how can I become more comfortable in work social situations?

A reader writes:

My manager knows that I want to become a manager myself at some point, and is working on mentoring me in the skills I’ll need. One piece of feedback he’s given me is that I need to become more comfortable in semi-social situations (networking lunches or event dinners, and the like).

I’m not a terribly social person by nature, so I tend to feel a bit shy and out-of-place in situations like that. I’ve decided the career I want is worth it, but do you have any advice for a fellow introvert who needs to learn to be more social?

You can read my answer to this question over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today.

Plus, three other careers experts are answering this question there today too. Head over there for all four answers…

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. Marigold

    Conversation topic lists. These have saved me on dates, at parties with unfamiliar people, work things, first-time meetup groups, etc. Before the event, come up with a mental list of conversation topics, depending on the context and audience.

    Any summer vacation plans?
    What let you to [job/industry]?
    So what did you think about [recent conference talk]?
    How long have you lived in [town]?
    Have you heard about [recent industry-related news]?
    What did you get in your Easter basket this year? (One of my friends actually put this on her list and ASKED IT on a date. It was hilarious.)

    Then really listen to the response and let that guide your follow-up questions and contributions. Most people love talking about themselves, so once you can get the ball rolling, you won’t have to do much work.

    I actually got commended once for being such a good conversationalist, which completely took me by surprise because I HATE talking to people I don’t know well. (And to some people I do know well.) If you are aware of a weakness it can become a strength.

    1. Cat

      I totally do conversation topic lists too. Also, I don’t ask people if they have kids, pets, etc. because I feel like those types of questions come off as a little intrusive (if they want you to know they’ll tell you); but if they bring up kids, grandkids, or pets, I am all over that and it usually keeps the conversation going for quite a while.

      It also never hurts to be up on hot pop culture topics. I can’t deal with sports, unfortunately – even a cursory mention makes my eyes glaze over – but I am conversant enough in celebrity gossip and hot entertainment topics to get through at least a few conversations that would otherwise be difficult.

    2. PPK

      Yes! Ask people questions and then ask follow up questions. I’m an introvert and this is the secret that I’ve learned. You don’t have to ramble on about yourself, get someone else to do it. They don’t have to be deep or super personal questions, but ask them about their job, then ask about something about their specific job.

      Other things for general conversations: Movies, TV shows, new places in town (“Hey, anyone eat at the new place on Main St yet?), asking for advice on something (home improvement, places to visit in town or another town, etc).

    3. rlm

      This is a great list of sample topics! Asking pointed questions like these is also much better than asking more vague questions such as “so what have you been working on?” or “how have you been?” – especially if you are asking a fellow introvert :)

    4. Anonymous

      Practice helps.

      Recently I was with friends, passing by a HUGE line of girls. Some had moms with them. We’re talking about a thousand kids. We wanted to know what they were waiting for. I said I’d ask. My friends were shocked at the idea (we’re all introverts). I picked out a group of girls with a mom attached, walked up, smiled at mom, then asked the girls what they were going to see. They gave me the two-word teenager answer (it was some Korean boy band), so I kept asking them follow-on questions, like what was the name of the last song?, etc. I got teenagers talking to me. Anyway, I just considered it practice with some kids I’ll never see again, and that was a tough group too.

      Just get out there and fake it. They’ll never know, and you’ll never know what you can accomplish.

      1. tcookson

        One of my friends has NO problem talking to anyone, ever . . . unlike me. So one day she noticed that the police had a checkpoint set up on the side of the road, and she made her husband PULL OVER so that she could lean out the passenger-side window and ask the officers what they were doing, was somebody famous passing through, etc. The officer chatted with her for awhile, and thought she was just hilarious.

        1. Jessa

          I envy her being able to do this and not end up being in trouble about it. It takes skill to it being effortless and fun and not OMG the cops are going to so be ticked at being bothered by someone.

      2. Leslie Yep

        Yes–totally this! I am a complete mess, socially speaking: I’m an introvert AND shy AND kind of misanthropic AND awkward with idiosyncratic interests AND process best by reading/writing and worst by hearing/talking.

        I got better at small talk by practicing. Constantly. Making small talk when I call customer service, when I am waiting in line for my bagel, with the check out person at the grocery store, before meetings at work, etc. I just challenged myself to TALK. One of the biggest blocks for me was just getting comfortable asking kind of pointless questions. I would prefer to start every conversation with “what do you care most about and why” but that freaks most people out, so you gotta start with “What did you do this weekend? Oh, really, I’ve never been to _____, would you recommend it…”

        1. Anonymous

          Exactly, Leslie. Any practice helps. I love the Toastmaster challenge called the “Elevator Pitch”. Basically, you get about 10 seconds, the length of a pretty long elevator ride, to connect with someone and make a pitch. That’s pretty much what I pulled on the teens, and you’re right I do it at Starbucks, and whereever. Couple of weeks ago I was at SB and a girl with my first name was called with her drink. It’s a really really unusual name. I introduced myself — she was initially shocked at a total stranger talking to her, but she and her boyfriend ended up talking to me for about 15 minutes. Any little “in” can get the convo started. If you show interest in what the other person is saying, it’s very flattering to them. People like to be flattered. It’s just that simple, but like anything simple, it’s only simple if you practice.

          1. Jazzy Red

            “…10 seconds, the length of a pretty long elevator ride…”

            This makes me laugh. I work for an architectural & engineering firm, and we built our own office building. It’s 4 stories high and the elevator is the slowest one I’ve ever been on. It’s faster to walk up/down 3 flights of stairs, even if the elevator is at your floor, waiting. 10 seconds? That’s 3rd floor to 4th floor (he he).

  2. Anonymous

    Great article! I like the advice on practicing your skills. I would suggest joining a formal social group and taking on a leadership role. It’s a great way to practice social and leadership skills, and make valuable contacts for the future. I do Toastmasters, but I have a very introvert friend who joined his father’s Elks club. Professional organizations can be helpful too depending on your career path. In the meantime, fake it. Everyone else is!

    1. Anonymous

      I’m going to out myself as the giant nerd I am.

      You can do this in non physical spaces too. I lead a group in a online video game and between recruiting new people, rejecting people, making casual conversation with people I only have one thing in common with, coordinating 10, 25, or 40 people (if you know what this means you’re a nerd too!) with different jobs and giving everyone directions at the same time but keeping everyone happy. I’ve learned a lot about how to lead, how to flex social muscles in a way that is comfortable for me, and gotten a ton of practice in a situation that if I fail in a giant horrible way (which I haven’t so far) won’t cost me my job or my house. Those successes lead to me being more confident in what I do in meat space.

      1. Miranda Jane

        See, I find that I can easily lead large social groups online and, indeed, co-ordinate groups of 10 or 25 people (I’m not as old-school as you!) and it’s really helped me with my management and organisational skills, to the point where everywhere that I’ve worked comments on how maturely I handle work in general, but I’ve found that it’s not done much for my social skills IRL; I can be a social genius online but offline still have no idea what to say to start or continue a conversation unless I’m in a work environment, since I’m used to situations where literally everybody has a set role to play, we all know the rules and most of the conversation is, ahem, work-related. Which means I’m really good in meetings, but on the occasion that I can force myself to go to a work social situation, everyone’s really confused because I’m sitting in a corner trying not to be noticed.

        1. Anonymous

          You can laugh at this, but you can get really good practice in having random…casual conversations in Trade. Hear me out! You will deal with every possible bad situation (in 10 minutes or less, delivered right to your screen). Finding ways to draw people out, get them to do all the talking. And for me the hardest part of that is how do I butt into a conversation. Well in Trade you eavesdrop just like you might in a physical space and then you can say, hey, I heard you were looking for a solution to this problem, what is happening exactly. Oh they are happy to say so and then I don’t have to talk. I’ve also found that walking up to the other person in the corner to have a conversation with them is a good start. (Aka talking to the person in trade who has one question that no one will answer.)
          (And yes this is the only thing Trade is ever good for.)

            1. Miranda Jane

              Thanks for the Trade tip – I do quite a bit of hanging around there so will bear in mind that it’s RL practice too!

              This is World of Warcraft, other Anon.

              1. Anonymous

                Ah. No wonder I did not know…computer games have always bored me. Would much rather play with responsive CSS or something fun (for me).

                Unless you can practice eye contact, handshakes, and body language with your own body in WOW then I think it might count at only 50%. That other stuff is about 90% of any conversation. (says the introvert who’s goal is to design websites so perfect that neither clients nor users ever call me. I love my users I just don’t want to talk to them.)

      2. Jen in RO

        Seeing great raid leaders made me understand I’m not cut out for management… in game or out of it. I had to raid lead for 2 weeks and I was dreading to log in, because I felt responsible for each failure and I was convinced everyone could tell I had no clue what I was doing. I wish I could give an actual professional recommendation to my last RL – herding 24 cats at age 21, never losing your calm through 3 months of Raggy wipes, having to deal with all the crap… I’m very sure this guy could make a great manager one day.

        1. Anonymous

          I run in an older guild (our median age is something like 35?) and nearly everyone we have as an RL is now or has been at some point in their career a manager. And last time we had someone talking about getting a new job as a manager but wasn’t sure he’d like it. I offered to let him lead the raid for a month. He decided not to take the job.
          It really can be a good analog for real life sometimes.

  3. E.R

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I am an introvert who works in sales, so I am constantly working to become comfortable in social situations, and I have many an awkward moment. What is comes down to for me is, be nice to everyone (easy), ask people questions about themselves and be interested, and laugh off any social mistakes (if it’s serious, and you offend somebody, apologize profusely)

    I also echo Alison’s advice to just show up. I offer myself for networking events, after-work drinks, non-essential meetings, and I freak out about each one and then just do them.

  4. Marina

    The only thing that works for me is giving myself a “job”. Once I get into a conversation I’m fine, I enjoy asking other people questions about themselves because it means I don’t have to talk, but approaching people and starting the conversation is tough for me. It’s a LOT easier if I have something really specific I’m trying to accomplish. “Talk to three new people” isn’t specific enough, it has to be something like “Find out a specific piece of information about this group/field/department/job” or “get three people to sign up for this upcoming thing”. I just joined the board of a local professional organization, at least partially so that at networking events I will have jobs like “welcome new members” and “get people to sign in”.

    1. Jazzy Red

      Joining a professional organization helped me immensely. I met the chapter members one or two at a time, at the monthly meetings, which was do-able for me. The first time I had to get up in front of the group to give a report, my knees were shaking and my mouth was dry, and I looked up and saw — my friends! It just got easier and easier after that. Meeting new people, giving talks to business people and classes, all of this became kind of fun. I still need to recharge after these events/encounters, but hey – I can do them!

  5. OmarF

    Something I’ve learned is to answer the other person’s questions in one or two sentences (this is key, no more than three sentences), and then ask it back. Whatever they ask you is fair game for you to ask them. Many times, their response will lead you to further conversation.

  6. OP

    Wow, four responses for the price of one! Thanks for answering, Alison and company! The advice about taking time to decompress after an event is definitely something that rings true for me; even after hanging out with close friends, I usually need some alone time.

    As it happens, I have gotten out and attended a couple of events now. Something that really helped me to get started (despite barely sleeping the night before from nervousness!) was that at my first event, they had all the first-timers put stickers on their badges to indicate they were new. One of the other professional women there–extremely polished, poised, and the sort of person I’d want to emulate, took a moment to assure me that it was all right if I felt nervous, since everyone else was.

    My main concern had been that in my particular field, as you progress in rank, you tend to need to attend more and more of these events, as a way to meet and build relationships with vendors, as well as get sales leads. But, as several of the responders pointed out, it’s only one part, and no manager is perfect at every area.

    Thanks for the responses!

    1. Jazzy Red

      One of these days, you’ll be reassuring the “new kid” that everyone is nervous at first. How good will that feel?

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