.

In other words, we need to keep thinking with our head, while discovering our voice.

Here are three ideas:

1. Think “one-on-one.” Getting comfortable enough to speak in a room filled with extroverts is a daunting challenge. Slow down. It’s much easier to build individual relationships with others, even if they are extroverts. And you’ll enjoy multiple benefits from giving someone a chance to know you.

First, you’ll gain confidence. Think of it as using these individual relationships as practice for sharing your thoughts and ideas in larger venues. It’s much harder to keep quiet in a one-on-one setting, and so you’ll speak. (Yes, I know that even one-on-one, extroverts talk a lot — but it’s easier to politely break into a monologue than into a meeting full of voices.)

Second, those with whom you build individual relationships might change the way they treat you in group settings, such as meetings. (They actually might call on you to speak — especially if they know you agree with them.)

2. Be a (shameless) copycat. People who comfortably play leadership roles in organizations often are credited with an abundance of natural gifts. Maybe. More likely they are simply good students of the leaders they were fortunate to work for and learn from. My style is a distillation of a hundred leadership styles that I’ve watched and admired and attempted to mimic over nearly 40 years.

Like the way someone makes a presentation? Notice how she engages the audience, designs her slides, paces her material. Wish you could run a meeting like your boss? Watch how he keeps the meeting on point, expresses disagreement without disrespect, encourages everyone to participate.

The point is: We work with many talented people who, if we pay close attention to how they do their jobs, can help us achieve our goal — developing our voices.

(And they’ll be flattered.)

3. Seek out assignments to show off — and stretch. Newsrooms are increasingly looking for staffers to participate in projects and task forces. Whether it’s the development of a new product, a newsroom reorganization or a training initiative, opportunities exist for introverts to develop new skills. It’s almost a cliché to look for introverts to play research roles in organizational projects, and with good reason: Many of us are good at research. But let’s not leave all of the out-front roles to the extroverts.

Volunteer to present findings or update the project’s progress. Then, once you get the assignment, prepare well. Create an agenda and distribute it beforehand. Keep your presentation focused and move it along. Encourage questions and comments. (Before the meeting, brief one or more of those colleagues with whom you’ve built relationships and let them help you discourage speeches and keep the meeting on point.)

And no matter how it goes, seek out your boss for feedback. After all, you plan on doing this again. You don’t have to go on this journey alone, after all, it can be a grueling one. Having the boss share your effort — and support it — can be a great help.

Related: What Great Bosses Know about Extroverts | What Great Bosses Know about Introverts | 3 Major Misunderstandings (When Introverts and Extroverts Collide)

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