Being a lifelong introvert and hater of social situations, you could say that I’ve been fairly unapproachable for most of my life. In person, that is. The online world – which changes everything for an introvert – wasn’t really around during my awkward childhood and teenage years.
As I grew up, moved into the working world, then got married and had children, my level of sociable-ness definitely feels like it’s grown. But I still have this perception that outsiders don’t really see me for who I am. Strangers, or even acquaintances who don’t know me very deeply, probably still see me as unapproachable. I feel like I make them uncomfortable. Like I make things awkward.
Learn and grow
One of the best parts of my job in an institution of higher learning is that we have a culture of development and professional growth. As part of this, we have access to many courses that can help with things we otherwise wouldn’t see as part of ‘professional development’.
I recently went through this short online course which gave me some really valuable tips to help proactively change the perception of others (and help me come out of my shell more).
I’m not saying I will implement all the techniques, but at least posting this online gives me some kind of reminder that will hopefully help me try a little harder.
I post some of my notes below for those of you who are in the same boat as me, and can benefit from the very simple yet logical techniques that don’t come naturally to people like us.
Body language and approachability
- Eye contact: Your eyes are the clearest tell about where your attention really is. Be aware of that, and don’t show you’re distracted. (This is universal advice, but it isn’t easy for those who have Asperger’s Syndrome or other issues. It’s also an issue in some cultures, where there’s a requirement of modesty between the sexes…so it’s not that straightforward.)
- Facial expression: Keep a relaxed and engaged listening face. But be careful – in your concentration – not to look like you have a scowl or angry face. Others can easily misjudge your emotions.
- Posture: This is very often subconscious, so deliberately be aware of it. Avoid a closed posture, instead opting for a more open one that shows people you’re open to their ideas and feelings.
Making yourself more easily approachable
- Adopt a host mentality: Especially important when you’re at an event where you don’t know many people and you’re uncomfortable. To break the cycle of feeling unapproachable, instead pretend you’re hosting the event. Focus on other people. Make them feel comfortable – e.g. seek out those who are alone or looking nervous. Go over to them and make them feel welcome. This makes you more endearing to people, and it also gets you past your initial nervousness.
- Approach others first (before they approach you): If you make the initial effort people will likely be grateful.
- Wear something unusual: It acts as a conversation starter, because people will ask you about it.
- Physically position yourself strategically: Be in a physical location where people are likely to be milling around while waiting for something – e.g. at the food table. They have time to kill and are more likely to talk to you.
Starting a conversation (small talk)
Have pre-planned conversation prompts. For example:
- “How did you end up at this event?”
- “How did you end up in this field?”
- “What are you working on right now that’s most exciting for you?”
- Something about the environment you’re in with them. For example:
- If you’re in another city, what have they seen so far? Recommendations on site-seeing?
- How they met the host of the event…or their favourite story / experience with the host.
Taking a conversation deeper
Small talk gets you started, but after that, you need to deepen the conversation to really connect with someone else.
- Venture beyond work-related talk: Ask about their family; hobbies; school / university; etc. Non work-related stuff. It shows you’re interested in the person.
- Look for genuine opportunities to compliment them, then engage on that topic: Be genuine about compliment. Then ask a probing question about it.
- When they share an idea, DON’T shut them down / criticise: Think before you speak. If you have to be negative about what they say, do so in a strategic way – so that you’re being constructive and helpful. Not just negative.