Here’s how to use introversion to your advantage
By Tamara Holmes
Like many introverts, Julie Bush, 30, used to hate networking. The co-owner of Troy, New York-based consulting firm XperienceU Training and Leadership Development, recalls walking into networking events thinking, “I don’t want to be here.”
At first she would try to emulate an extroverted colleague. That colleague, who would later become her business partner, had a knack for winning people over by telling interesting stories and sharing examples from her life. Whenever she flashed a bright smile and offered a warm handshake, her enthusiasm prompted people to open up. Bush decided to take the same approach, thinking that was the key to networking success. “I’d try to come in with the energy and do what she does and then I would just stumble and feel awkward. It didn’t work,” Bush says.
What Bush eventually realized is that it wasn’t her colleague’s outgoing nature that made her an effective networker; it was her willingness to bring her true self to her interactions. Bush had been pretending to be an extrovert because she believed that society rewarded people who spoke up loudly and often. But in reality, she was uncomfortable working the room while her more extroverted colleagues flourished in social situations. In order for Bush to become a more effective communicator and networker with colleagues, clients, and peers, she had to be authentic. That meant discovering and embracing her strengths as an introvert.
Introversion isn’t the same as being shy. Rather, it’s a personality style in which one is more comfortable focusing on internal feelings than external stimuli. Introverts become energized when they spend time alone or with a few people they are close to, while extroverts get their energy from larger crowds. Another common belief is that all introverts are quiet. But that’s not true, says Morra Aarons-Mele, MPA, a self-described introvert and founder of the digital marketing firm Women Online. “The thing that we do have in common is we get drained by demanding social interactions.”
Figuring out how to deal with that energy drain is what led Aarons-Mele to write the book Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home). “It’s the book I wish I had had,” Aarons-Mele says. “I left the corporate world 11 years ago and all I knew was I was unhappy. I kept, not just hiding in the bathroom, but crying in the bathroom because I was functionally good at my job but I felt like being in a big office literally drained the energy out of me.”
Introverts tend to be very anxious about networking, says certified speaking professional Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, PhD, author of The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength. Not only do they often worry about what to say, but they know that they can feel overwhelmed when they have to interact with a lot of different people. Yet it is clear that networking can propel one’s career. According to McKinsey & Company’s 2017 Women in the Workplace report, women receive less advice about advancement and have fewer interactions with managers and senior leaders.
“As an introvert you, oftentimes, fall under the radar because you’re not out there,” Kahnweiler says. On the flip side, “extroverts like to meet people for coffee. If they have a day without lunch with somebody or a conversation they’re depleted.” The good news is introverts can learn to network effectively. But first they must learn how to do it from a position of strength.
Taking the plunge
Introverts may naturally want to avoid networking situations, so it’s important that they push themselves a little. That’s what Rashea Jenkins, 29, a communications manager for telecommunications firm Frontier Business, did.
“I wanted to get better at networking with people and not just rely on something like LinkedIn or online groups,” Jenkins says. To improve her skills, she forced herself to attend monthly networking sessions with other marketing and communications professionals. Initially it was excruciating. “For the first three months I’d make eye contact with someone and then directly turn away,” she says. But she kept going back.
One tactic that helped her become more comfortable was coming up with a concrete goal. She set the intention to have a conversation with at least one person each session even if it was the person who sat down next to her or the one standing behind her in the line for snacks. Over time she increased the number of people she would talk to.
Another strategy that helped was finding someone who looked as uncomfortable as she felt approaching her or him. “I’ve had various levels of success, from extremely awkward two-minute conversations to connecting with someone and getting together afterward,” she says.
The more she did it, the easier it became though it is still a challenge at times. Her willingness to embrace her introvert tendencies also helped her to get promoted. “It wasn’t until I was talking to my CEO that I realized one of my introvert qualities was a key in becoming a manager,” she says. “I was a giver of attention instead of a seeker, and my introspective nature was an asset in that I could teach what I learned to others, so no one person had a monopoly on knowledge.”
Managing the energy drain
There’s a general energy drain that happens when introverts are in networking situations, Kahnweiler explains. “I call it people exhaustion.” Taking time to rest before and after the event can help. So can taking breaks to recharge and re-energize. If you’re at a conference, that might mean making a short stop in your hotel room. If you’re at a day-long event, you might need strategic visits to the restroom, or take a brisk walk during lunch.
Another strategy that’s helpful is doing what Aarons-Mele refers to as “chunking your time.” Determine how long you’ll be interacting with people and what you intend to accomplish. Tell yourself, “This is my job. It’s not about whether people like me; it’s about whether I’m having a good time. I have two hours to do this and here’s what I’m going to do.”
If you’re anxious about an event, get there early. “That’s when there are fewer people there,” Kahnweiler says. It’s also easier to find someone standing alone to talk to, and one-on-one interactions are typically more comfortable for introverts. You don’t have to stay long to accomplish your goals; even an hour can make a difference. “Nobody really knows how long you’re there; they just know they saw you there,” Kahnweiler says.
Aarons-Mele has found that tag-teaming with an extrovert helps her ease into conversations. “They cue me when it’s time to talk about myself,” she says. In the process, “an introvert can also help an extrovert to shut up, to listen, to tune in. It’s yin and yang,” Aarons-Mele says. Bush also found that her introversion was a perfect complement to her business partner’s extroverted style. Some clients identify with her partner while some of the more reserved clients feel more comfortable with her.
Sending a follow-up thank-you note and communicating via social media are less stressful forms of interaction for introverts and good ways to strengthen relationships. “As introverts we really want to say the right things,” says Jenkins. “With writing, you can do that because you can look over what you say before you actually say it.”
The important thing is for introverts to balance the energy used to connect with others with the time they need to recharge. “It comes down to managing your energy, your time, and your environment,” Aarons-Mele says. “It’s very basic, but it’s very powerful.” DW
Tamara Holmes is a frequent contributor to DW.