Nobody loves meetings. But they can be especially taxing for people who crave a quieter setting for brainstorming or thinking through issues, or who struggle to have their voices heard in a room full of loud-talkers. How can these folks make sure their ideas are well-represented in team meetings? For some practical advice, we turned to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and co-founder of The Quiet Leadership Institute, which helps companies unlock the power of the introverted half of the workforce. An edited version of our conversation follows:
HBR: Introverts tend to listen — and think — more than they speak. How can they avoid coming across as disengaged or even apathetic during a meeting, when they’re actually very deeply in thought?
Cain: One thing I often tell introverts is to do a lot of prep work before a meeting begins, whether or not you’ve been formally asked to do so, because it’s probably what you need to personally do. Preparing your thoughts ahead of time can also help give you a push to be one of the first people to speak up, which is probably not your normal style. In general, it’s best to advance your ideas early. On a psychological level, it helps you feel a part of the meeting earlier, and people will often in turn direct their comments to you, whereas if you wait awhile to speak, the opposite usually happens.
When a meeting is fast-paced and intense, how do you insert yourself into the conversation?
Many introverts aren’t comfortable thinking on their feet, and really want to process their thoughts before articulating them. That’s why it’s important to do your prep work in advance of the meeting. Then, let go of the idea that your thoughts have to be well-formulated in order to be articulated. Notice how half-baked people’s ideas usually are when they advance them, and that no one minds. Half-baked ideas often have a lot of value. That alone can give you the freedom to speak up. The trick then is to speak at a decibel level a little higher than the people around you, which is a way of unconsciously signaling that you’re entering the conversation — you’re not shouting or anything; it’s very subtle. Being able to make off-the-cuff, unprepared remarks is a muscle that you can develop over time, so it’s worth practicing.
When you don’t have an immediate snappy response to meeting banter, how do you buy yourself time to think things through?
You can just say so. Really. Just say: “I really want to think that through.” If you think you’re going to have the answer momentarily, then you just ask for that amount of time: “Why don’t you come back to me, I want to think that through.” Or, if you think you won’t have the answer until later, just say: “Can we table that idea? It’s something I want to think through more deeply.” These requests are not that big a deal if you feel internally entitled to take that extra time, knowing that taking the extra time benefits everyone. If you say it in a forthright, graceful way, people will be fine with it.
Presenting in front of a large group can be particularly challenging. What strategies have you personally used?
I knew that the success of my book, and the ideas I cared so much about, would depend on my ability to publicly present those ideas. So before my book came out, I needed to overcome my fear of public speaking. I enrolled in Toastmasters to practice presenting in a small, supportive space. If you have something that you’re afraid of or uncomfortable with, you should expose yourself to it in small, manageable doses to extinguish the fear and gain comfort over time. There’s no way around a fear except through it. But the answer is not to begin by putting yourself in very high stakes situations and forcing yourself to perform. Start smaller-scale, and little by little you build those muscles and become better at it.
Try to expose yourself to small speaking experiences where, on a scale of 1-10, your anxiety level would be in the 4-7 range, so you’re stretching yourself, but not too much all at once. You can keep upping the ante of the stakes as time moves on. It’s useful to have a formal place you go regularly, like Toastmasters. Or some cities have other venues, such as the Public Speaking Center of New York. For people with public speaking anxiety, these classes can be tremendously effective.
Some people have involuntary physical reactions when presenting or speaking up in meetings, such as blushing, or getting blotchy hives. What do you do when people can literally see your discomfort?
In a worst case scenario, if that happens, remember that at the end of the day, people are more interested in the ideas that you’re presenting. While there are some cases where you need to be a flawless presenter, in most cases, what matters most is that you have something to say and that you believe in what you have to say. So, if you can’t help yourself from getting blotchy, I would say let it go and focus more on the message. But, since I understand that that’s easier said than done, there are two ways to prevent it. In the short term, try breathing exercises before you need to speak to calm yourself down. The longer-term solution is practice — the more comfortable you get, the less likely your body will react to the stress of the situation. And the less stressful you eventually find it, the less likely it will be to happen in the future.
How can managers change the structure or format of meetings to get more from the introverts on their teams?
This is work we do a lot at The Quiet Leadership Institute. When we work with companies to help them with this very question, we often advise having fewer meetings, for starters. You should know as a manager that you’re very likely not getting the best of an introvert’s brain if you’re asking them a question in an all-hands meeting. You’ll get a better set of responses and ideas by approaching things differently. It helps people to know in advance what you want to talk about, but agendas tend to be distributed at the last minute. When people are really expected to think about and prepare for a meeting, it can go a long way to give them more time for reflection. You also want to be mindful of who’s doing all the talking in a meeting, and who isn’t. Try to shape the dynamics. Make the floor more readily available for the more reticent people — which sometimes means calling on them. Believe it or not, people very often welcome being called on, because they get the floor when they wouldn’t feel comfortable taking it for themselves.
A Product Manager with expertise in pharma marketing and sales operations