I wanted to write something about being an Introvert at conferences. I’ve just been to Engage (organised by the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement) and as usual after this event I am exhausted and not in a good way. Here are some thoughts about why…
First up, people who know me often express shock at the idea I am an Introvert. I’ve done the Myers Briggs tests and everything (and yes, I say this knowing that they aren’t necessarily useful or reliable – but let me have this for a moment as I find the language helpful in describing how I feel). I feel we live in a society where there is an expectation that being successful comes with being extroverted.
Susan Cain called this the “extrovert ideal” in her brilliant book “Quiet“. So I’ve practiced doing these things – I will feedback on table discussions at meetings and ask questions in panel sessions at conferences. I can do this if I have enough energy, and because I’ve practiced. I feel like I’ve learnt some of the “rules” of that kind of interaction.
Being introverted doesn’t mean you can’t do more extroverted things, it’s just tiring. I am renewed by being alone and writing things down to process them, while I appreciate that for extroverted colleagues those things are draining and exhausting.
I was once told “acting out of type” is often clumsy, like writing with the wrong hand, and that’s how I feel in most conference situations. I’m clumsy and awkward. It’s not the best version of me.
How do you make your voice heard when you feel like you have something to contribute, but the format makes you so very uncomfortable? Colleagues leave conferences saying they feel invigorated from the discussions, and I just want to run away and cry. They leave me exhausted and kinda sad, not because of the content (although that also sometimes happens), but because of the format.
Being an Introvert doesn’t mean I don’t like talking to people, I do! I just like talking to people one on one and I want meaningful conversation. Small talk is Hell.
Being an Introvert also doesn’t mean I don’t value networking as a career development tool (and to make new friends). I organise the London SciComm Socials because being the one coordinating networking events mean I have some control over the environment I’m networking in, and I partner with more extroverted colleagues who balance my skill sets perfectly.
Having to talk in a group where I don’t feel like I know the “rules” of the interaction in advance is terrible. Even worse than that is having to deal with a new and terrifying group feedback or discussion situation with no warning.
“SURPRISE you now have 2 minutes to talk as a group and share your reflections on the session.”
Excuse me while I just crawl under the table and hope that a magical portal appears under me and I find myself safely back in my hotel room.
Now please don’t get me wrong, I know I live a life of incredible privilege. I am able to attend these events in the first place. So I know I speak from a position of already being pretty well catered for in many ways – but I’ve now had so many conversations about feeling this way at conferences I wanted to write some of these things down.
It’s never nice knowing that whatever the lunch offering is at conferences, I probably won’t be able to eat it. The low FODMAP diet and conference catering do not mix. However, it does mean I can legitimacy skip the lunch at events like this and sneak off to recharge.*
(*It’s important to note here that I’m OK with this because I am able to afford to go and buy some food elsewhere. The lack of catering options for people who have dietary requirements can place an incredibly unfair financial burden on people who have to effectively pay twice to eat at these events, once for the food they can’t eat, and once for the food they go and buy to replace the food they can’t eat).
While I didn’t identify with everything in “Quiet” the description of needing to recharge in a quiet space where you are alone (going to the loo, or popping out for a smoke, or “having to take a phone call”) was revolutionary. It was great to realise I wasn’t alone.
Are most event facilitators extroverts? Because Engage is full of very very skilled facilitators and communications specialists, and every session is encouraged to be “interactive”, which means over 2 days you barely get chance to catch your breath, as networking sessions are interspersed with interactive workshops and discussion spaces, even the plenaries this year had table discussions included. It’s absolute Hell.
I want to meet my colleagues and learn from them, I want to see what my sector is up to and make useful connections, not be caught in a whirlwind of feedback circles and post-it notes.
Every year I tell myself I won’t go next year, yet every year I do.
It’s not like I think these approaches are wrong. This year I also attended an Engaged Practice Learning Exchange (EPLE) session the day before the main Engage conference. This session provided us with slightly more time to have some incredibly useful discussions. It also ended with a “Feedback circle” where we all had to get in a big circle and share reflections in a group. Our facilitator highlighted the importance of having a space for everyone to talk to everyone. That’s incredible! That’s important! That made me want to spontaneously combust.
We were instructed that we could just “look down” if we didn’t want to speak – as if that felt like that was a possibility! That would be disrespectful to everyone else’s comments, surely? It certainly felt that way. I didn’t hear any of the comments made before my turn, as my internal monologue was just white noise of total panic.
These sessions leave me feeling like the facilitator used exactly the correct approach, and I’m just “wrong” somehow, fundamentally incompatible with my chosen career. However, chats with fellow Introverts at the conference convinced me I wasn’t alone, which was a very nice feeling.
I had a lovely conversation about what I call “social armour” the distracting things one surrounds themselves with to make these situations easier, and to have something to help us navigate the small talk nightmare. Mine is giant plastic jewellery, but for some people it’s fancy shoes, or incredible novelty handbags, or a loud shirt. It’s a safe conversation starter, something to be identified by – and putting that big necklace on is like putting on your “I can do this” face.
So, can we make things better for people like me and the others with whom I shared snatched moments of shared panic and shared discomfort?
I’d like to highlight an example. Have you heard of the “Open Space” facilitation technique? In the last workshop I went to which employed this technique (I’m looking at you Wellcome Trust), I hid in the bathroom for over half of the session.
It involves having to step into the middle of a circle to propose an idea for discussion. It involves people leaving conversations whenever they want to. Yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds. However, it’s a great format for people who work well in those kinds of situations, and it contains within it some incredibly important things (I encourage you to read about it here: http://www.openspaceworld.org/files/tmnfiles/2pageos.htm).
I see the Open Space format as at the extreme end of the “extrovert friendly” spectrum of facilitation methods, but I love the idea of a democratically created agenda. Is there a way to keep the democratic elements of things like this, without forcing more introverted colleagues out of the room?*
(*Although a key principal of using the Open Space technique is that whoever is in the room are the right people, so maybe they don’t care if Introverts aren’t there).
“Well sorted” seems to be a potential solution, taking the idea of a collated, democratically created agenda and the conflict diffusing strengths of Open Space, but allowing people to submit their ideas in advance of the meeting and thematically grouping them so it’s the consensus which wins out, not just who shouts the loudest. I was very excited to learn about this method at this year’s Engage. You can read more about it here: www.well-sorted.org
I’m not suggesting all conferences be reconfigured to suit people like me, as an introvert-friendly conference would make the extroverts as miserable as extrovert-friendly conferences make me. I also suspect we Introverts might be a very small minority of the people who attend these events. However, surely there is a compromise to be made?
How do you navigate these events? Introverts of the world, please send me your tips!
This year, I did a number of things to manage my Engage experience, the things which worked well (and a few other suggestions) are here as my Ten Top Tips:
1. Twitter can be great – it’s a way to interact in a way which you can control a bit more. Although you may find yourself so unable to process your feelings about the conference you just end up tweeting ceilings (#CeilingsOfEngage).
2. WhatsApp – want to chat to colleagues you know will be there but don’t want to have to navigate the networking spaces to get to them? Set up a WhatsApp group (or Facebook messenger chat or Slack, whatever works for you) and chat there.
3. You don’t have to go to everything. Conference dinner? Forced fun social event? These are optional and you do not have to go to them. Booked in by your colleagues? You still don’t have to go. Balance your feeling of needing to do what you feel is expected with how much energy you need to make the most of the sessions which are useful to you. Make friends with people who will remind you of this – so at the moment the panic hits you can message them as get some reassurance. Sometimes, even just giving yourself permission to leave if you want to, means you might have enough energy to enjoy some of these optional extras for a while.
4. Skip the lunch – I went for a walk, colleagues went back to their hotel rooms. You don’t need to network in these bits of the conference if you don’t want to. Although I appreciate you may want to grab some of the food before making a quick exit.
5. Skip some sessions – the guilt here can be huge, as these conferences are expensive and there is often a feeling of needing to get the most out of it – but some of the most useful conversations I’ve had at conferences like this have been where I’ve met someone who works in an area I’d like to learn more about, and we’ve skipped a session to grab a coffee and have a useful chat somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of the conference. I’ve also skipped sessions to have a walk and some fresh air when I’ve really really needed a break.
6. Make the dinner plans you want to. A group of friends? Great! Just one friend? Great! Back in your hotel room with snacks? Great! My conference life changed forever when I discovered lots of hotels are happy for you to order a pizza to your hotel room.
7. Consider your travel plans. Are you racked with panic at the idea of being on the same train as people you’ve had to make small talk with at the conference? Are you exhausted? Maybe get a later train, so you have time for an hour’s break in a quiet coffee shop before travelling? This year we booked a hotel for an extra night so we could travel the next day, having had a much needed night of rest. I appreciate this may not be possible with work travel budgets – but it was a brilliant way of reducing conference stress for my team this year.
8. Look after your health. I find conferences never give you enough to drink – tiny coffee cups and if you are lucky a bottle of water to share on a table. Make sure you drink enough, eat sensibly. This year I skipped the first session of the second day of Engage and went to the hotel gym where I was staying instead. I felt much more alert and happier in the rest of the sessions that day as a result.
9. Remember: “It’s OK to be you”. Words I try to live by – you don’t have to be super happy about everything all the time. It’s a risk writing this blog the way I have and to not have done the safer “I had a GREAT time at this event but here are some wide-eyed, enthusiastic tips for making the experience EVEN BETTER!” Sometimes something a bit more real isn’t a bad thing.
10. You don’t have to go to conferences at all if you don’t want to. They should never be an essential part of anyone’s career development.
Being an Introvert isn’t a bad thing, it’s not something you should have to teach yourself not to be (at great emotional expense), you shouldn’t have to be exhausted and uncomfortable at every work event. It doesn’t mean we are shy, or lacking confidence – it just means we don’t demonstrate our sociable side or confidence in the way we are conditioned to expect by living in a society with an “extrovert ideal”. I’m confident, I like talking to people, I want to listen and learn from others, and I want to share my experience with others, but I don’t want to do that in a whirlwind of facilitated feedback sessions and an endless series of short group discussions.