It's sometimes easy to feel that our world favours those who are more extroverted, that we need to be outgoing and gregarious to succeed in the workplace and in our social lives. Susan Cain's book, The Quiet Power of Introverts seeks to bring back some balance into our thinking and appreciation of the introverted disposition. You can also watch her TED talk here:
The key feature that makes us either an introvert isn't the job we do or the number of friends we have; it's where we draw our energy from. Extroverts find company stimulating and energizing. They'll feel less energized if they're forced to spend time alone. Introverts, on the other hand, find their energy from being alone. This doesn't mean we don't like going out or won't enjoy a social gathering. But, our energy will be depleted by those events and we then need time to recharge alone, quietly.
Before I even learned about her book, I was acutely aware of this introverted/extroverted friction. You see, I've always categorized myself as an introvert, which may seem at odds with my industry -- after all PR is about being "out there" a whole lot. And I do host and attend large events, red carpets and work in a bustling office.
Yesterday, I spoke at a Women of Influence event about networking. At first glance, it may appear that networking is yet another area that's simply easier for those who are extroverted...that it comes more easily for the hyper-gregarious. But I don't think that's necessarily true. Here are some ways I think introverts can successfully network (perhaps even better than extroverts!)
(1) Cultivating deep one-on-one relationships
OK, so an introvert isn't going to be the person grandstanding at the centre of a room, but they definitely can hold a deep one-on-one conversation. Nurturing these kinds of relationships is really the hallmark of how I approach my business. I don't seek to dazzle an entire room, but hone in on those people with whom I have an authentic connection.
While introverts find it hard to be immediately outgoing, we're often good at observing and listening to others. And when you're looking to make like-minded connections, those are special skills. It means that the connections I make are -- first and foremost -- authentic and sincere. And the truth is that those are the relationships I want in my life and career; I really want to work with people I respect and admire!
(2) Creating intimate and personalized events
One of the things NKPR has become known for is our personalized touch. We don't use the same "blast" approach as so many other PR companies (an approach, I hasten to add, that has its own merits and can be effective in other ways). Rather, we think carefully and selectively about who to engage on every project.
We often host events in intimate places, like our own offices, which have been designed to facilitate this. And I sometimes even host events in my own home, which is where I'm most at ease and I can be social on my own terms. This not only fits with my disposition, but has resulted in a deeper and more intimate relationship with clients and contacts.
(3) Preparation and practice
I've had two occasions in recent weeks that pushed me outside my introverted comfort zone. The first was walking the runway at the Dare to Wear Love fashion show, the second was speaking about networking for Young Women of Influence. Of course, this isn't my first time speaking in public, but for sure, it's something that pushes me outside my comfort zone. It might be an introvert's first instinct to run away from such occasions, but there are times when we all know that pushing outside our comfort zone will be a rewarding and affirming thing.
For me, the key is preparation and practice. I practiced my walking for the runway show and I had some help from supermodel Stacey McKenzie, who gave me some tips about what to do and think when walking the runway (she said, think SEX...). But I also put my own spin on it; live tweeting and taking pics of the crowd as I walked. I prepared and practised, but I made sure I was still "me."
Similarly, I prepared my speech in great depth. I even gave myself a chance to warm-up by doing a live-Twitter event, which lifted my energy for the occasion. A lot of this practice and preparation took place in my introvert's comfort zone; alone. It allowed me to harness my energy for what I knew would be an exciting and rewarding, but energy-depleting, event. And afterwards, I made sure I had some down-time to regain my energy again.
Susan Cain's book isn't defensive. She doesn't favour introverts over extroverts. Rather, she tries to point out the error of thinking success only looks one way; that it's all about brash backslapping. She also encourages us to learn how to interact with introverts as they are rather than thinking they ought to change to be more "outgoing," "bold" and "assertive." This is really about embracing diversity.
Introverts can be highly creative individuals, using their alone time to generate original and innovative ideas. Nurturing a balance of introverts and extroverts isn't only about doing what's right by individuals, it's also smart for our schools and businesses, for our own personal relationships. And, as an introvert, finding ways to network and operate on MY OWN terms has helped me create something original and distinctive, while also being true to myself.
Introverts are happiest one-on-one or in small groups. For us, “more” is less merry than it is overwhelming. We prefer conversation to chitchat, and that’s easier in small groups. The happiest socializing for us is lunch with a friend, or an intimate dinner party, or maybe a party of ten to 20 people, most of whom we know. I don’t go to parties to meet people as much as to hang out with people I already know and like, which is one reason I like giving parties. And I’m usually bummed when small-scale plans turn into big group plans because someone has decided “the more the merrier.” I tend to get a little overwhelmed and shut down in large groups. For me, it’s “the less the livelier.”
Introverts are perfectly happy home alone. If I’ve planned an evening at home (and I plan many more of those than evenings out), it takes one hell of an awesome invitation to get me to change course. Being alone is an activity to me—it’s time to let my brain relax, fall into its own grooves. I get stuff done, indulge in hobbies, sometimes I just daydream. After a period with lots of social interaction, quiet solitude is not just pleasant, but crucial. Solitude is a performance-enhancing exercise, in a category, I think, with sleep. If during alone time someone calls and says “whatcha doin’?” I might say, “nothing,” because people don’t understand. But to me, doing nothing is doing something.
Recent research using brain scans suggests that introverts have very busy brains, which is one reason why doing nothing feels like doing something. While we might look like we’re just staring into space, our brains are on overdrive. Add to that any sort of external stimulation, and our brains can feel very busy indeed. Lots of people talking at us, or a full day without a solitude break, or several consecutive days of interaction, can make us feel like our brains have been overfilled, pumped up like a bicycle tire, and liable to blow at any time if we don’t get a few minutes (hours, days) of quiet solitude. Avoiding the head-might-explode feeling is a big motivator for introverts. We’re always looking for that quiet spot to avert head-explosion.
Every introvert knows the exquisite joy of stepping away from a party or other social event and into the bathroom, where you can close the door and let your brain settle down. And you can go even when you don’t have to go. The bathroom is always available to us when we need a break from the action, when our heads are reaching explosion-level fullness, when we feel like we’ve chatted our last chit and haven’t a syllable left. At times I’ve worried people would think I have a bladder problem, so frequent were my trips to the loo. But I’m willing to risk that. A few moments in the bathroom is like a catnap for the brain. (Even a stall can do the trick, as long as a chattery friend isn’t in the stall next door.) Better yet, it’s a trick that works anywhere—parties, restaurants, even the office. Anywhere there’s a bathroom, there’s a quiet place for us.
Attending parties is among the social contracts we make with friends: Friends go to friends’ parties. Sometimes I even enjoy parties, especially small to midsize ones. Sometimes I enjoy them to the wee hours, even. But not usually. Usually, a little bit of party is plenty. And we’re not minglers. My party tactic involves spending long periods in one spot and letting the party come to me. I’m like an ocean sponge, soaking up any party fun that drifts my way. Although some introverts (especially college aged) have been convinced otherwise, nobody is compelled to stay at a party until the food is picked over and you’re reaching for the drink you’ll regret to help you through another hour of fun. Or “fun.” As in “not fun.” Introverts often get stuck at parties, longing to leave but unable to make a move. But knowing how to leave a party is crucial, because if you know you can leave when you’ve had enough, showing up in the first place is lots easier.
I rarely answer my telephone, often forget to check voicemail, and can take a shockingly long time to return phone calls. So sue me. The telephone is intrusive, especially for introverts, whose brains don’t switch gears all that quickly. When we’re deep in thought, a ringing telephone is like a shrieking alarm clock in the morning. And we often give bad phone—awkward, with pauses. We struggle without visual cues, and our tendency to ponder before we talk doesn’t play well on the telephone. Being stuck on a too-long call makes me want to chew off my own leg to escape. Sometimes, if I’m feeling devil-may-care, I’ll pick up calls from far-flung friends who want to catch-up, But I more often let them go to voicemail and then make a date (via email) for us to talk. My friends understand. Dislike of the phone is often presented as a moral failing. But honestly, it’s not the people on the phone we dislike, it’s the instrument of delivery.
While we are not averse to knowing a lot of people, we don’t believe a large circle of friends is proof of social success. Just as we prefer in-depth conversation to chitchat, we prefer a few intimate friendships to a bunch of fun but superficial ones. This is not because we don’t like people, but because we do—so much so that we want to really know those people we care about. We would rather know one person intimately than a dozen only slightly. Acquaintances are the chitchat of friendships: pleasant and necessary, but ultimately unfulfilling. Of course, any attrition in our friendships can be a problem because replacing an intimate is difficult. So I try to maintain a wide circle of acquaintances as well, to make sure that when I’m alone, it’s by choice.
You see them everywhere: in cars, at the grocery store, walking down the street. People will cell phones pressed to their ears, chattering and chattering and chattering. What on earth do they find to talk about? I’m incapable of stringing that many words together at one time. Sometimes, I can’t even finish my own sentences, losing interest halfway through and trailing off. (Much to my husband’s irritation.) I have a terrible time remaining focused on idle conversation and am just as happy to let other people do the talking if they think they have something to say. If you tap into an introvert’s deepest interests, you might release a stream of impassioned words. But in the day to day, we can be downright laconic and really do wonder what all those people are talking about. And why.
Little inspires terror in the heart of an introvert like seeing a performer scanning the audience for a volunteer. Or a show that ends with a cast-audience dance party. Or a singer who strolls out into the audience with the microphone, emoting at people. Even strolling mariachi is a little more audience participation than I’m comfortable with. While introverts are capable of being performers (Steve Martin, Julia Roberts), that’s something they do on their own terms. I even know of introverts who enjoy karaoke. True story. But being dragged into a show I am there just to watch is a nightmare. And that includes being dragged on the dance floor at a party. I have been known to dance, but in my own time and when I’m in the mood. I don’t need to join the fun. For me, watching is the fun.
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