I am a founding member of the "dread going/glad I went" club of socially-shy people.
I am also a "role-specific extrovert." That means that when the occasion calls for me to be "out there" I strap on some courage and give it my best shot, but it doesn't come naturally.
Despite all the writing, speaking and networking I do, I am quite shy. One of the reasons I push myself to be "out there" is that I think if I stopped all such activities for three months, I would revert back to the introvert that still lives within. And that is a part of my personality that I don't want to control me.
Why am I confessing this? A couple reasons. First, the holidays are upon me (and you) and that means putting on my game face a lot more often than usual. Second, I know that you feel exactly the same and I wanted you to know that you're not alone.
I discovered years ago something that helped me that I hope will help you. I call it "FTD Delivery,"* but it's not about flowers. I had this habit of going to parties and staring at the onion dip until it turned brown and then I would nag my wife for us to leave. Then one day I said to myself, "Enough of this cowardice, I am going to tonight's party and by the end of it I will have spoken to three people I don't know and they'll be glad we met."
By the end of the evening I had spoken to five people I didn't know and three of them took my hand with both of their hands, looked me in the eye and said, "It was really great meeting you, perhaps we can follow up."
After I left I asked myself what on Earth I had done.
Then I realized that I had followed the advice, "Be more interested than interesting" that I heard from my mentor and leadership guru Warren Bennis. I also know from Tell to Win author Peter Guber that when you ask people to tell you a story, which he calls "emotional transportation," they relax and enjoy the experience and are often grateful to you for giving them the gift of your interest. Then I asked all of them three kinds of questions about those stories. The questions caused them to respond with either: "I felt this," "I thought that," "I did this." Asking them questions that elicited such responses caused each of these people to feel I was interested in them (which I was), but more than that, they felt understood and even somewhat known by me.
Why was this so powerful in getting through to others and helping me overcome my shyness? Because our identities are essentially composed of what we feel, think and do (FTD). The sad fact of our lives is that it is becoming a rare experience to feel that people are interested in us, much less that anyone would take the time or make the effort to understand or get to know us. If you show interest in others (vs. just waiting your turn to talk), you're giving people something they don't get enough of. And when in return they show appreciation to you for it, your shyness spontaneously goes away except for the sweet awkwardness you might feel in their telling you how much they liked speaking to (and feeling understood by) you.
Become that person who is more interested in others than in being interesting and invite others to share their feelings, thoughts and actions and people will shake your hand and you too can overcome your shyness.
A final caveat and insight from business relationship guru and author of Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi, who says, "When you're alone at a party and feeling uncomfortable, you may give off vibes that say, 'Stay away from me' when what you're really thinking is, 'I'm just so uncomfortable, I don't even know how to approach someone to have a conversation.'"
So if you see someone who is alone at a gathering, realize that they also may not be telling you to stay away and leave them alone, but dealing with their social anxiety and shyness. Therefore, go up to them and initiate the conversation. Who knows, you might be talking to the next Bill Gates (another person not known to be particularly comfortable with purely social interactions).
Follow Mark Goulston, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markgoulston