(photo by Zela)
Last night I went to a graduation dinner for iPEC, the institutue for Professional Empowerment Coaching. Approximately 20 of us had been part of an intense program of advanced coaching studies for the past 6 months. There was much laughing, hugging and even a little crying. We warmly congratulated each other on our success, affectionately kidded each other on past mistakes, and proudly encouraged each other on future opportunities.
As we chatted during the evening, some people expressed surprise that I had been writing articles on networking for shy entrepreneurs. They commented that I did not “seem shy”. This got me thinking about some of the common misconceptions about shyness that can lead to misunderstandings and lost opportunities.
While it’s true that some people are pervasively shy, feeling awkward and self-conscious in almost every interaction, most people fall somewhere short of this extreme. For many people, shyness is based on their comfort with a situation, a role, and the people around them. The more comfortable they feel – the less shy they act. Over time, the unfamiliarity fades and the shyness becomes less apparent or even disappears. This was the situation between my classmates and me. Apparently some of them had forgotten how quiet I had been in the early classes and were only looking at the talkative person I had become.
Shyness is a protective device. We are protecting ourselves from the danger of the unknown. Situational Shyness can be triggered by meeting new people, having a new job, and taking on a new role. This is why people can be outgoing with friends but shy with strangers. It is also why some people can be confident presenting in front of a group of strangers but tongue-tied making small-talk to a circle of acquaintances.
While this behavior can seem clear and consistent to the shy person, it can seem confusing and inconsistent to the people around her. Instead of assuming that the quietness is based on shyness – they may assume it is rudeness, coldness or a deliberate snub. Their reasoning is that if they’ve seen that person act friendly in the past, they don’t believe that they can be feeling shy now.
The outcome then can be misunderstandings and lost opportunities for friendships and partnership.
So what is the aspiring entrepreneur with situational shyness to do?
By changing the way you talk to yourself and to others, you can give yourself the time you need to regain your self-confidence and eliminate your need for self-protection.
When you find yourself in a situation that brings out your shyness, such as a networking event, reduce your need for self-protection by changing the way you talk to yourself:
- “Most people are feeling uncomfortable”
- “Everyone says something wrong sometimes”
- “Mistakes are not fatal”
- “No one else is paying as much attention to my behavior as I am”
And when you talk to others, change the way you explain your behavior.
Don’t label yourself as shy, instead identify the situation as one that triggers shyness in you.
If you say “I’m just shy” in response to their questions about why you are quiet, and they have seen you acting self-confident before, you will only get an argument because you don’t fit their idea of shyness.
“No – you’re not shy! I’ve seen you giving presentations!”
“You can’t be shy! You have a great sense of humor!”
Instead, say “This situation makes me feel shy” or “I get tongue-tied in front of new people.” They can’t argue with that and it will increase their awareness of the way shyness can come and go. It may help them realize that your behavior doesn’t mean you are unfriendly or rude or lack anything intelligent to say – it just means you need a little more time to regain your self-confidence and sense of self.
Many people avoid networking events because they are one of the top situations that trigger our shyness. Instead of avoiding the events altogether, give yourself some time to adjust, and some freedom to be yourself.
Instead of attending a different networking event every week, find one you want to attend and go consistently and regularly. Over time, the situation will become more familiar and less threatening and your need for the protection of shyness will fade. Once you feel comfortable in one networking organization, the next one will seem less intimidating, and the one after that even less so, and so on, and so on.
I was fortunate that the iPEC classes were spread over a period of months so that I had time to become more comfortable in the situation. You can create the same kind of fortune in your networking by building in the time you need to let go of your shyness and share your best self.