This week, we´ve been learning about how to overcome shyness in the workplace. Here are some more insights from Ilise Benun, author of Stop Pushing Me Around! A Workplace Guide for the timid, Shy, and Less Assertive (Career Press).
Q: What´s so great about small talk? Is there really something interesting about the weather and where someone was born?
Small talk is the starting point of all relationships. Think of it as a dance you do with someone new to find common ground, a way to ease into a conversation. Through small talk you decide whether "big talk" is appropriate.
But small talk doesn’t have to be about the weather or other trivialities. Small talk can be about important stuff too. For example, lately, I’ve been asking everyone I meet if they’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth. Most people haven’t yet, so I tell them how much I was moved by the film to try to do even a little tiny something about global warming, like telling a few people (or a few thousand people) to go see the movie.
And don’t forget that talking about something that’s important to you reveals something about you, even though you’ve said nothing about yourself.
Q: Very often people who are more assertive are better at dealing with difficult colleagues and clients. Where does that put the more timid employee?
That puts the timid employee in a very passive position. At worst, the timid becomes the target of bullies for exactly that reason: they don´t stand up and say, "You can´t say that to me." At best, the timid is forced to take whatever jobs or projects come along because they don´t ask for what they want or make clear their preferences and strengths. Underneath all that passivity, a resentment may begin to build and people are often surprised when a shy person finally explodes in rage, but that is often what happens.
Q: Can effective body language really contribute to someone´s success? And on the flip side, how does poor or inappropriate body language put someone at a disadvantage? Are people really that perceptive?
It´s not necessarily that people are perceptive but body language is communicated almost unconsciously. For example, if you sit with your arms crossed during an interview, the interviewer may not quite remember that behavior, but he or she will remember feeling you were closed and unresponsive. They probably won´t even know why they feel that way.
Perception is almost everything in business, which is why it´s important to project the best possible image at all times. The quieter you are, the louder your body language. Something as simple as how you sit or stand, or where your eyes land during a conversation with a client or boss, can have a profound effect on how people perceive you and respond to you.
Your actions are open to all sorts of interpretation and misinterpretation. When you arrive at an event and sit in the corner, you know it´s because you´re nervous; but it may be perceived by others as disinterest or, worse, as arrogance. Body language is subject to much interpretation, but less so if you consciously coordinate it with the verbal message you are trying to convey. Once you are aware of any expressions you may make or gestures you do subconsciously, it will be easier to avoid them.
For example, when you approach a speaker at a conference but avert your eyes and turn your body away, what message is conveyed? Certainly a mixed message and he is more likely to "hear" the non-verbal one more clearly. Using assertive body language to convey the same message no matter how "shy" you feel at any given moment would look like this: you stride confidently toward him with your hand extended, look directly into his eyes, making sure your body is facing him directly. Then you make your statement clearly and concisely. When you stop talking, you simply hold still and listen to the response.
Q: Many of us are put off by the scary cold call. What advice can you offer people so that initiating communication isn´t such an intimidating experience?
Even the most assertive people are terrified of a cold call, which is simply calling a stranger to introduce yourself and your services. It´s actually a very simple action but most people turn it into a huge ordeal. They imagine dramatic, hostile rejection, such as, "Why the heck are you calling me? Don´t ever call me again!" followed by the sound of a hang up in the ear.
This is extremely rare. Mostly what happens is nothing. You get voice mail and no one calls back. That´s the rejection everyone is avoiding and even expecting. In fact, they are actually surprised when people express interest in their work.