How Introverts Can Excel in Online Discussions

Dear Val,

I'm an introvert who has been working on my presentation and communication skills the last few months. I'm now comfortable talking with people in small group meetings, and I'm getting better at presenting to larger audiences, but I'm still struggling in one area.

When the conversation moves from in-person to online discussions, I have a hard time participating.

I find that I'm more hesitant to post or share anything online. I don’t like that I can't see my audience. I don't really know who or how many people have seen my post, and it's harder to get a sense as to how my words were received.

In-person discussions are much more comfortable for me, but my peers (personal and professional) seem to be using online discussion spaces more and more. I don’t want to miss out on discussions that are important to me. Plus, I know it will be increasingly important for my career.

I’m in my 20s, and I’m in a technology field, so there’s pressure to be good with the online world. I’m comfortable with technology—just not online discussions.

How might I become more comfortable participating in online discussions with my peers?

– Cautious in California

Dear Cautious,

Congratulations on the progress you’ve made with presentations and speaking in meetings! That’s great news that you’re finding your voice in those arenas.

That success tells me you are closer than you think to facing this next frontier—communicating with your audience when you can’t see it. That’s a challenging situation for most introverts!

Introvert Challenges for Online Discussions

For some introverts, interacting online has been a lifesaver for communicating more easily, especially because they have more time to think. At the same time, introverts are likely to dislike situations in which they can’t see their audience. And the pressure is intensified when you feel like your professional reputation is on the line.

In my coaching work and in studying introversion, I’ve discovered four communication factors that commonly increase the stress for introverts in a social situation:
  1. The less you can see or detect your audience’s responses, the more stress.
  2. The more people in the audience, the more stress.
  3. The less you know the people, the more stress.
  4. The more your professional reputation is involved, the more stress.
Given that, imagine the stress level for an introvert when presented with an online group discussion at work where all four stress factors are heightened!

It might sound like this in your head: “Who are they? And what are they thinking of me? And are they even listening? And do they get what I’m saying, and should I keep going? And what if they think I’m stupid or that I’m incapable of doing my job??!”

I believe introverts are prone to that line of thinking because we prefer interactions that feel purposeful. For us, there’s practically no point continuing if we don’t have signs that our message is seen as purposeful. So it can be aggravating if we can’t get some clear feedback. (We don’t tend to enjoy speaking for speaking’s sake.)

But if you can’t detect how the audience is responding, then what?

Just imagine how those worries can get multiplied when there are more people you are wondering about, and so many unknowns! It can escalate in our heads: “All those people will think I’m a freak, and my whole career will go down the drain!”

The larger the audience, the more impossible it is to incorporate the sheer volume of imagined needs within the audience. And bam!—the brain can get overwhelmed and just freeze up. I’m sure many readers can relate to that frozen feeling. I commend you for tackling such a challenging communication situation for introverts.

The good news is that introverts have some natural strengths for online discussions.

Your Introvert Strengths for Online Discussions

When you focus on your natural introvert strengths, you can not only manage online discussions well—you can even enjoy them. In fact, many introverts prefer online discussions to in-person ones. I enjoy them myself and have helped many people find their way to more ease with them too.

Let’s look at some features of online discussions that tend to make good use of our natural introvert strengths:
  1. You get to think before speaking. You can write what you want and when you want.
  2. No one can take up all the air time because there’s room for everyone. There’s no need to interrupt anyone. (We tend to hate interrupting, so this is a nice relief.)
  3. You get to write your thoughts instead of speaking off the cuff.
  4. You can choose to focus on meaningful connections with kindred spirits instead of light chatting. (See tips below for how to do this.)
  5. You can use your listening and keen observation skills to draw others into meaningful interactions.
  6. You can tune into the “likes” and comments to get the feedback you need. You can even ask for feedback directly by posting a question.
Doesn’t that sound more appealing when you look at it like that?

Tips to Make It Easier

Let’s get more concrete with how to get past that nervous stage.

I suspect that some of those same things you did to get comfortable with in-person speaking can be applied to this situation. For instance, I’m guessing you gradually stretched your comfort zone with bite-sized challenges until your nervousness lessened. That works here too.

A few things to try next:
  1. Start with smaller challenges such as interacting with only one or two friends online. When that’s easy, take on the next challenge. Gradually, the big challenges will get easier as you build up to them. Starting small is a very effective way to build strong skills.
  2. Get out of your head, and focus on listening and responding to others from your heart. Your confident voice will naturally emerge from there. Self-judgment disappears when you’re tuned into helping.
  3. When the stakes are high or you’re feeling paralyzed, show a draft to a trusted colleague before posting it.
  4. Even when you think it’s a bunch of judgmental strangers out there, stop, breathe, and picture a kindred spirit on the other end. Speak to that person. You might want to keep this quote handy:

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.” ---Bernard M. Baruch

What works for you when it comes to online discussions? Please share your thoughts below.

2015-02-04-Joni_Blecher_150x150.jpg

This article originally appeared on QuietRev.com.

You can find more insights from Quiet Revolution on work, life, and parenting as an introvert at QuietRev.com.

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1
You’re in an meeting or on a conference call full of important people — managers and clients. Everyone talks loudly, and a few key players dominate the conversation. You feel a bit stumped as to how to get a word in edgewise or how to make sure your ideas are heard.

Focus on your strengths as an introvert and arrive to the meeting early so you can engage in some rapport-building before everything gets started, Kahnweiler says.

“What you realize is that there’s a meeting before the meeting, and a meeting after the meeting. Whether you’re heard or not during a meeting is based on people knowing you. And the times before and after a meeting are the best times to create those deep relationships introverts are known for," she explains.

Kahnweiler also recommends speaking up within the first five minutes of a meeting. "Otherwise, you get very anxious if everyone’s already spoken," she says.

Being prepared is crucial, she argues: “People who are very effective work to leverage preparation and have agendas for the meeting, especially if it’s full of Type A personalities.”

When it comes to handling interruptions from your coworkers, Kahnweiler suggests putting your hand up, “like a talk show personality,” to indicate you’re not finished. Sounds a little silly, but imagine channeling Jon Stewart when he's facing down Bill O'Reilly. A simple gesture can have a lot of power, especially from an introvert who isn't inclined to speak too often.

“Introverts are also really respected because they don’t talk too much," Kahnweiler notes. "They don’t need to say a lot to really nail their point.”

In turn, Isenstadt recommends identifying exactly what you’re worried about during the meeting. “Are you afraid of stumbling over your words or saying the wrong thing?” Think back to past successes and remember that you are capable of interacting in these settings. Anxious people have the same social skills as people without anxiety — they just might have less confidence or experience. “Remember that you know the information well and can contribute,” she says. “To take some steps to feel more comfortable, try speaking in lower-pressure situations, like smaller groups, or talking to colleagues one-on-one.”
2
Your coworker has done something frustrating and disruptive to your workload, your work environment, or your relationship as a whole. You’re upset, but you don’t know what to do — or maybe your coworker is upset at you, and you’re sorry, but you feel nervous about trying to move forward. How do you defuse an uncomfortable situation with someone you have to see every day?

“First, you should remember that conflict is normal and necessary,” says Kahnweiler. “If you’re not having conflict, you’re not talking about what’s real. It’s a question of understanding what your and the other person’s preferences are. Introverts need time to digest information and are better at writing, while extroverts have to talk out their thoughts and differences.” It’s best to think about what your ultimate goal is in order to solve the conflict. Also, having a discussion will prevent either of you from spending way too much energy on the conflict.

“If you’re in a tense situation, I recommend taking time to talk with that colleague, and coming to that conversation with an idea that there are multiple views on any situation,” says Isenstadt. “Be direct: 'Here’s my perspective; what’s yours?' They’ll appreciate that — it’s better than trying to avoid it.”

It won't be easy, but it will be worthwhile. It's also worth remembering that introverts excel at conflict resolution. While that initial conversation might be difficult, focus on your strengths — considering other people's feelings, developing new ideas, seeking solutions — and use those to your advantage.
3
You’ve been invited to an event (it could be work-related, a networking opportunity, or even a friend’s party), but you hardly know anyone there. How do you manage the daunting task of talking to random strangers?

“Again, I think for introverts, pulling out their preparation is the key,” says Kahnweiler. She recommends having a list of topics to discuss, whether you're sharing info (a new app you like) or asking for advice (where to go on a trip). It might seem odd to prep for such mundane conversations, but it can be super helpful. "When you have some talking points, you can just start up a conversation, so you’re not just talking about the weather,” she explains.

Kahnweiler recommends doing research beforehand if it’s a work or business event. “It’s an effort that pays off. If you think, why [am I] going to this event?...you’ll have a goal in mind and a specific lens on.”

“You might think, I’ll say something stupid, or I don’t know what to say, but again, it’s about challenging yourself with evidence," says Isenstadt. "There’s likely a reason that you’re here; you have the means or information to be here, and other people are probably feeling the same thing.”

The worst outcome, she implores us to remember, is someone walks away when you talk to him or her. “Practice the scenario in your daily life so you feel more comfortable. Try speaking briefly to people on the bus or train, or even a cashier or a senior colleague. These are people who might give you a bit of anxiety to talk to, but speaking to them will help you feel more prepared for going to networking events.”

Isenstadt also emphasizes creating space for helpful thoughts — and that anticipation is often more anxiety-inducing than the actual actions. “It’s helpful for our clients to think, I just have to say hello.” That initial part is the challenging moment, but you just need to introduce yourself.
4
You want to speak to your boss to ask for a raise, or special training, or even to help with a conflict or complaint. Depending on your relationship with your manager, it can be difficult to have these high-stakes conversations.

Think of your request from your boss’s perspective, Kahnweiler says. “This takes homework. When you’re asking for a raise, frame it as a statement of what you’ve done and how you’re going to build on that, and support your boss and their goals.” She recommends thinking about numbers you can bring in, since bosses love results.

“Showing how you’re going to get your results demonstrates that you’re not just thinking about yourself, but about the whole organization. Like, ‘You investing in me learning this language makes sense for our company becoming more global.’” Kahnweiler also recommends prepping your manager with an email before the meeting and following up with a summary email.

Meanwhile, Isenstadt says to focus again on helpful thoughts to challenge more anxious ones. “If you’re afraid of stumbling or stuttering, remember: You’ve done that before in front of your boss, and you can cope. If you’re fearful of them saying no, think more about why what you’re offering is so compelling.”

She also recommends practicing these discussions in low-pressure situations (like asking for help in a store) before interacting with your boss. Having successes in everyday situations that are a little uncomfortable or awkward can help you prepare for the tougher ones. “It’s common to feel anxious in these situations," Isenstadt adds, "but you must remember that you have the social skills to do this.”