Silent might: An introvert learns to speak up

Introvert speaks up

If you’ve ever taken a Meyer’s Briggs personality test and ended up with an “I” as the first letter of your result, you’ll understand the feeling. You’re in the middle of a crowded room with both friends and strangers and, suddenly, you just feel bone tired. Like a birthday balloon kept too long, you feel depleted of whatever energy you had. Or, in a meeting, you’re the one conscientiously taking notes, preferring to observe and ask questions later. You, my friend, are an introvert. Being an introvert isn’t about being shy. It’s about how social stimuli affect us. And while you may at times feel frustrated or unheard in a world that encourages extroverts and—many times—even outright aggression, you can still step up and get ahead without having to sacrifice who you are.

A third to a half of the population are introverts—a third to a half. So that’s one out of every two or three people you know… all of them subject to this bias that is pretty deep and real in our society. We all internalize it from a very early age without even having a language for what we’re doing.
—Susan Cain

Growing pains

When I started my last job, I thought I was doing pretty well at first. It was a startup, and a handful of us sat in a room around a couple of tables with our laptops in front of us. I loved it. The small teams of three or four meant my input was valued, no matter how I chose to give it. If I came out of a meeting and worked in silence all day before sending out the next iteration of a document, it was okay.

Growth in any company, of course, is accompanied by change. From eight people, we swelled to twenty-five. We moved into a larger office with individual desks. While I missed the closeness of the small tables, the introvert in me relished the physical and mental space I had from my coworkers. The flip side to all this was being in larger teams, with coworkers whose personalities seemed bigger and ideas more persuasive than mine. They could also sit in collaboration meetings for hours on end, picking up energy rather than spending it. And they got noticed. They got promoted. I have to admit I was both confused and resentful at first. I knew that some of their suggestions were wrong, sometimes glaringly so, but couldn’t seem to get others to see my point of view. I also knew that it just wasn’t my style to get into an all-out, knock-down argument with them. So I stewed. And, yes, wallowed a bit in self-pity.

It finally took some tough words from my mentor to wake me up. When I complained to her about how much extra work I was putting in without being recognized for it, she bluntly said: “We just don’t think you’re committed, or that you’re pushing yourself.” Ouch. When I asked her to elaborate, she told me that though my work was always excellent, timely (even fast), and well thought out, my silence in meetings and unwillingness to challenge my coworkers’ ideas were being taken for complacency. “It’s like you clock in and clock out. We know you have great ideas—we just don’t hear about them.” Ouch. Then she told me that she didn’t always enjoy being the one in the hot seat, either. It had taken time and lots of practice for her to present herself the way she does in front of clients. Here are some things she taught me to do:

Think of it as a game

It’s a game of who can be the loudest. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it goes to be heard above the noise. Raise your voice a little. While it might sound like shouting to you, your decibel level is probably just about normal for a collaborative setting. My brother-in-law, who worked in sales, says to match your tone to the person you are speaking to. This way it seems like you’re standing on equal ground.

Let your body do some of the work

It’s all in the presentation. Your body language is important in giving people unspoken cues about who’s coming up to bat. Be still—fidgeting is a sign of nervousness after all. When standing, throw your shoulders back, and keep your chin level. If you’re sitting, lean back instead of leaning anxiously forward. Use smaller hand gestures to make your point. Pause. It allows you a few beats to think and slow down in your own mind.

Don’t wait to say something

Introverts tend to be deliberate about what they say and do, often waiting to give their opinion or share their work until they’ve thought things through completely. In order to prove I was engaged in the conversation, I had to throw out my questions and ideas as they came to me, no matter how small or out there they might be. I also found that getting up and drawing or writing on the whiteboard helped me overcome my nervousness and helped others get on board.

Get there first

A project came up that I was super-excited about. It was a break from the usual deliverables we did, and would allow me to show a different skill set to my team. Then someone made the suggestion that we outsource the work, since it wasn’t “in our wheelhouse.” At first, my boss agreed. That night, I made a mockup of what I thought that product could be. I came into our meeting the next day and showed it to everyone. I looked at my boss and told her I wanted to do it, and I would convince the client it was the right way to go. I did, and though it meant lots of late nights and endless reworks with the client, it’s something I’m still super-proud of.

Interrupt the interruptors

People can get amped up on an idea and want to keep pushing it. So much so that they cut you off when you start to throw in your two cents. As a woman, I got ‘man-terrupted’ (yes, it’s a real thing) a lot. Or, just as often, interrupted by other women. Don’t let it happen. I learned to say, “Lemme just finish this thought.” And if you see a colleague being interrupted, come to their rescue: “Hold on, I wanna hear what [insert name here] was going to say.”

Show up

Not just physically. Don’t arrive empty-handed—or empty-headed, for that matter. Always come into a meeting/brainstorm/confab with a point of view. My design director told me to say things like, “I was thinking about this last night, and I have some ideas…” It might sound contrived at first, but if you do have the ideas to back it up, no one will care.

I kept these things in mind for months every time I walked into the office. I was determined to have my way unless, of course, someone else’s idea was much better. I encouraged the team to really collaborate, adding onto others’ ideas instead of tearing them down so their own got pushed ahead. And it worked. I got the promotion I asked for and a project I never thought I’d get to do. I won’t say that I’ve completely gotten over my nervousness when addressing groups, but I’m getting better at it.

There have been lots of studies and books being written about the power of introverts lately. Here are a couple to get you started:

Here’s to more bravery and confidence in 2016!

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