Being shy at work isn’t quite the same thing as being shy at a cocktail party. When you’re trying to get ahead in a business environment, there’s so much on the line–which makes overcoming your shyness all the more difficult. That’s especially true in group gatherings like meetings. But meetings don’t have to be an awful experience, even if you’re shy.
It helps to start by thinking of ways to make the meetings you run or attend a little more pleasant. You can start by arriving early and choosing a good seat. Try to think positively and be enthusiastic during the meeting, even if that’s hard at first. Make suggestions and offer solutions to problems instead of hanging back as an observer or, worse, only offering criticism.
Sitting in the back during meetings to avoid being called on might backfire and end up bringing more attention to you. So instead of hiding and hoping for the meeting to end quickly, get involved in the discussion or in preparing materials, like handouts and schedules, ahead of time. Playing a part in running the meeting can help you let down your defenses.
If you have to make a presentation, you might especially dread the discussion that comes afterward. Having to field questions and criticism can be pure agony for a shy person. Take a deep breath and keep some water handy. When the discussion starts, don’t compete with other group members. Listen to everyone, and take notes to show your interest in everyone’s ideas. But don’t let your shyness keep you from expressing your thoughts and feelings. Look for consensus, and try to agree on decisions as a group rather than making them unilaterally.
Being unprepared for this part of the meeting will only make you more anxious. You can prepare by writing down some questions you’re likely to hear and brainstorming a few possible answers to each. Be open to your audiences questions–in both your words and your body language. That can help make it a more pleasant experience, not just for you but for everyone.
Finally, it helps to remember that pretty much everyone gets nervous in these situations. Some just do a better job of projecting confidence. It just might take you a little more preparing on the front end to take the edge off.
When it feels like your shyness is having its way with you–or is bound to as soon as the meeting gets started–there are a few things you can do to take back control. Remember that it’s still possible to feel a bit panicked even if the source of your shyness isn’t immediately present. Sometimes stress just floats out there for a little while, trying to get your attention. This is called “ambient anxiety”–but you have more power over it than you might think.
Try these quick mental exercises whenever that anxiety starts to take hold of you, whether it’s before or even during the meeting. The first one involves getting your shyness out on the table. You can even grab a partner to talk through some of these issues verbally, but it works just as well doing it in your own head.
1. Think specifically about the worst-case scenario. Get all your feelings and fears right out in front of you so you know what you’re dealing with–including even the most ridiculous of them. Consider what you’d do in the worst-case scenario and how serious the consequences might realistically be.
2. Consider the absolute best-case scenario, and revel in all that it brings you. After all, the meeting could go really well! Take a moment to really soak in all the positive outcomes that could come of it.
3. Now get realistic. Think about what’s actually likely to happen. While you can’t be certain, it’s reasonable to expect that what will actually transpire will fall somewhere between the worst- and best-case scenarios you’ve just considered. And don’t forget the role you play in making things go well. The outcome of the meeting depends at least partly on how you respond.
If you can keep all that perspective, chances are you can keep your shyness in check.
This article is adapted from 100 Ways to Overcome Shyness: Go From Self-Conscious to Self-Confident (Career Press, 2015) by Dr. Barton Goldsmith, an award-winning psychotherapist, author, and former NPR radio host, and Marlena Hunter, MA, a psychologist with experience as a marriage and family therapist. It is reprinted with permission.