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7 Ways for Introverts to Start New Relationships at Work

You know starting new relationships at work is vital to career success, and you like having people you can rely on in your professional life.

So, what’s the problem? When you’re an introvert, walking into new situations or workplaces causes a higher degree of discomfort than it does for an extrovert.

How can you move beyond the introduction and build new relationships with more comfort and confidence, especially when you’re new?

Researchers have found there are many strategies and approaches that can make a difference, including:

  1. Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes

As with introductions and asking questions, many newcomers are also reluctant to approach and develop relationships with new people. Many worry the other person won’t be interested in them, or will be annoyed by the approach and interruption, or will not want to start another relationship. But, as with introductions and asking questions, when the tables are turned and new people approach them with an honest, sincere desire to interact, it’s a different story.

In most cases, they are quite happy to stop what they’re doing and have a friendly conversation; in fact, they realize that as established members, they have an obligation to welcome new people. Usually they appreciate it when newcomers take the initiative, as it saves them the social risk of making the first move.

More important, when newcomers approach, people seem to spend much less time worrying about being rejected by that person; also, they don’t even think much about whether they should ultimately accept or reject the newcomer. So, in new situations, take a moment to ask yourself how you’d respond if you were the old-timer and new people approached you. If you’d be okay with it, just go for it.

  1. Focus on Giving Others Energy

The key to starting new relationships is to realize that success is less about impressing the other person with your intelligence, achievements, and winning personality. It’s more about ensuring that the other person gains energy from interacting with you.

What tends to bring people energy are the same things that people want from relationships:

  • Being understood.
  • Having their ideas and opinions validated.
  • Being valued, respected, and accepted.
  • Accomplishing something meaningful.
  • Receiving help (when they want it).
  • Having fun.

It’s not surprising, then, that a focus on energy is effective in building relationships with extroverts. Extroverts get much of their energy from other people, so you’d expect that they would respond positively to people who give them energy. But this approach is probably an even more powerful and effective strategy with introverts. Introverts generate much of their energy from within, and typically face a quandary when it comes to relationships. They desire relationships for all the good things that come from them—achievement, acceptance, companionship, and so on—but they find new social situations exhausting; they sense that, most of the time, they put more energy into interacting with others than they get back in return. If they remain quiet (or the extroverts dominate the conversation), it only makes it worse, as few people gain energy just by listening to other people talk. Imagine how introverts will feel about you if you can find a way to provide them energy in social situations?

  1. Stay Positive and Say Nice Things About Other People

In your conversations with new people, try to stay positive. Most people do not gain energy by hearing (or talking about) negative things. Furthermore, researchers have discovered that if, when talking with strangers, you say nice things about other people, strangers often walk away thinking you have those qualities, too. For example, if you happen to tell a stranger that your manager is generous and kind, that stranger is likely to remember you as also generous and kind. Conversely, if you rant about what a selfish jerk your manager is, you run the risk of strangers remembering you in much the same way.

  1. Use Reciprocity to Develop Relationships

Whether they are superficial and temporary, or deep and long-lasting, all relationships are built on reciprocity. Other people help us meet our needs, and in turn we have an instinctive urge (and there is often a social expectation) to help them in return. Scientists call this reciprocal altruism, and we’re both hardwired and taught from an early age to return favors and repay our debts. Many of the things we want in relationships—trust, reliability, integrity, and so on—have their basis in our fundamental need for reciprocity. How does this play out in new relationships? When you help people gain energy through listening, appreciation, and companionship, they start to have a positive impression of you. Reciprocity predisposes them to help you gain energy in return. In turn, you form a positive impression of them, and are predisposed to find other ways (and opportunities) to help them gain energy. Round and round it goes, and the relationship develops and deepens.

  1. Give Priority to Other People’s Needs, but Don’t Neglect Your Own

Since people gain energy when their needs are met, you need to figure out what they want and help them get it. But you also want to make sure that interacting with them will ultimately bring you energy, too. Otherwise you may have little incentive to continue.

This is easier said than done, especially in new situations. For some of us, our tendency is to unconsciously dominate the conversation and talk too much about ourselves and what we know, perhaps because we:

  • Want to make a good first impression and have come to believe (consciously or unconsciously) that talking a lot is the best approach.
  • Feel we have a great deal to contribute to the conversation and others will benefit from our knowledge and expertise.
  • Gain energy from talking and it’s become a habit.

Regardless of the reason, the result is that we spend little time trying to identify or meet the other person’s needs. And since few people gain much energy from listening to us talk all the time, blathering on is a great way to turn people off. Sadly, we’re often the last ones to realize that we are dominating the conversation.

On the other hand, some of us end up talking too little about ourselves and what we know because we:

  • Worry about saying something that will make us look bad.
  • Prefer being private and reserved in what we disclose about ourselves.
  • Don’t like “fighting for air time” with highly talkative people.
  • Tend to lose interest and disengage from long conversations.

As a result, we end up spending little time doing things that meet our needs and bring us energy. Some of this is caused by the other person, but some of it is the result of our reluctance to speak up, change the conversation, or strive to get what we want. Either way, we may walk away from the interaction with both less energy and less motivation to take the initiative and approach others in the future. Ultimately, the best, most productive, and satisfactory relationships are ones where everyone is attentive to both their own and the other person’s needs.

  1. Imagine You Are a Party Host, Detective, or Journalist

One way to overcome your reluctance to approach and start new relationships, and ensure that you interact in ways that bring others energy, is by adopting the mindset and actions of a party host, detective, or journalist. For example, as you walk into a party, social, or networking event, pretend that you’re one of the organizers and hosts and your job is to ensure that everyone is having a good time. One newcomer I interviewed described this approach and its benefits: “I assume everyone else is as uncomfortable as I am, and it’s my duty to make them more comfortable, which helps me forget that I’m uncomfortable. . . . Also by getting to know someone and making them feel more comfortable I create an ally, which in turn makes me more comfortable.”

In his book Just Listen, clinical psychologist Mark Goulston encourages people to adopt a detective’s mindset as a way of showing interest in others: “How do you master the skill of being interested—and be sincere when you do it? The first key is to stop thinking of conversation as a tennis match. (He scored a point. Now I need to score a point.) Instead, think of it as a detective game, in which your goal is to learn as much about the other person as you can. Go into the conversation knowing that there is something very interesting about the person, and be determined to discover it.”

A third approach is to pretend you’re a journalist whose job is to interview the people you want to meet. One newcomer I interviewed had a sister-in-law who happened to be a reporter. Her sister-in-law discovered that the job actually helped her overcome her anxiety around strangers, and she continued to adopt a journalist’s strategy in other social situations.

These approaches may help reduce your anxiety by:

  • Helping you act in ways that bring others energy, especially by showing interest in them.
  • Keeping your mind off your own negative thoughts and fears.
  • Providing you a built-in justification (even if only pretend) for approaching new people.
  • Keeping you from talking too much.
  1. Invite Them to “Outside” Activities

It’s somewhat obvious, but at some point one of the best ways to strengthen a relationship is to invite someone to lunch, coffee, or some other activity that is separate from your normal interactions. Inviting (or accepting the invitation of others) to outside events or activities accomplishes the following:

  • It sends a signal that you’re interested in getting to know the person better, and perhaps pursue a friendship.
  • It provides an opportunity to socialize in ways you often can’t in your regular group interactions.
  • It gives you a chance to ask “newcomer” questions without worrying about interrupting a busy person.

The key is to have the courage to either make or accept the invitation, even if the introvert in you wants to stay (or head straight) home.

Keith Rollag

Keith Rollag got interested in the challenges of "being new" when he was transferred overseas to Japan and spent five years there as a product development manager for Procter and Gamble. He returned to the United States and pursued a Ph.D. at Stanford University, where he began his research and writing about newcomers. Currently he is an Associate Professor of Management and Chair of the Management Division at Babson College, a private college just outside of Boston that specializes in business and entrepreneurship. Babson has been ranked #1 in Entrepreneurship by U.S. News and World Reports for the past 20 consecutive years.

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