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Introversion Got Your Tongue? Tips for Introverts on How to Speak Up More

All introverts I coach face the same challenge: speaking up. For some of us, this is a challenge in situations with something at stake, like speaking up at work in front of very senior leaders or making a presentation to a group. What’s at stake is usually “sounding stupid”–tripping over our words, forgetting what we wanted to say, or saying something we worry will expose what we don’t know. For others of us, speaking up is a regular challenge; we find it challenging to speak up in team meetings, at social gatherings like parties and networking events, even in 1:1 conversations with some of our extroverted friends.

I talked in a previous blog post about how our inner critic can sometimes thwart us from speaking up in situations where we have something at stake. It also seems universally true for introverts that our physiology affects our ability to talk. Our systems get “flooded” in a way I’ve never heard extroverts describe. When faced with the challenge of speaking up in a meeting or other group situation, the change in physiology is some rise in our heart rate, drop in ability to breath, followed by a dry mouth and blank mind. The level of these changes depend on how much we perceive to be at stake.

In 1:1 conversations with extroverts, I get the blank mind syndrome after a drop in my physiology. After listening and listening and listening, my heart rate slows and my mind gets numb and disorganized from the effort of listening for so
long. If I am finally (or ever) asked “So how are you?” or “So what do you think?”, I don’t have the physiological readiness to talk.

Knowing some of the underlying causes for introversion preventing us from speaking up whenever we’d like, what can we do to speak up more in meetings and social situations?

Here’s what I and other introverts I coach have found works:

    • Speak early, start small. Push through your reluctance to speak, get some words out of your mouth, then give yourself time to relax your heart rate and be better able to come in later with something more complex. One of my clients found that the best way to get his voice into a meeting was to give himself the challenge of saying something within the first five minutes. I find this is true not only in fast-paced or intimidating group situations but also in 1:1 conversations with highly talkative extroverts. Get into the conversation as early as possible with at least a small contribution or question. Now when something more complex comes up, you’ve already gotten your voice in the room and your nerves settled down. What to say to get into the conversation small and early? It could be as simple as sharing a small detail about how your day has been or work is going or asking a question. If you really can’t think of anything, notice what other people say during the first few minutes of a similar event.

      Typically people greet each other, introduce themselves to new people, share a little about how they’re doing, make comments about how the work is going, ask questions or make initial observations.To get into the conversation early with a lively extrovert, I find it works best if I talk first. Extroverts don’t wait to be asked “how are you” before they start talking. I’ve learned I shouldn’t wait for their invitation! When I launch myself in early without waiting for an invitation, my energy increases from talking and as a result I have more energy available to listen and continue entering the conversation periodically.

      I have low expectations of myself during the first moments of talking when I teach a class or facilitate a meeting, both of which are guaranteed to make my heart start pounding and my mouth go dry even though I’ve been leading events for over 15 years. I design in small ways to talk a little, then take a break so I have a chance to relax my physiology. This often looks like doing some quick opening statements, then getting to group introductions so I hear everyone else’s voice. (If I’m very, very nervous I find someplace I can be alone and release some of my physical over-stimulation by bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet and forcefully blowing out short breaths–like women do when they’re in labor.)

    • Mentally prepare. Everyone benefits from mentally preparing to give a presentation or teach a class. Introverts can benefit from taking a few minutes to mentally prepare for any situation that requires us to speak up. Several clients have told me they benefit from taking a few minutes to prepare ahead of time for meetings and phone calls. This can be from five to 20-plus minutes depending on the importance and/or complexity of the call or meeting. I do the same thing. Here’s how to spend those few minutes:

      • See yourself in the situation. I find it’s less jarring to actually be there if I’ve already mentally seen myself in the situation. I also use the mental dress rehearsal to identify any other ways I should be preparing myself, like who might be in the room I should remember, what materials should I bring, where I might like to sit in the room for comfort and confidence.
      • Think about what you’d like to say first. I find the first few minutes of me having to talk are the most nerve-wracking. I make sure I have my opening lines or questions down pat. If my entrance is at all bumpy—I don’t know what I want to say or feel unprepared—it’s harder for me to regain my footing.

        This happened to me recently in one of the most comfortable of settings, a 1:1 coaching call. The client unexpectedly called me early. Minus the few minutes I usually take to think about how I want to open the session, I felt unprepared and scattered. It took me several minutes to quiet my internal noise (my mind scrambling around in panic trying to regain language and focus) and regain my normal abilities to listen well, ask intelligent questions and make articulate observations. Now if I get an unexpected client call, I ask if I can call back in a minute. I’d rather take that one minute to gather my thoughts than begin the call feeling mentally chaotic.

      • Think about what questions you might be asked and how you’ll answer. Collecting your thoughts and mentally rehearsing your answer helps you find the words in the moment when you need them. If I’m alone in the room or my car, I find rehearsing what I might say out loud helps even more.
      • Connect 1:1. Most introverts thrive on 1:1 connections. I find breaking a group situation into 1:1 connections really helps ground me. When I teach, speak or facilitate new groups I make sure to greet and shake hands with at least a few people in the room before the event starts. While I talk, I look and pause on individual faces, not the blurry sea of faces for the group as a whole.

People who meet me and know me in my professional life are shocked to learn that I’m an introvert. I was once a very shy technical writer who found it painful to leave my office and interact with anyone. As a result of working with my inner critic, gradually taking risks to speak up more at work and practicing the tips in this post, I am able to reliably speak up and be a leader in any business setting, regardless of how high the stakes or level of seniority in the room.

Now if I could just master the art of speaking up 1:1 when a lively extroverted overwhelms me with verbosity…

Want to learn more about yourself? Take the Leadership Communication Style quiz to find out more about your strengths and challenges as an introvert at work.

About Jane: Jane Cavanaugh is an internationally acclaimed business leadership and career coach who has helped more than 6,000 professionals develop their career and leadership skills. Jane is creator of The Passionate Professional: How to Make Your Ordinary Career Extraordinary, a guided career transition program, and a co-author of Breakthrough! Inspirational Strategies for an Audaciously Authentic Life. Contact or visit Jane at www.janecavanaugh.com

Related Posts:
Challenge of Introversion: How to Speak Up More in Meetings
Useful Tips for Introverts on How to Get Out and Network

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