Every so often we find ourselves out of our element when we’re in a situation with other people and feeling unsure. Could be anything, really. Meeting with new business acquaintances. Attending someone else’s family picnic. Caught in a group share-a-thon.
Before panic takes over, we search for a way to fit in. Most likely, we summon lessons of yore, some steadfast this-is-how-you-act-so-people-will-think-well-of-you belief.
Then, finally, the incident is over. We got through it and that’s that. We ignore the smidge of discomfort that’s telling us we may not have made the best impression. Relief often overpowers the desire to reflect.
So let’s pause here for a moment.
Now that we’re feeling balanced again, we have an opportunity to revisit how we act in uncomfortable situations — especially if, deep down, we wish we had a better answer.
To get started on updating your response, here are nine go-to beliefs that can give the opposite impression of what we intend, along with a new way to show up as the wonderful people we actually are.
IS YOUR SILENCE ALL THAT GOLDEN?
Silence is preferable to appearing foolish, you believe. It may even appear as confidence, you hope. Realistically, though, it’s all too easy for people to dismiss the quiet ones.
1. If I ask a question I’ll look stupid.
How you act on this belief: You don’t utter a peep, even though you would really like an explanation about something. After awhile, you give up trying to follow the conversation and wait it out.
What you could try instead: Own your status as a newbie, and preface your question with it. If you aren’t new to the group, look for comrades in confusion: “Does anyone else not understand this fully?” Dollars to donuts, there’s someone in the group who will love to fill you in. And now you’re a vocal participant.
2. I need to have a fully baked thought before I can say something.
How you act on this belief: You spend the entire time trying to craft a brilliant insight, except you’re too frazzled to do so.
What you could try instead: Riff on someone else’s reply. Something along the lines of “That’s a good idea. And it makes the work not seem like work.” It validates the other person and shows you have an understanding of the conversation. And now you’re in the mix.
3. I don’t have enough influence with this group to give an opinion.
How you act on this belief: You silently stew because the conversation is taking a turn for the worse (in your unspoken opinion).
What you could try instead: Present your opinion as a previous experience. Rather than say “I think this…,” couch your thoughts in your own evidence. If you’ve seen something similar before, tell the story and the conclusion. It makes your contribution less about you, more about your observation. And now you count, too.
ARE YOU SHINING TOO BRIGHTLY?
Commanding attention may be such a habit that you don’t realize you do it. But everyone else in the room does when they can’t get a word in edgewise. Tip: If you notice people slumping, crossing arms, rolling eyes, or looking bored, it’s a good sign to dial it back.
4. To gain respect, I have to prove that I’m the smartest or savviest or most successful one in the room.
How you act on this belief: You turn every comment into a brag and see others’ comments as a chance for one-ups-manship.
What you could try instead: Validate others instead of yourself. You know how good it feels to “win”? Give that joy to someone else. “Wow, that’s incredible that you were able to work two jobs and coach T-Ball.” When you admire others, it reflects well on you. And now you’re part of the team.
5. Sharing something personal will create an instant bond with people.
How you act on this belief: You reveal a confidence about yourself — in full detail.
What you could try instead: Find commonalities as a way to build connection. Rather than risk embarrassing the group with too much information about yourself, come up with a topic that could be easily shared. “How do you know Richard?” “Have you been here before?” “Anyone see the game last night?” And now you’re relating.
6. I need to lead the conversation to be seen as important.
How you act on this belief: You answer every question and change topics to ones you’re knowledgeable about.
What you could try instead: Act as an unofficial facilitator. Rather than dominate, make sure everyone has an equal voice. If someone is quiet, kindly ask what she thinks or feels. When someone is talking too much, politely interject: “Good point. Who else agrees?” And now you’re an equal-opportunity companion.
7. If I give advice I will become an integral part of the group.
How you act on this belief: You start every comment with “Here’s what you should do” or “This is a better way.”
What you could try instead: Get empathetic. More often than not, when people share a problem, they want you to make them feel better, not summarily solve the issue. That means hearing what’s said, withholding judgment, imagining how they feel, and expressing that feeling. And now your compassion is connecting you.
IS IT A CHOICE OF ALL-OR-NOTHING?
You want to show up at your best. But trying too hard can come off as false. And not trying at all looks stuck up.
8. I need to agree with everything to get along.
How you act on this belief: You smile, nod, and say “yes,” even when you don’t really think so.
What you could try instead: Ask for the reasoning behind what’s being said. This is a courteous way of questioning the conversation without outright disagreeing. It shows that you’re thinking and gives you a chance to nicely have a differing opinion. And now you’re showing the real you. (Here’s another way to practice being the real you.)
9. If I can find a distraction, it will look like I’m too busy to participate instead of not wanting to.
How you act on this belief: You text your friend to call you, then step away, saying, “I’m sorry, I must take this call.”
What you could try instead: Decide to be fully present by listening and talking, or at least nodding and smiling. And now your likable side is revealed.