Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that “Hell is other people.” If we’re being brutally honest, sometimes it really seems like he was right, which sort of makes you wonder if old JP ever tried to run a business. Regardless of how much you love your clients or partner or colleagues, there will always be times when it feels like the biggest impediment to your work is the people you’re doing it with and for.
This is particularly true for the introverts among us, who would generally take a day of solid solitary work over the trials of trying to coordinate meetings and delegate tasks to people who just won’t understand what needs doing as well as they do. It’s not that introverts don’t appreciate help or hate interacting with anyone, ever, it’s just that the way our brains work means that it feels more natural to get on with things on our own rather than collaborate, which involves a lot of explaining and discussing. It’s a trait that is often misinterpreted as standoffishness by more extroverted types, but it’s really just a different way of working, which is no better or worse than any other. Some people are great team players, some are fantastic communicators, and some are just efficient solo workers. Everyone hath their strengths, as Shakespeare (probably) said.
But even the most committed recluse can’t avoid the human element of running a business forever. There will inevitably be times when you need to be personable and communicative, such as in meetings with new clients (and old ones, for that matter) or when – gasp! – networking. But I’m not here to condescendingly give advice on how to make normal human conversation, which I’m perfectly aware we’re capable of – what I’m offering are a few ways to make stepping out of your comfort zone less, well, uncomfortable.
1. Work with your natural rhythms
It’s a common misconception that introverts are perpetually asocial and prefer being on their own, which isn’t accurate at all. Introverts enjoy socialising as much as extroverts in many cases, it’s just that their energy for it comes in waves, and being around others for prolonged periods of time can wear them out. So the best thing you can do for yourself if you find lots of chatting de-energises you is to pay attention to those waves, and try to work with them rather than against them.
For example, if you find that you’re a much better conversationalist in the morning, then set that time aside to make calls and meet clients. Then when your patience for tongue-wagging starts to wane, you can retreat back to the office to get on with solo jobs. Likewise, if you wake up some days feeling confident and keen to bounce ideas off people, then do that! Take advantage of those tidal swells as and when they arrive so that when you inevitably wake up on other days feeling like you’d rather the whole world buzzed off, you can cloister yourself away without feeling guilty about it.
In an ideal world, we’d never have to do anything we weren’t 100% enthused about. Here in this reality, however, life throws lemons at us indiscriminately, and personally I can’t always be bothered making lemonade. But sometimes duty calls, and you can’t cancel a meeting or duck out of a networking opportunity just because you don’t feel like it.
In these moments I like to give myself a stern talking to, which inevitably turns into bargaining. You only have to stay for an hour, I might tell myself before a social engagement, If you stay for two, you can have chips on the way home. Setting out minimum requirements is a good way to motivate yourself without hiring a verbally abusive personal trainer-type figure to shout at you until you do unappealing tasks. And a low bar can always be raised, so if you tell yourself you only have to mingle and smooge for an hour it’ll be far easier to increase that to two, or three, when you’re there and doing it and you’ve realised it’s nowhere near as bad as you imagined. It’s the same principle as pushing yourself to run farther by giving yourself increasingly distant finish lines, only without the aching muscles and, if you play your cards right, a bag of chips on the way home.
3. Have something up your sleeve
If you, like me, sometimes suffer from ‘I have no idea what to say and now no one is saying anything and it’s awful’ syndrome, it can really help to have some silence-fillers in your back pocket.
The benefit of knowing you’re going to a networking event rather than your common or garden party is that you can prepare the heck out your business chat-up lines, as it were. Likewise, if you’re anxious about a one-on-one meeting it’ll be reassuring if you know you have questions ready to ask and info ready to give whenever there’s a dip in the conversation.
4. Have back-up
The single most helpful thing in any situation that calls for me to be friendly and charming is having someone with me who is naturally both of those things. There’s no shame in having a partner or friend go with you to events for support, and if it takes some of the pressure off then you’ll likely be much more relaxed and end up making a better impression than if you go it alone and spend the whole time in a nervous sweat and/or forcing yourself to be unnaturally verbose.
Of course, you can’t really take your SO to a pitch meeting or have them sit next to you on a video conference, but it could be appropriate to involve a colleague in those kinds of interactions. If you’re freelance you have fewer options, but maybe another industry contact that you’re close to could help you out, or a subcontractor on certain jobs. If it isn’t appropriate or possible to have the A-Team deployed, then just conducting meetings in a setting where you’re comfortable will help a lot.
5. Shorten it, sweeten it
Luckily for introverted types, there are certain benefits in business to not being the kind of person who could spend all day shooting the breeze. When it comes to setting up appointments and calls, limit them to just as long as you need for gathering or dispensing the necessary information, then get out of there! Something like Appointedd’s online booking system that lets you set the length of appointment slots is great for this, because it ensures that everyone knows where they stand from the get-go, and you have a ready-made escape route for if you find yourself in conversational treacle with someone who could talk the hind and front legs off a donkey. “I’m sorry to stop you there, but that’s our time up for this appointment,” is a polite and professional way to end a dawdling engagement (and it has the added benefit of making you look busy, even if you’re not.)
Being introverted or just shy can feel like a major obstacle when it comes to the running of your own business, but all it means is that you might do things in a slightly different way and that’s actually really great. From the inward perspective of an introvert it can seem like everyone else finds it easy as pie to do the things that you find hardest, but there are lots of like-minded people in the world who would love to do business with someone who understands them!
Published on 10 February 2016