That quiet guy at work...
May 16, 2012 6:19 PM   Subscribe

My introversion is causing some friction in the workplace. How do I address it?

So I've always been the quiet, introverted type - even when I was a little kid I preferred reading a book or going for a quiet walk over socializing or hanging out w/ friends. For me, it's kind of beyond just enjoying my own company, it's more like 98% of the time I literally say very little when I'm around others. The 2% of the time I actually am chatty is a rarity, usually only occurring when I'm in an exceptionally good mood, feel relaxed, and maybe had a drink or two beforehand. I guess you could say I'm kind of like I'm Raj from "Big Bang Theory", except Raj only clams up in front of women, I do it in front of everyone. Weird analogy perhaps, but it's the best one that I can think of :)

So fast-forward to today, when I pretty much got reamed by a co-worker for not being more assertive/outspoken in meetings, being told I'm not doing my job if I don't. Thing is, I do my job great - I regularly get compliments from my clients, my other co-workers like me, my supervisor gave me a glowing annual review just last month - it's just that I'm not chatty. I do speak up in meetings on occasion, but I generally only do so if I have a question or something constructive to add that hasn't already been addressed. Said co-worker's opinion that I'm not doing my job well doesn't seemed to be shared by anyone else, so I'm not too worried about it.

However, this has started me thinking - how can I improve? Just saying "speak up more" or chiding me for not being a social butterfly isn't gonna help, I need workable suggestions. Part of the issue is that I don't "control" a conversation well - if you have me in a group, I just naturally end up backing off and let others dominate the conversation. I do a bit better one-on-one, but I still get worn out pretty quickly. My job involves a fair bit of networking and from time to time requires attendance at social events (happy hours, etc), so finding a way to cope/improve would certainly make my life easier.

tl;dr how does a quiet person who works hard (not anti-social, just a man of few words) do a better job of interacting in the workplace?
posted by photo guy to Human Relations (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure you need to "improve" anything? It sounds like you're doing a fine job of interacting. If you spoke up more, that same coworker would probably be on your case for speaking up too much.

That being said I am pretty much an introvert too and I used to be extremely quiet. Now I speak up a lot more and it seems like it has to do with being more imaginative and less dismissive of myself when evaluating opportunities in a conversation to say something and deciding if I should or should not. I used to do a lot of self-editing, now I do less. I've been told I should do more. So, I can't win. But it's something to try. If you try and don't find more openings for yourself, then probably you're already saying the right amount.
posted by bleep at 6:31 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, photo guy, I wish I had an answer for you because I'm the same way. But from my perspective, if you're getting good reviews from your supervisor, your colleagues like you, and your clients think you're doing a good job, then I think you're free to ignore this one person's opinion of you. He/she sounds like the kind of person that tells us introverts "You're so quiet." It's a feature, not a bug! I say keep on doing what you're doing.
posted by jabes at 6:32 PM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

I HATED participating in class discussions (I'm much more a sit back and listen to it all unfold type of person), but the college I went to stressed it heavily. Once I had been approached a few times by concerned professors, I had to come up with a plan to start speaking up more.

What I did was come up with three interesting points based on whatever reading we had done the night before. I wrote these down on a piece of paper, along with 5-10 buzzwords for each topic. If I heard one of those buzzwords said during the discussion, I'd go on high-alert mode waiting for a pause so I could interject with the related pre-planned point. And then I did. I rarely had to continue (since the rest of the class would start discussing it), and saying that one thing (or more, if the buzzwords for the other points came up, too) was enough to make the professors happy.

It reduced the anxiety for me along the oh-god-what-do-I-say-do-I-say-it-now-what-if-it's-dumb lines because I already had a plan for what I was going to say and when. It may not work for you, but for me it made my contribution much more predictable and controllable, and therefore much easier for me to go through with.
posted by phunniemee at 6:33 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

If nobody else has mentioned this is a problem, are you sure it is? Introverts can actually be good networkers, because people perceive them as being good listeners and often times they (we) are! I can understand worrying about if this, as it seems quiet people are often in the minority. But unless there have been any other comments from anyone OTHER than this coworker, maybe you're doing fine!
posted by kettleoffish at 6:34 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

1. Is this co-worker someone who has any authority over you? Supervisor, project leader, whatever? If so, go to them with #2 instead of your direct manager.

2. Go to your direct manager and say "Co-worker gave me some feedback and I wanted to talk to you about it. What do you think about my performance in meetings specifically? Are there things I could improve? Are there opportunities I'm missing?" Basically, the idea is to get specific, actionable feedback rather than just "Speak up!"

There are reasons why your being quiet could cause subtle problems. Maybe there's someone from a different team who's getting to set the agenda more than they should. Maybe there are tasks that you could be doing that other people are volunteering for, making you look less proactive. Maybe this co-worker is expecting you to back him up, making his position look stronger. If you're naturally quiet, you may not be thinking of yourself as having this kind of influence, and it's not a bad idea to get some outside feedback about it - although I would definitely take it to your superior first, as it's a cheap bit of ass-kissing and they may actually be the best person to talk to. If they have no feedback, then it's totally fine to go to your coworker and say "Hey, I've been thinking about what you said and wanted to know exactly what your expectations are here."

(Mind you, if this coworker is just a bully, then feel free to ignore.)
posted by restless_nomad at 6:39 PM on May 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

N'thing all the above and adding: One thing you might try is simply making a conscious effort to look people in the eye and smile more when you pass them in the hallway, elevator, elsewhere. Say hello, how's it going? Nothing stressful, and move along. People that predisposed to talking are likely to start a conversation if they have the time, and those that are less so will give you the benefit of the doubt and consider you friendly and pleasant. If someone initiates a conversation, there's that load off your shoulder. You may already do this. If so, keep it up. Talking is overrated, and nothing is WORSE than a colleague who doesn't respect other people's time by yammering on incessantly, on topic or off. If you are bringing up relevant points and necessary questions in meetings, that is perfectly sufficient. Congrats on being a successful, socially unobtrusive colleague!!
posted by keasby at 6:39 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

One good way to start might be speaking up in support of other people's ideas that you agree with. You might think that if you just agree with someone it's not worth saying "me too" but in fact if your boss and co-workers think of you as someone competent and experienced, your support can be a valuable data point. Something like "Yes, I agree, because in the Photo Department we also see X, Y and Z." It's not pointless "me too"-ism if you're actually offering relevant facts that others don't know yet.

You can then use that as a springboard to voicing your own opinions. Because, for real, if you're in meetings regularly (and your organization is minimally functional) it's because people want to know what you think. I totally understand the desire to just do your job as best you can but I think you will be surprised by how much more your managers and coworkers will appreciate you if you can also find a way to keep them current on what your job involves and how it might affect theirs.

(Conversely, if you're just a data-in-product-out black box to them, they might really appreciate your sterling performance as a black box, but what happens when the job you do becoomes less important? Being good at communication helps people see the whole picture of what you bring to the organization.)
posted by No-sword at 6:46 PM on May 16, 2012

There is nothing wrong with you.

Though you should read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, a new book by Susan Cain. (You may have seen a TED talk from her, but the book has many more tactical suggestions like you're looking for.)

Cain writes about a bunch of aspects of introversion, and about how some introverts are better than others at putting on a "public face" persona. The key for the best of them? They're deeply and internally motivated to do it.

They're self-aware enough to know how taxing it will be on them, and what they'll need to do to recover afterwards, and then they plan discreet episodes of social interaction that will help them with some underlying goal they're passionate about.

Like an introverted professor who gets up on stage to teach large lecture classes because it allows him to change the lives of his students for the better. Then he hibernates between lectures to recharge.

Her book has other tips too, both for introverts and extroverts. It really helped me think differently (and more positively) about my own introversion.

If your company is open to questioning its own culture, you might start a conversation around the book. If not, at the very least you'll get some good practical pointers. Good luck!
posted by nadise at 6:47 PM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

For some strange reason, I am the complete opposite of this in the workplace. But, if you put me in a classroom setting then I am the most socially anxious and quiet person ever. I feel uncomfortable being this quiet and anxious. But, it seems like you are comfortable with being a quiet person. So, it doesn't seem problematic which is great.

But, there are certain ways to approach this to come across as more friendly while in staff meetings. That way, more people feel like they know you as a co-worker. When you walk into the boardroom say "hi everybody," if there's time before the meeting you can talk to the person beside you, ask a question even if it seems completely obvious to you (it might help someone else out), participate during interactive parts of the meeting, participate during the beginning of the meeting in order to get it out of the way, tell yourself that you only have to participate once, and keep a tally of how many times you participate and reward yourself on a quarterly basis.

It will feel unnatural and very uncomfortable for you at first, but these small things really count. The people with higher positions want to know that others are interested and alert during the meetings and colleagues generally want to know what their coworkers are like. You may be able to do your job and certain co-workers may like you, but if you are quiet during the meeting then not everyone will 'know' you and will be unable to develop a better impression of you.
posted by livinglearning at 6:50 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone, glad to see I'm not alone on this :) seems like it has to do with being more imaginative and less dismissive of myself when evaluating opportunities in a conversation...

I agree, I think the key is to knowing how to see and grab opportunities in a conversation. Seems like I can do this from time to time but not consistently.

@restless_nomad - Good points. I think that's part of the problem, being quiet makes me look less proactive. Not intentional of course, but yeah I certainly see how it could be an issue.

@nadise - thanks for the book suggestion, I'll check it out.
posted by photo guy at 6:50 PM on May 16, 2012

1. Your coworker sounds crazy and ok to ignore unless they know more than you've let on about your performance metrics.

2. In general around the office, just make sure you're smiling and making eye contact with people when you pass in the hall, water cooler etc. "Hey, how're you doing?" You don't need to have a long conversation, just make people feel like they've been acknowledged. I have to remind myself consciously to do this, especially with people outside my group.

3. In a meeting, if you want to be more visible, then either ask a (real, thoughtful) question or just smile and make a pleasant and appropriate comment like "that's going to be great" or "you did such a great job with that TPS report" or whatever, once per session. But if you have nothing to say, just make sure your expression is pleasant, and pay attention and nod and look engaged in the meeting.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:56 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was in grad school I went to a professor to talk about my own quietness in her class, which had about 10 people in it. She said that speaking isn't the only way to contribute; eye contact, body language, and actually following the discussion are all positive contributions. Also, she pointed out that the vocal people weren't necessarily adding to the discussion.

She suggested that I start small, maybe just nodding when I agreed with something, then stepping it up to an audible indication of approval. Being a psych professor, she suggested that I reward myself -- it turned out to be enough if I just reminded myself later that I had done what I'd set out to do.

One of the worst problems in a class or a meeting: getting off topic. It can be really valuable when someone just says, "I'd like to hear more about (someone else's on-topic comment)" or, "If I could return to the idea of...." This is especially good if you don't think quickly on your feet. An idea might occur to you after a few minutes, and meanwhile someone has slightly derailed things... don't feel like you missed your opportunity. Keeping things on-topic is a major plus.

The meeting doesn't necessarily need your brilliant new ideas. It does need anything you can do to keep things moving forward, and to keep it from going on any longer than necessary. I'm sure you've noticed that some co-workers love to hear themselves talk; you're ahead of the game if you're not that person.

I strongly agree with what restless_nomad said, by the way.
posted by wryly at 7:01 PM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think it all comes down to what you're supposed to achieve via attendance at those meetings. In my job, yes, if I'm not representing my group at meetings then I might as well not be there and therefore I'm not doing my job. Are you just there to listen so you are informed? If not, then what are you there to do? Can you do it silently?
posted by salvia at 7:10 PM on May 16, 2012

So fast-forward to today, when I pretty much got reamed by a co-worker for not being more assertive/outspoken in meetings, being told I'm not doing my job if I don't

Here's what you'll need to understand, to put this to rest: if you are in a meeting and someone says "can we do this", and you know the answer is "no", you shouldn't keep your mouth shut. If you are in a meeting and someone says "is there a reason why this is a bad idea", and you believe you have a reason, you shouldn't keep your mouth shut. If someone in the meeting says "it looks like we're on schedule; is anyone not going to make this delivery date?" and you suspect you aren't going to make the delivery date, you shouldn't keep your mouth shut. If you're in a meeting, and someone says "well, if there are no objections, this is what we'll do" and you have an objection, you shouldn't keep your mouth shut.

I hope this makes it clear: you don't need to be more chatty-friendly, you just need to push back when people are making unreasonable requests, and speak up when you can contribute. That is your job, presumably, or part of it. I can speak first-hand about this, about people keeping their mouths closed in meetings, our team getting committed to something, and then two weeks later someone admitting they knew it wouldn't work, and why, but being too shy to bring it up in the meeting.

Now, does this mean you have to become super-aggressive? Nope, there are lots of workarounds. For instance: go to that coworker and say "Thank you for that advice, I now understand that as a member of this team, I have to learn to speak up even when I have something potentially negative or disruptive to say. The thing is, I am not as confident as you. Do you have any ideas on how I can gain more confidence, or how you can help me speak up in the meetings?" Sometimes, all it takes is your trusted teammate to say "well, that all sounds good, but I want to make sure we're covered. Raj, do you have any concerns about this?" Or you might work out an arrangement where you go to meetings, sit next to each other, and jot down your concerns so that the other person can discreetly review them, consider them, and potentially bring them up -- I've done that with shy teammates, and it works quite well.

Meanwhile, out of the meetings, you can be quiet and bookish and whatnot. Heck, in the meetings, too, provided you've worked out something with your teammates so that they can help you communicate what needs to be said, around your own shyness.

Oh, and I think restless_nomad's advice is top-notch, without question. Start there; my comment is more to give you context around the problem. And it might help for you to know that the quietest people on my teams are often the ones that, when they do open their mouths to say something, get the most respect -- because if they feel strongly enough to say something, everyone else knows it must be very, very important.*

*Sometimes I pretend to be that guy -- staying quiet through an entire meeting with people who have never met me before -- only to open my mouth at the end, and have a whole room hanging on my words because, well, they haven't had the whole meeting to know how credible I am, and they're at a disadvantage.
posted by davejay at 7:41 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

I do think introversion in and of itself isn't responsible for keeping quiet in structured situations such as meetings, where you're not expected to socialize/'be a social butterfly' but rather offer constructive feedback on whatever someone says. Something that helps me is not necessarily relating to people but to the things they say-- their ideas. I'm shy around people and really would rather not say much of anything to them. Ideas, though, are as interesting or non-interesting spoken as they are written in a book. Note, I'm a super-chatty, super-opinionated person who happens to be so introverted as to be anti-social, so I think it's a personality divergence that's correlated but not limited to introversion.

I dunno, I just think ideas are interesting and so I can get engaged. I often feel I have 'better' ideas or at least want to contribute my own opinion due to my being semi full of myself... also a trait not necessarily counter to introversion. One thing I may try (when I'm clamming up) is writing notes during the meeting and then typing them up and emailing them to the group-- like a response paper after a meeting. Smiling and/or nodding helps. Or not. But I feel more social when I do it, and I think I do seem so as well.

There's so many varieties of quiet, though. There's 'Zen-master' quiet, 'panicky-silence' quiet, 'nothing-to-say' quiet, 'I-hate-you-all-and-want-to-go-home' quiet, etc. I think the assumption people make that it's either the first or the last is kind of over-simplifying. There's nothing inherently wiser about keeping quiet-- just about listening. And people know you're listening when you give them feedback. So stuff like 'this is what I think you're saying, am I right?' goes down real well. After a while, you may try 'but this is what I'd add'.
posted by reenka at 8:05 PM on May 16, 2012

Very good comments here, especially restless_nomad and davejay. I'd just add sometimes a quiet listener can be very effective at summing up or signaling that it's time to close the meeting, just by saying, near the end, "I think we've heard good discussion of the important issues (points/questions/etc.) and I can't think of anything that hasn't been covered" or "There seems to be consensus on this; what do you think, (critical colleague) or (team leader)?" For meetings with the same set of people, another tactic is to have a small "in-joke" kind of greeting--pull out a freshly sharpened pencil and smile at everyone as you say good morning--or something of the sort that is friendly and familiar and that subtly indicates you are well prepared to participate; you'll be listening, respecting the participants and the time you are working together, and you will take note and remember what is said. You are friendly and serious--but only quiet when you have nothing to add. Point of this is to walk into the room confidently and look at everyone and say a general hello. Pushing yourself to do this five second performance establishes your full social participation and lets no one imagine you are slipping in and hiding in the corner, so to speak.

I'd also wonder if the critical person somehow imagines you should be more verbal in support of that individual's own positions. There are people who think that not speaking out in their favor means that you are opposed to them or that there is something wrong with you! Or simply that your being quiet means they are free to bully you. If this person has some power over you, you'd need to ascertain the best way to respond; if they don't, you might seek a second opinion about changing your work style from a respected senior person, in view of your evaluations and effectiveness.
posted by Anitanola at 10:14 PM on May 16, 2012

You are my husband. I am (sorta) your co-worker.

We both, essentially, work in sales (think food/restaurants.)

We're both TOPS at what we do, but honestly, he's more popular than I am, even though I am the more extroverted of us.

No. Seriously. He's introverted to an exceptional degree (you have NO idea.) And yet, he's more popular and esteemed.

As an extrovert, I turn on as many people as I turn off. My husband turns on much more many people than he turns off because he is pleasant, yet reserved.

Keep being like my husband. That's why I married him!
posted by jbenben at 1:23 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ugh. During my two-year stint as a manager, the only ostensibly negative feedback I got from my boss was that I needed to "have more fun," which I gradually came to understand meant "be more social, because your quietness is stressing out the extroverts."

A big thing I started doing was intentionally making the kind of small talk that I generally hate, but that many extroverts thrive on. Examples:
* Every Monday, I'd ask the folks I worked most closely with: "How was your weekend?"
* I'd make a point of paying attention to what they said about their families, kids, activities, etc., and would every week or so try to ask about that.
* Before somebody took time off, I'd ask what they were doing. When they got back, I'd ask how it was.
* Every morning I'd have at least one thing from the previous day that I could talk about when asked what I did -- even if it was boring, like "I vacuumed" or "spent quality time with the cat." I'd try to have a more elaborate answer on Mondays, and to have something I could mention about my upcoming weekend on Fridays.

All of this felt very fake and contrived to me. I don't care about most of my colleagues' weekends, evenings, home lives or families. I don't really want to tell them about my own life. But it became clear that many people appreciated it when I went through these motions, and they often became less aware of and concerned about my introversion as a result.

This kind of behavior won't necessarily make it easier for you to speak about work-specific topics in meetings, but it sounds like your co-worker's bigger issue is that you're not much of a talker in general. Perhaps by focusing on social norms outside of meetings, you can lessen the degree to which your co-worker things about you as a social being inside of meetings.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:42 AM on May 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

As an extroverted manager of (a few) introverts, I'd suggest a different approach:

Just tell your boss/co-worker/client, "I do my best thinking when I have some time and space to really reflect carefully. I like to make sure I've thought things through before I speak."

Then, make a habit of contacting said person occasionally after a meeting - send an email or drop by and say 'I'm glad I was able to be at that meeting this morning, and after thinking about it more, I think John raised a really good point that we shouldn't ignore..." or whatever.

If a meeting leader puts you on the spot, or you're going around the table and it's your turn to chime in, just say, "I think this is an important issue - I'd really like to take a little more time to look over this material and think it through. Can I send you a comment this afternoon?"

People will listen carefully to what you say, because they know you've put thought into it. You will get a chance to contribute your (probably good) ideas in a way that is not uncomfortable or unnatural for you. You will give other introverts the courage to do the same. And if your boss/coworker/client is at all thoughtful, it won't be long before they'll be the one saying, "Great discussion, folks. If anyone has any additional thoughts that come up after you've had more time to think, be sure to let me know" - a better way to run things anyway!

Play to your strengths.
posted by Ausamor at 11:10 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your co-worker might just be insecure and becomes nervous when he doesn't know what you're thinking. He reams you because he doesn't want to admit that.
posted by flif at 1:43 PM on May 17, 2012

I will just add that I have been in the situation where a question was asked in a meeting and I feel the need to answer it because none of other people do and I feel like they would let the silence go on forever. And that does make me irritated at them, and wonder why they even bothered to join the meeting since it seems like they aren't even paying attention. But I've found that it doesn't really work to expect them to change... it works much better for me to just address them by name and ask them to speak up. So I kind of think this is on your coworker.
posted by smackfu at 5:48 AM on May 18, 2012

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