How Growing My People Skills Nurtured My Introvert Skills

“Being introverted doesn’t mean you’re shy.” That’s what I always tell people because when I start talking no one believes I’m an introvert. But it’s only half true: sure, we may not be shy, but many introverts do experience social isolation or feel awkward around new people. I always did. In fact, growing up, I was more than just awkward. I was a nerd.

These days, “nerd” is a cool kid word. Nerds are app developers or people with designer glasses. But when I was a kid, being a nerd was not cool. I was pimply and clumsy and read a lot of sci-fi. My quietness made me seem aloof. And the awkwardness only got worse with time—it’s hard to develop socially when no one wants to talk to you.

As an adult, I wanted to change my quiet ways. I wondered if there was a way to stop being socially awkward and maybe even enjoy talking to people. I guess I wondered if I could be popular.

So, I set out to try.

Extrovert school

True to nerd form, I started with a spreadsheet. I made a list of all the changes I wanted to see and the steps it would take to reach them. Then, I set a challenge to achieve each one.

The first challenge was to initiate five conversations with strangers. Easy, right? But there were rules:

  • Conversations with waiters don’t count. They’re paid to be nice.
  • A person isn’t a “stranger” if a mutual friend introduces them. Too easy.
  • It has to be a real interaction—more than just, “How are you?”

These conversations were a slaughterhouse. I walked up to people and just sort of horned in on whatever they were doing. My first victim was at an art museum. She stood quietly contemplating a painting, and I asked what she thought of it—loudly, from across the room.

She jumped. But to my surprise, she answered. She did not look annoyed.

As she poured her heart out, I mentally made a check mark on my list: one out of five conversations—done! “Thanks,” I said and ran for it. Clearly, I had a long way to go.

The other four were only marginally better, but I did improve. I started to keep the conversation going even if it was boring (as small talk often is). And I learned how to steer toward less boring topics. I asked deeper questions or just brought up topics I liked. As I improved, I felt an odd rush of power. I was in control for once. I tried to use my power for good and do what no extrovert had ever done for me: politely end the conversation when my partner looked bored.

All of this led to one earth-shattering lesson. My other geeky, introverted friends warned me that the challenge was a bad idea. They said they would hate it if a total stranger came up to talk to them and that I would annoy people. But they were wrong. I discovered that most people, both introverted and extroverted, enjoyed these little interactions as long as they were short and fun.

Advanced classes

Soon, I made new challenges. First was to lead my interactions to some kind of next step, like adding someone on Facebook or inviting them to a party. I still have some Facebook friends from this era who, I’m sure, have no idea who I am.  

Then I worked on improving as a conversationalist. Each day, I chose three topics before I left the house. One was a “did you hear…?” (recent news story); one was a “did you know…?” (cool new discovery); and one was a “what if…?” (these were the most fun). And, true to the advice we read in self-help books, I found that everyone enjoys talking about themselves. I learned to ask a lot of questions about the other person. I made it a rule that “What do you do for a living?” was never one of them.

Charging my social battery

One thing I hadn’t thought of was my social energy. I was now better at talking to people and making new friends, but it was exhausting. The definition of introversion is getting your energy from your inner world, not from other people, and I was finding that out the hard way.

There’s more to it than this definition, though. There are four kinds of introversion, and none of them mean you’re doomed to be worn down around others. The drained feeling is because socializing is just a form of multi-tasking, at least when you have a strong inner life to compete with. And multi-tasking saps mental energy whether you’re an introvert or not. I reasoned that if I could get my inner needs met, the people around me wouldn’t feel like a distraction. They wouldn’t sap my energy.

So, I made a list of things I needed to feel high energy. Some, like being well rested and having a snack, were obvious. Others, like finishing the day’s work before socializing, took some figuring out. I now have a social “basket” I fill up before I leave the house, so I no longer feel worn down at parties.

Embracing my introvert nature

You could say that my experiments in socializing were a success. People don’t believe me when I say I’m an introvert, and I have to educate them on what being an introvert actually means. But it’s true that I’m no longer a wallflower. If I concentrate, I can even be the life of the party.

But the biggest lesson was not about my social skills—it was about my introvert skills. Once I became outgoing, I had no shortage of invites. And the former unpopular kid in me wanted to go to them all. I spent long nights at parties only to come home and realize I’d done nothing truly important to me. I had fun going out, but I felt empty.

Only in the last year have I come to embrace my need for solitude. The most important work in my life—my writing—requires days at a time of solitude. I refuse to sacrifice that anymore. Now, if someone invites me out, I can tell them very honestly: “Sorry. I’d like to, but I’m going to stay in and work.” They complain, but I haven’t lost a friend yet.

It’s funny that in order to accept myself as an introvert, I first had to build up my extrovert skills—but I think that’s how it works. When you confront your weaknesses, you discover a striking strength, and that strength makes you shine. You feel more in control of your life.

So, now I’m happy when I’m alone. After all, it’s my choice.  

Have you ever tried to build up your social skills? How did you try to do it? How did it work out?

Share your thoughts.

Let’s keep our discussions reflective, productive, and welcoming. Please follow our Community Guidelines and understand that we moderate comments and reserve the right to delete comments that don’t adhere to our guidelines. You must sign in or sign up to comment.
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  • Ayushee

    So relatable! Such a systematic approach, so clear and defined. I’d also built my social skills by talking to the people I’d seen my entire life-my colleagues but never really had a conversation with. It was really awkward and difficult for me (still it is!)

  • N Kumar

    Hi Andre Sólo! I used the same approach to overcome my inhibitions and introversion when I was in university. I can walk up to any rank stranger now and have a meaningful conversation without annoying them. I used a piece of paper to write the challenges down which suited me.

  • Betsy Jackson

    Oh my gosh I relate to this so much. This past year I’ve been working on my social skills. It is so empowering to know that I can but choose not to rather than believing I can’t because I am an introvert. I love that you described socializing as exhausting because it is multitasking when you have a rich inner life. Thank you so much for taking the time to write it down!

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  • nao

    I just noticed your reply, sorry for this LATE reply 🙁
    And I’m surprised and smiled, because my type seems to be INFJ (I knew it from before).
    I actually took the test for 2-3 times, but it often differs. But after hearing from you it became more convincing that I’m closer to INFJ type. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Andre!

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  • Nancy Le

    This is awesome.

  • Rosemarie

    Great article! I’ve gone through something similar and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve tried to talk my sister into stepping out of her comfort zone for just this reason – then she can really own being an introvert. But she doesn’t get it. I don’t think many people do. Thanks for this! 🙂

  • such a well-written article, Andre! thank you for sharing your experience. I totally relate to it. your insights about your experience is helpful and beautiful. you have a new fan! 🙂

  • Whitney

    I used to be a very shy kid, then blossomed into a semi-rebellious, very social teen who played many sports and went out with friends every single weekend. Ever since college my introverted personality has crept back in and now at 34 I’m realizing that I’m VERY introverted… I would say on the extreme end of the scale. If not for my career and needing to promote myself I wouldn’t be on any social media at all; I’m uncomfortable with how exposed it makes me feel. I’m an INFJ which is said to be the rarest of personality types, so not surprisingly it’s been very hard for me to find people I enjoy being around for very long who truly “get” me. I prefer animals over people for sure. I could be the type who lives alone in an isolated place and only comes into town to get her mail and provisions once a week! Ha. I’m embarking on a new journey by starting my own business from my home office because workplaces have just been too hard on me and far too exhausting; I’m ready to take the dive and produce my best creative work in an environment I can control and design for myself. Back to your piece… I can be very social among some people. But if I’m around loud extroverts I tend to hang back more and observe. It really depends. My social skills are well-developed, I just prefer to not use them except in cases when it’s useful and enjoyable, and not for silly small talk or gossip for example (introverts tend to hate small talk). A deep conversation about a topic I’m passionate about is much preferred. Thanks for the post.

  • Nakul

    My God! I felt like I was reading my own story.

  • Marlana Sherman

    I really liked this. I wanted to improve my social skills (I’m still working on it.) so I have made a point to go to events at the library that interest me so far I have really enjoyed them. Normally the groups are small. I still tend to do better in those situations. Large events are still an issue for me. I never really feel comfortable and I feel kind of overwhelmed.

    I like to write too when I am inspired.

  • kddomingue

    Add an unpleasant upbringing to being born introverted…… what fun! Not.
    As a child I was accused by my parents of “aping” people…..making fun of someone by adopting their accent, speech patterns and body language. I was in trouble for doing something that came to me naturally. At the time, I was bewildered because I had no idea what they were talking about. It was something I did without conscious thought.
    In my freshman year in high school, I enrolled in a speech and drama class. My parents thought that it was a waste of time and were very disapproving. My instructor told me that I was a natural and was full of praise. What a godsend those classes were (I took 3 years of them)! Learning to speak in front of an audience was a challenge in a way that acting was not as I had to look at people as I spoke and there was so little that I recognized as feedback at first. Once I began to be able to read the body language and subtle facial expressions of my audience, it became easier. It has never gotten easy but much, much easier than when I was younger.
    On the other hand, acting was always easy for me. Like many introverts, I’ve always had a rich inner life and vivid imagination. It was never hard for me to become someone else on stage. The turning point was when I realized I could do it in real life as well. Not so much become someone else, but incorporate certain extrovert personality traits into my interactions with people. It worked! The bonus was that the more I “acted” an extrovert personality, the more natural it became until ( a majority of the time) it was no longer an act.
    Now, I’m still solidly in the introvert camp, still prefer one on one to a crowd, still need a goodly amount of alone time to recharge my social interaction batteries and won’t ever be mistaken for a party hopping socialite. But I am comfortable in my own skin, can talk to just about anyone for ten or fifteen minutes, don’t feel sick at the thought of going to a party and don’t feel the need to rely on “liquid courage” to get through a gathering of some sort. People generally mistake me for an extrovert and I can, on occasion, be the life of the party. But my family and very small circle of close friends know me for the introvert that I am and accept me as such. I would say that my husband, my son , my daughter and myself are all introverts with extraverted tendencies!

  • Da Hu

    Inspiring Andre, thank you for that. Struggling with being “anti social” my whole life, I decided the “reward” I’d give myself was to retire early. As an engineer I was thrown into leading and speaking to large groups my whole career and it took its toll (almost daily I felt like Howard Hughes when he left the Senator after lunch… moaning as he walked down the hallway) over my 33 year career. I did retire 2 years ago. I’m enjoying the quiet time with my wife (kids grown) but have a new reality… I’m becoming less stressed in some social situations because I now control timing of them! I prepare mentally in advance and and do fine most of the time but I laugh at myself because I can get the stage jitters going to meet 3 or 4 people as I did prior to speaking in front of 100! I too enjoy cycling and do very well in races but nothing is like the feeling of accomplishment to come away from a social gathering that was refreshing, although rare. At 56 yrs old, nothing is more refreshing than doses of isolation when needed and I’m ok with that. It’s just me : )

  • Tatiana Sokolova

    Excellent, very inspiring. Thank you so much for the tips! Worth trying out… 🙂

  • Yahya Lakda

    This is great. Even though one tries to figure out, where to start from. They are lost and I think these strategies might be helpful to move on or to take step on doing something an introvert cannot do.
    I will definitely try them. And will write back on the results.

  • RaniLSL

    I really enjoyed your piece and the approach you took to improving your social skills. I too am an introvert who has learned to be less socially awkward. But I still struggle with cultivating good conversation, often falling back to “what do you do for a living” and asking questions about the other person which inevitably becomes a conversation totally about the other person. I’m going to try your “three topics” approach but need some help with the “what if” questions. Would you mind sharing some examples of your “what if” questions?

  • Luke

    Andre, it’s great to hear this story. I’ve gone through similar challenges, becoming more comfortable with my nerdy and introverted personality as the years go by. I also embarked on a few quests to talk to lots of strangers as a routine. As a guy that fits somewhere between shy and just introverted, I honestly found these challenges really difficult and still do in certain contexts. I felt that talking to waiters or other customer service types was a great warm up to do start some “real” stranger conversations. Nowadays, there are a few contexts where people think I’m an extrovert. Becoming the life of the party at times sounds like quite a 360 for you. Congrats on getting to such an empowering place in your life.

  • I can relate to so many points you have made. I too have learned how to socialize – to the point where I am a greeter at my church – yes down in the FRONT ROW!!!! But my approach is (to me…) a very introverted one. You see, I am what I call a “non-greeter greeter”. My style is to totally not to appear as a typical church greeter – which I loath. I greet one person and actually engage in a conversation with them. I have learned a good ice breaker is to quickly find something to compliment them on. A cool shirt, new hair cut, unique name etc. Which gets the attention on them and off of me.

    Funny thing, everyone knows me, or who I am, and they are shocked when I tell them that I am an introvert. Yes a very strong one at that too!

  • I loved reading your story Andre! Bravo to you for taking the initiative to systematically solve a “problem” in your life. I loved the first part of your plan, striking up convos with strangers. I am an introvert, but I actually love it when strangers talk to me, especially if what they say is meaningful, and not just empty small talk. Being an introvert is not so cut and dry; we can get energy from being around others, as long as they stimulate our inner world so we don’t get bored and drained! I also found it interesting how you knew just when to end your conversations…you could sense when they were getting bored. Being able to read people well is one of the many attributes that make introverts special people!

    • Dan Cass

      Exactly what Ivy said. I can be social. Extremely. But only when the person I’m speaking with can engage me in a “two-way” conversation. If it’s one way, where I’m the designated listener, I’m not interested. I don’t want to be “talked at”. Thus, being social with 100% of society is not my goal. I don’t want acquaintances or friends. I want tribe members, introverted or extroverted, that want to engage in real conversations. Like Ivy said, small talk, while nice social lubricant in the beginning is not enough.

  • introvertdear

    I love this! I think it’s great that you created a system for improving your social skills. It’s so easy to WISH to be better at something, but we so rarely actually take the steps needed to improve.

  • Rachel

    Fantastic article. After more than forty years of trying to adapt my behaviour to meet the expectations of extroverts I am finally truly understanding who I am as an introvert and accepting that it is OK.

  • RobT

    I loved your description of the systematic ways that you approached stretching to do things that you weren’t comfortable with! And how at the end of the day, your mastery of these new skills actually made you more comfortable with who you are. Like you, I believe that I am an introvert who recharges by doing things by myself, but have always pushed myself to behave like an extrovert (leading teams, public speaking, going out with everyone at the end of the day) — in my case because it seemed like the best way to become successful. From these experiences, I believe that it’s valuable to expand your horizons and develop such new skills no matter what your personality, if only not to regret what you’re missing. And as you point out, such learning often comes with new opportunities and a fuller acceptance of who you are. Thank you for sharing your wonderful journey!

    • Thanks Rob. You hit it on the head with “expanding your horizons.” We all have limits but we don’t have to live by them. And frankly some extrovert skills are necessary for leadership so I’m glad I took time to develop them. Current project is imagining what a quiet leader looks like – how best to lead as “smart and silent” type?

      • RobT

        I had to do the same thing as one of the founders of a software company. The good news is that by playing to your strengths as an introvert (listening well, deliberate analysis, developing an independent perspective, introspection and creativity) you’ll surprise a lot of people in good ways, because our common view of a leader tends to be the classic extrovert. You may want to check out the Quiet Leadership Institute for specific examples of how introverts often become the most effective leaders, particularly when they learn to work effectively with both introverts and extroverts. In sales and marketing, I found that being an introvert set me apart from the competition in many positive ways — I wrote a piece about my experiences (“The Power of Quiet Selling”) for this site. Sounds like you’re off to a great start.

  • Dee

    I turned thirty last year and realized my life has been quite a roller coaster of introverting and extroverting. As an INTJ I am a verifiable innie, though. Through and through. My point is this: after years of stretching myself, socially, beyond the ‘best for me’ I have reached a point where I find myself completely exhausted and altogether unable. Unable to be comfortable around others, unable to be just OK in social settings. I would liken it to the idea that lost sleep cannot be recovered (this has recently been proven false, however). Perhaps the weaving of my social basket has worn thin. I often wonder what it would take to repair what appears irreparable. Complete isolation for an extended period sounds heavenly right now but I know it is possibly the worst solution. Any ideas?

    • Honestly yes, I would do complete isolation if I were you. I am INTJ and the biggest breakthroughs of my life occurred in periods of extended solitude.

    • Laurie

      Hi Dee, I’m INTJ(/P) too. We both love ideas! If I can convince myself I can have limitless ‘down time’ it usually doesn’t take very long to feel human again. But the trick is to pretend there is no end to time for myself. I’m an enneagram Five, which doesn’t help either. : )

  • illya

    May i ask where I might go for the bendable pencils?Debra

  • nao

    I regard myself getting introverted as I get older( now I’m 22). So when I socialise with people I feel like I’m using the social skills that I have used more naturally in earlier age. However, I think our way of socialising must be and should be changing according to the development of oneself.
    From 3-4 years ago, I started to realise the way of socialising I used to think it works didn’t work for me anymore. And it was also the time when I got a mental problem (slight depression) mostly because I was struggling to fit myself into the extroverted society, without noticing my introverted temperament. So these days I’m trying to figure out my way of living, socialising. For me it is about giving a permission to myself to keep comfortable distance with people, and not to sacrifice myself in order to meet their needs.