Q: I’m a naturally reserved person, and I struggle to make myself heard in meetings. I’m reluctant to speak up in the first place and don’t really challenge people when they interrupt me. What can I do to get credit for my ideas besides magically wake up an extrovert one day?
A: In a world of extroverts, the quiet genius and value introverts offer in the workplace can easily be drowned out by their outgoing, energetic, and talkative coworkers. Dominant workplace structures and professional ideals of modern companies do tend to accommodate and value extroverted sensibilities more than introverted ones—but that does not mean you have to change completely or that you don’t have important contributions to make. And you certainly are not alone in this situation.
It might seem like being an introvert is something that might hurt your career—it doesn’t have to. You do not need to change, but you can approach the situation with appropriate self-awareness. Acknowledging, in a light-hearted way—not self-deprecating—that you recognize your introversion might be in the minority among such strong personalities can serve as a reminder that there is real value in the listening skills, measured decision making, and thorough analysis many introverts bring to the table. Susan Cain’s popular TED Talk and book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, examine the prevalence and consequences of undervaluing introverts. She also offers advice on navigating introvert-extrovert relationships and how and when to be a “pretend extrovert,” so her work might be a great initial resource for you.
Introversion does not work in all environments, and you do have options to help establish your presence in the meetings that give you trouble. Volunteer to take the meeting minutes. This allows you a built-in opportunity to ask clarifying questions or expand on others’ thoughts. You can also develop certain pre-arranged signals with a supportive extrovert in the group who might recognize when you want to contribute and ask “Katharine, did you want to add something to that?” to help you break in more comfortably.
If you find yourself being interrupted frequently, you do need to find a way to correct that person’s bad behavior. When you are interrupted, a calming and genuine “Thank you for adding to my comment, John, but I wasn’t done explaining why the proposed plan should…” and then continue with your input. No one can fault you for saying thank you! And remember, listening is just as important as speaking, particularly as we move to more phone and streaming video meetings. Taking a breath to allow someone else to speak is vital to the success of meetings, and this is a strength you bring to the table.
This is also a great developmental opportunity to talk to your manager about. If you know you struggle with meetings, part of your preparation can be to develop skills to work in a group more effectively. Some of the issue is about your coworkers’ behavior, but some of it is about your behavior. Identify some key points you want to bring up in the meeting, work on taking advantage of natural pauses in the conversation or specific invitations to contribute, and prep your responses to interruptions in advance.
Most introverts are not likely to wake up one morning as an extrovert or feel perfectly comfortable breaking into a large group conversation, but once an introvert demonstrates the value of their genius, thoughtful comments, and polite patience, most groups will learn to enable the participation of their more quiet colleagues.