Dear Val: How Introverts Can Excel in Online Discussions

Dear Val,

I’m an introvert who has been working on my presentation and communication skills the last few months. I’m now comfortable talking with people in small group meetings, and I’m getting better at presenting to larger audiences, but I’m still struggling in one area.

When the conversation moves from in-person to online discussions, I have a hard time participating.

I find that I’m more hesitant to post or share anything online. I don’t like that I can’t see my audience. I don’t really know who or how many people have seen my post, and it’s harder to get a sense as to how my words were received.

In-person discussions are much more comfortable for me, but my peers (personal and professional) seem to be using online discussion spaces more and more. I don’t want to miss out on discussions that are important to me. Plus, I know it will be increasingly important for my career.

I’m in my 20s, and I’m in a technology field, so there’s pressure to be good with the online world. I’m comfortable with technology—just not online discussions.

How might I become more comfortable participating in online discussions with my peers?

– Cautious in California


Dear Cautious,

Congratulations on the progress you’ve made with presentations and speaking in meetings! That’s great news that you’re finding your voice in those arenas.

That success tells me you are closer than you think to facing this next frontier—communicating with your audience when you can’t see it. That’s a challenging situation for most introverts!

Introvert Challenges for Online Discussions

For some introverts, interacting online has been a lifesaver for communicating more easily, especially because they have more time to think. At the same time, introverts are likely to dislike situations in which they can’t see their audience. And the pressure is intensified when you feel like your professional reputation is on the line.

In my coaching work and in studying introversion, I’ve discovered four communication factors that commonly increase the stress for introverts in a social situation:

  1. The less you can see or detect your audience’s responses, the more stress.
  2. The more people in the audience, the more stress.
  3. The less you know the people, the more stress.
  4. The more your professional reputation is involved, the more stress.

Given that, imagine the stress level for an introvert when presented with an online group discussion at work where all four stress factors are heightened!

It might sound like this in your head: “Who are they? And what are they thinking of me? And are they even listening? And do they get what I’m saying, and should I keep going? And what if they think I’m stupid or that I’m incapable of doing my job??!”

I believe introverts are prone to that line of thinking because we prefer interactions that feel purposeful. For us, there’s practically no point continuing if we don’t have signs that our message is seen as purposeful. So it can be aggravating if we can’t get some clear feedback. (We don’t tend to enjoy speaking for speaking’s sake.)

But if you can’t detect how the audience is responding, then what?

Just imagine how those worries can get multiplied when there are more people you are wondering about, and so many unknowns! It can escalate in our heads: “All those people will think I’m a freak, and my whole career will go down the drain!”

The larger the audience, the more impossible it is to incorporate the sheer volume of imagined needs within the audience. And bam!—the brain can get overwhelmed and just freeze up. I’m sure many readers can relate to that frozen feeling. I commend you for tackling such a challenging communication situation for introverts.

The good news is that introverts have some natural strengths for online discussions.

Your Introvert Strengths for Online Discussions

When you focus on your natural introvert strengths, you can not only manage online discussions well—you can even enjoy them. In fact, many introverts prefer online discussions to in-person ones. I enjoy them myself and have helped many people find their way to more ease with them too.

Let’s look at some features of online discussions that tend to make good use of our natural introvert strengths:

  1. You get to think before speaking. You can write what you want and when you want.
  2. No one can take up all the air time because there’s room for everyone. There’s no need to interrupt anyone. (We tend to hate interrupting, so this is a nice relief.)
  3. You get to write your thoughts instead of speaking off the cuff.
  4. You can choose to focus on meaningful connections with kindred spirits instead of light chatting. (See tips below for how to do this.)
  5. You can use your listening and keen observation skills to draw others into meaningful interactions.
  6. You can tune into the “likes” and comments to get the feedback you need. You can even ask for feedback directly by posting a question.

Doesn’t that sound more appealing when you look at it like that?

Tips to Make It Easier

Let’s get more concrete with how to get past that nervous stage.

I suspect that some of those same things you did to get comfortable with in-person speaking can be applied to this situation. For instance, I’m guessing you gradually stretched your comfort zone with bite-sized challenges until your nervousness lessened. That works here too.

A few things to try next:

  1. Start with smaller challenges such as interacting with only one or two friends online. When that’s easy, take on the next challenge. Gradually, the big challenges will get easier as you build up to them. Starting small is a very effective way to build strong skills.
  2. Get out of your head, and focus on listening and responding to others from your heart. Your confident voice will naturally emerge from there. Self-judgment disappears when you’re tuned into helping.
  3. When the stakes are high or you’re feeling paralyzed, show a draft to a trusted colleague before posting it.
  4. Even when you think it’s a bunch of judgmental strangers out there, stop, breathe, and picture a kindred spirit on the other end. Speak to that person. You might want to keep this quote handy:

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” —Bernard M. Baruch

What works for you when it comes to online discussions? Please share your thoughts below.


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