How to Be More Comfortable Around People

You’re the technical expert . You’re brilliant. You’re seasoned in your field. Why is the doofus who can’t code a lick your boss?

A common misconception and we see this happen time and time again in every organization. People, especially in IT, are hired in a technical position for their technical skills. Makes perfect sense, right? They excel greatly at programming in C Sharp. They are masters at SharePoint. They can make Oracle SQL dance. They get lots of praise for progress work the organization. They are then rewarded. How? The assumed model of building your career in the corporate environment is to move up the corporate ladder, of course. You excel at what you are doing, you either rewarded with more work and/or you gradually move up the corporate ladder. So the junior technical consultant becomes the senior technical analyst. The senior technical analyst becomes the principal technical analyst. Then management. This, I’m afraid, is where everything starts going south. The assumed progression of the corporate ladder is that you move up, and then you start to have a team under you, that you get to manage, and the assumption is that well, if you can perform top notch, well, certainly you can mentor a bunch of underlings to also perform to your degree of mastery.

Big mistake. In fact, nothing could be further than the truth. Technical skills can NOT , by no means at all be the same as people skills. And I know that once you read this, you’re like.. of course, duh.. technical skills .. nerd, no social skills.. and management, well… we’re not quite sure what skills they need, short of babysitting and administration, but sure isn’t technical skills. Well, lo and behold, everyone assumes that the superstar technical analyst rises up the corporate ladder, and is supposed to become this crazy awesome mentor, and the hope is that he (or she, of course) will churn out equally as good technical analysts.

Not a chance.

In the few instances that this actually works, is where the individual had people skills to begin with, in addition to technical skills. If you’re going to be good at people. No. If you’re going to be good at climbing the corporate ladder, you’ve got to master another set of ‘technical’ skills. People skills. I’m not sure if people skills are considered a science or an art. Certainly there have been a plethora of books and courses aimed at bettering people skills like they are science-based technical skills. Most of them have failed. I think it’s because… if you pick up a garden variety people skills course.. more often than not, it’s mislabelled as a ‘communications’ course. And a communications course often starts with (insert infographic) output / input. Input / output.

But we as humans are social beings. We have been trained for generations to live, to flourish as societies. Alone, we cannot survive. We need (say it with me) people skills to survive. To flourish. And No caveman, neanderthal, or whatever version of human before us ever took a communications course (output to input, input to output) to be a better community member.

How do you really better your people skills?

Easy. Be among people. Really. If you want to be a people person (and we all are to varying degrees….), be among people. If you feel a bit reclusive sometimes, perhaps you haven’t found the right environment where you feel that you can come out of your shell. Or it’s Monday morning.

Take my son for instance. A happy normal 4yr old boy. He’s super chatty at home, jumps around all the time.. off the sofa, into pillows, torments the dog, and does (pretend) kungfu every afternoon.

When he goes to preschool, he clams up. He’s totally quiet. He engages with no one.. well maybe one or two classmates.. but he’s by no means to the degree of extraverted-ness that he is at home. Well, yesterday, we had a playdate. We had 4 friends come over and he had his ‘kungfu competition.’ He was in his element…. jumping all over the place, playing lion dance in his kungfu outfit (his version of princess dresses).. totally chatty, laughing, playing, having a fabulous time. Why? it’s because as I said before, he’s in his element. He’s comfortable at home. He’s comfortable being and displaying who he really is.

Ok.. so how does this apply to grownups? Same thing. Our ‘home’ is like being among our family, our friends, where we know that people will love us unconditionally, and not judge us for making a mistake… or saying something stupid. Our ‘preschool’ is perhaps that huge departmental meeting where we are asked to deliver a presentation to our peers and management. We clam up. Our delivery is controlled. Well, what if we can expand our ‘home’ environments to environments such as those? How amazing would our presentation be then? I think it’s through practice that we can make those currently foreign and uncomfortable situation transform into ‘home environments.’ None of the communications courses in the world will help us achieve that. It just takes good old fashioned practice.

Find Your Optimal Environment

I listened to a podcast once. I can’t remember which one it was. (I listen to one every day of my life.) This woman, an authority in her subject matter area, which happened to be people skills, brought up that everyone is both an introvert and an extrovert. It’s not within the person that determines which is going to come out. In the right environment, the right environment being a comfortable environment, the gregarious people person will come out. In uncomfortable situations, the introverted quiet person will come out. Here’s an example. consider the office goofball… always happy-go-lucky, independent of what he can perform, will, in the office be that gregarious, laughing jokester. He’s in that right environment. But say, one day, he needs to deliver a presentation to the queen of England. How do you think he will perform then? Will he still be that office-goofball, laughing, and making jokes all the time? Maybe… likely less so in reality. That shiny personality will still come through, but I would surmise that he would be more conservative in his delivery, more polished. It’s the queen of England, for god sake! See what I mean?

Action Plan

Ok. so how do you know what environment you are in and more importantly, how do you turn those uncomfortable introverted environments into a safe space where your true, sparkly self can shine through?

Step 1: What are the environments where you are completely comfortable?

Where are you the happiest and most chatty? Likely this is at home, among family, or friends. What qualities make up this environment? Well.. more than likely, it’s that you are among people who love you. Or your comfortable environment could be the exact opposite. I remember I was a cruise ship not too long ago, and partipated in Karaoke night. I don’t normally participate in Karaoke night at all.. but I felt that on the cruise ship, I know no one.. (well except for my family of course), and I”m likely never going to see these people ever again… I let my hair down. I sang… and really enjoyed it! Afterwards, I got high fives for (likely bravery), but I was comfortable and extraverted.

Step 2: Move through the journey in expanding that comfort zone.

What I mean by this is… just take the next step by expanding your circle by a little. One notch. Have coffee with a new friend. Invite a few people for lunch. Join a new meetup group. Whatever is your ‘next step’ in expanding your circle of comfort, this is what you want to do.

Step 3: Just engage.

Whatever new group you joined, engage. Talk to people. Interact with them. OK.. so how do I engage, you ask? Well, our then 3 yr old couple go-to ways engage with new people:

What’s your name?
Johnny. what’s yours? (almost guaranteed all the time)
Zane. How old are you?
7. How old are you?
43. Wanna come to my birthday?

Not that he invites everyone to his birthday every single time, but guess what? He’s totally not shy to talk to new people, even if they’re bigger and older than he because he knows what to say.

Whether or not he knows it, we’ve taught him how to start and control the conversation.

While you may not want to ask people right off the bat how old they are… in fact.. I highly recommend NOT doing this.. you can ask questions. Have a list of ‘Go To questions in your arsenal, that are generic to apply to most every new situation. Here are some examples: How long have you been in the industry? How did you get into this? You want to circle the discussion around them. But make it general enough that they would feel comfortable answering. Nothing too deep. No one wants to divulge what their last salary raise was… at least until they feel comfortable with you. But if you feel that you’re not even at this point yet, that thinking of these questions is even out of your comfort level, here’s what to do.

Say hi, (so and so) and smile. Yes. Use their name. The most beautiful sound to anyone is the sound of their own name.

Related: Does Your Appearance Affect Your Influence?

Compliment them.

Again have a list of ‘go to’ compliments that you know almost off by heart. It’s not these compliments would apply in every situation… you’re not exactly going to compliment your lady boss on her eyes in the middle of a meeting…I am pretty sure that counts as harrassment. Unless you know them well enough, stick to complimenting abilities and skillset… or accomplishments.

Relate to them.

There was once I rode the elevator with a woman. She admitted that she accidentally hit the floor below instead. My response was, ‘I’ve totally done that.’ Then we shared a chuckle. Though seemingly insignificant, we connected. This tiny, insignificant moment that we commiserated over hitting the wrong elevator floor broke the ice. My point here, is that it doesnt’ take a huge effort all the time to expand your circle of comfort. Every litte thing you do to engage with another human, that you otherwise wouldn’t have done, is progress.

This reminds me of a book I once read called ‘How to talk to Anyone, by Leil Lowndes.
I highly recommend this read.She illustrates 150 ways to … well .. talk to anyone. But not only this, she teaches you how to engage.. how to make the person you’re talking feel like they’re the only person in the world who matters. One of my favourite techniques of hers is to make eye contact. Ya ya, i know what you’re thinking. Right we know that already. Everyone knows to make eye contact with whoever you’re talking to. But it goes further than that. To bring it to the next level, never leave your gaze. Don’t let it shift off the person. Look straight into their eyes while you’re listening. Try that next time. See the difference that it makes. it’s amazing how much power that gives you in the converstaion. And speaking of listening…

Listen to them. Shut up.

I know you know this when I say.. most people who listen aren’t actually listening. They’re formulating what to say next. Really, shut up and listen. There are actually exercises that you can do to practice listening. My favourite one again comes from the world of preschoolers.. toddlers even. He calls it the “Fast Food Technique” By he, I mean Dr. Harvey Karp, peditrician, author of the “Happiest Toddler on the Block” it goes like this. When you pull up to the fast food window, you’re asked to place your order. then what happens? The clerk will repeat your order back to you to ensur that he got it right. It’s actually pretty funny in pratice and works especially well with toddlers.

“Mama, I want to go to the park! I want to go to the park! I want to go to the park! ” (starts fussing)
Honey, is it that you want to go the park? (nods, and instantly stops)

…And it could work for adults too. You might want to paraphrase, so you don’t sound like a lunatic, repeating word for word what the other guy is saying.

So there you have it. Now you know why people who aren’t necessarily technically brilliant are occupying higher positions in the company than you and/or are making more money than you, the technical expert. It’s the magic of people skills.