Gearing up, gearing down

Extroverting while introverted

It took me a really long time — well into my twenties, maybe even early thirties, to learn to respect my need for downtime, both before and after social interactions. It took nearly 7 years of working with the same team for me to feel comfortable telling them of those groundrules for me. Of course, when I told them — they all already knew this about me, I just didn’t know how to tell them. But what was amazing was that by taking the time I really needed, the overall energy and effort these events take out of me has greatly decreased. It just took really looking into who I am and what I needed to function, and then adjusting my expectations for myself and others to accommodate that.

I recently tweeted about my experience participating in a round-table discussion:

And then afterwards, I started to think about why I find these so hard (apart from the obvious “because I’m an introvert”), and how I handle these intensely social interactions — and thought this might be helpful for someone else out there.

Before

Names & Faces: When I know I have an upcoming social event, I try really hard to find out who’ll be there. This isn’t so much about learning things about people, but often just as basic as a list of names, and hopefully photos. This is primarily because my anxiety levels are at the highest when I first enter a room, and thus my ability to remember names & faces at the lowest. If I can do that work beforehand, I’m much more relaxed during that first interaction, and that can set a better tone for all that follows. I’ll often quickly flip through a list of them on my way to the event. Linkedin, facebook, etc — all great tools!

If I can’t get names and faces before an event (as was the case this past Tuesday — I went in totally blind as to whom I’d be meeting), I have a slightly different approach — I try hard not to panic all the way there. This is sometimes successful, but I’ve also been know to take an extra walk around the block now and then too.

Talking Points: If I have names & faces, I often go one step further and try to learn something about the person — not personally, but some sort of professional note. LinkedIn is actually really helpful for this: What does this person do, what’re their skills, where to do they volunteer. Where any of these meet with the circle of my interests, skills, experience, I get a Venn-diagram of conversational-comfort.

I also try hard to quickly scan recent news/media/pop-culture for 15 minutes. Twitter + trends is super-useful for this — I only need to be conversant so that when someone, inevitably, says “hey, did you see/hear/know — “ I might actually, which again — more conversational comfort.

Be Still My Beating Heart: as I approach the event, I almost invariably can feel my heart-rate rising. Calming my thumping heart is a critical thing. For me, quick meditative process works great. I’m really good a quickly quieting, if not completely emptying my mind. My favourite tool for this is music. Headphones on, eyes-closed, listen intently to the song, let the world disappear. Often, one song is all it takes, but it’s incredibly helpful. The takeaway here is that you likely need to find what tools help you quiet the mind, focus yourself, and move on the quickest way possible. Permanent Bliss isn’t the goal here — short-term calm is.

During

Listen: I used to get really stressed out about this habit, but now, I’ve come to embrace it: When I first get somewhere where I’m going to be dealing with a bunch of people, I just listen at first. If it’s a crowded room — a party, networking event, I’ll get a drink and wander through listening in lightly here and there, using the excuse of my drink to not participate much. If it’s an event like a meeting, panel discussion — I let the other people talk first. If I’m leading something — a seminar, presentation, this clearly doesn’t work, before I’m set to start, I’ll just sit quietly and soak in what’s going on.

I’ve been told that I can be hard to read, intimidating to some — and I think my need to listen quietly, to calibrate is in large part responsible — I’m often fairly stone-faced at this time. So — if you see me, do know that I’m listening and absorbing — I’m just not necessarily ready to contribute yet.

Engage: Once I’ve got a read of the room, it’s time to actually participate. I, oddly, can’t speak about this too directly because I often feel I step “outside” myself, and watch myself participate in ways that I find surprising in retrospect. But, some things I do while present in a social settings:

  • Measure how much everyone (including yourself) is participating. Don’t dominate a conversation. Conversely, don’t stay silent.
  • Look, and call for, unheard voices — This is a “abuse-my-white-male-privilege-for-good” tactic: particularly at business meetings, there’s always someone, usually a man, who’ll just blather self-importantly (make sure that’s not me!). Say something, and pointedly ask someone who’s being ignored to answer.
  • Stay engaged. When topics move on past what I’m interested, I’m prone to zoning out/disengaging, only to find a lot of time has passed and I’m lost. Or, I haven’t participated in a while. Staying present, engaged is a super-important piece of actually being in a social setting.
  • When you’re overwhelmed, take a break: go to the bathroom. Get a drink. Switch groups. Take a 30-second mental time-out. This is directly opposed to the above, but, in short bursts, they help each other.
  • Don’t waste time on people you don’t like. Don’t discount them — that person who just grates on your nerves may actually have useful contributions. But you don’t generally need to waste time engaging with them directly — or minimize where possible.

After

After an event, I’m invariably wiped out. A day at a conference? No, I’ll skip dinner with everyone & just go for a long walk for an hour, then go to the party. Otherwise, I’m just a mess. After the round-table I participated in on Tuesday, despite the cold rain, I walked home for 45 minutes to try and clear my head. Basically, when I’m done these social events, I need to be alone. I’m no good to anyone, so I try to never continue on to the next event, the after-party, what-have-you, unless I’m feeling really good. For me, even close friends often need to be ignored for a little while — your mileage may vary of course.

For work purposes, this can cause real problems. On Friday, I had a critical conference call, where I had to be on for 90 minutes. The call was at 11:30. It wasn’t until 2pm that I felt recovered enough to get back to work. & that’s totally normal. For me, morning social events are terrible because they often cost me my entire day’s work. A one-on-one coffee in the AM is ok — but I know that I’m going to need an hour or so. But conference calls, round-tables, seminars, presentations, etc? If I know I have one of these in the morning, I try really hard to do one of two things:

  1. Don’t plan on getting anything else done that day afterwards. Or, do only light, mostly mindless work. Chores, etc.
  2. Plan back-to-back socially-heavy things, but treat them mentally as one. A day of 4 conference calls is ok, I just know that’s all I’m doing that day. And don’t plan to get anything done in between.

The baseline: Once you’ve got something social done, take time for yourself, and take all the time you really need, not just what you think is acceptable.

All in all

These tactics/tips may, of course, not work for you. You’re not me. But maybe you’re likewise introverted with a dose of social anxiety on top — and this might help. Or maybe you know someone who is — and you’ve never really got them: I know when I’ve explained some of this to my more extroverted friends, they look horrified at how complicated interacting with the world seems to be for me, versus their own experience, but really, it’s not so bad. It’s just work.