In a friend of mine’s house there is a sign that says, “Sorry I slapped you. I thought you’d never stop talking and I panicked.” It is displayed with pride in a spot that you would walk by many times if you lived in, or visited, their house. The sign was a gift to her because she quiet literally, never stops talking. She talks to any person on God’s green Earth and about any topic you could possibly dream up. We all know this to be a fun quirk about her and love her both because of, and sometimes in spite of it.
This is a complete 180 from how I operate. I am petrified of speaking to people. I dread going places where I won’t know people and will have to network or make new friends. I would still rather my husband never leave my side at most family and social gatherings. Keep in mind we have been together since very early 2011, meaning I have known all of these people for the better part of a decade.
At work this is mostly the same story. If I have to walk to another person’s desk that I don’t already have a very close relationship with, for example maybe I’ve only been working with them for a year or two, I will try to think of small talk to cover as pleasantries when I walk up. Or I might get to a meeting or a gathering right before the start time to avoid having to chit chat with people. If I do chit chat, I very often make jokes, most of which are making fun of myself in some way. I am much more prone to make a joke about areas I’m lacking in than I am to share anything that truly matters personally. I one time had a wonderful boss who knew about this anxiety and was supposed to ride in a car with me for three straight hours. We started the trip by her saying, “I know you hate this. We’ll just sit quietly til we get there.” Bless her heart. I have been in some situations, with people who don’t know that three hours of silence is the optimal way of being, where someone starts asking me questions that are personal (not weird personal, more like, “what is your favorite music”) and I will start stammering and maybe even sweating, super cute combo right? I know what you’re thinking, She should seek help. How has she ever progressed in her career if she can’t talk about very basic things?
This all changes when I have a role to play. If I know what people are looking to me for I am fine. I will have all kinds of things to say as the manager, the project lead, the committee member, etc. It isn’t that I am faking anything it is just knowing which hat I’m wearing and something about knowing that gives me more confidence. In that instance I can talk to anyone on any topic further than that, I can talk to any size group. I will typically have the same level of nerves for talking to a group of 10, 50, or 1000+ but put me in a room with a single person who sincerely asks “how are you?” and I’m liable to break into tears.
This ability to speak on any topic to anyone can go too far though.
What is the status of this project that I’m not even a part of? Let me tell you.
What is the best strategy for change management in this unit that has nothing to do with me? Let me tell you.
How should we align work with each level of employee? You say it will impact a large number of employee’s whos work I’ve never done, don’t manage, and don’t fully understand? Well, let me tell you!
In these moments, that sign at my friends house would do well in my office.
Then I proceed to outline everything as I see it. I do try to leave space for others and I always note that there could certainly be different or better ways of handling and that we should defer to the experts. I want people to jump in and tell me where I’m wrong, where we can do better, where I’m missing a pain point. I am not responding to these things to marginalize those actually doing the work I want to provide a jumping off point that we can either build on or tear down and build in a new way when we have more information.
On one particular project this got me into trouble. I didn’t realize at the time that anyone cared what I thought. I was truly just throwing out ideas and thought we were in more of a brain storming session. I came with a draft proposal of a document, which had been sent to them prior to the meeting for review. I was ready to discuss any and all of the changes that they wanted. Come to find out, after a long and uncomfortable meeting, that all 10 other people sitting in there (who all “ranked” higher than me) thought that I was bullying them into something they didn’t get a say in. In my mind, the entire meeting was being held to allow them a formal opportunity to give their say. I am still flabbergasted that 10 adult people can be bullied by one. This entire project was a hotbed of leadership do’s and don’ts but this instance was pivotal for me in understanding the impacts of speaking first. Walking out of that meeting I realized a lot of things: I could have phrased my comments differently to be less direct. I could have sent it to them without formatting so it looked less “done”. I could have talked to a few of the key influencers in that group about it before the meeting to get more aligned. I could have done a lot of things that I didn’t. Could they have handled differently? Could their manager have handled differently? Absolutely, however I can’t do anything about their behavior so I need to focus on mine. (Don’t you hate it when your mom’s rules apply to the real world?)
Things I’m reminding myself of
Don’t assume everyone wants to know what you have to say and have the wisdom to know when they do. You do this by listening more, for two reasons. First, its really hard to pick up on the queues from people when you’re either talking or thinking about what you’re going to say. Second, it gives them a chance to miss you. If you’re like me, they already know you have an opinion and they just might be intrigued if you restrain and develop it a bit more. Keep in mind yourself, and remind others, that we can edit a bad page but not a blank one. Someone has to throw out the first idea and build off of it or tear it apart. It just doesn’t always have to be you.
Find someone who will slap you. You need to have a partner with whom you have mutual respect, who can pull you back or give you the tough feedback. The people who are not afraid to tell you your weaknesses and constructively build you in those areas are critical. They are your lifeline, especially if you’re in a formal leadership role. People don’t want to tell you where you fell down and often seem to think you did it on purpose. I legitimately have one co-worker who will give me eyes in a meeting when she thinks I should shut up. I’m getting to the point that I even sometimes listen! (It’s a journey people.)
Experience isn’t the best teacher, reflection is. This one is John Maxwell. From that one particular meeting I have made some changes for groups I lead (both that I directly manage and that I lead indirectly). First, I tell them up front that I have a lot of ideas. I am articulating the ideas so that other people can help me see the holes. I explain that most of what I will say is up for discussion or debate and if it isn’t I will be clear about that. (I still encourage questions in those situations but some things are already set in stone when they are communicated.) Then, I do work with the influencers in the group. I circle back and ask what they thought and then ask more clear questions; could we have explained x better, I think I lost them at y point, etcetera. The pointed questions are key because if you only ask “What did you think of that meeting?” people will tell you what they think you want to hear, see the above paragraph. These questions let them know that A. I’m working on it and B. they can help me be better for them and C. I can clarify with them the key points so they can really drive it home.
Finally, you were right, I do need help with my anxiety. I would bet there are a couple readers who do as well. So for me, I am self diagnosed so I am self treating, obviously. I do this through what I consider emersion therapy (it’s a real thing I promise). I intentionally put myself in positions that hurt, where I have to talk. I sit down and say hi to people I have known for years but never felt comfortable with and force myself to share. I am working up to walking up to people I’ve never met but that’s a pretty big step so lets not get too crazy all at once. To be honest, the stammering and sweating is an improvement. (I repeat, it’s a journey.)