In the February 24, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to overcome shyness and capitalize on personal contacts as the path to a job.


shyI am an intelligent, hardworking analyst who is also an introvert. Once I’m on the job, I’m fine and people like me. But getting contacts lined up to meet people to get the interview for the new job is difficult. There seem to be so many steps with so many people that I don’t know! I’ve read most of your web articles and haven’t seen this addressed. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for me?

Nick’s Reply

Believe it or not, I was quite introverted and shy when I was young. I would freeze up in front of a group. It was painful and embarrassing. Gradually, I realized I had to deal with other people, and I started listening to friends I trusted — they helped me practice appropriate behaviors. I’m still somewhat introverted, and sometimes I hesitate to initiate contact with others, but I’ve learned to behave in more outgoing ways. It doesn’t always work, but each time it does, I enjoy the rewards and I try to do it more.

I know quite a few folks who’ve tried Toastmasters groups to good effect. Toastmasters participants help one another hone their public speaking skills, working with one another in a safe, supportive setting. Their small successes make it easier for them to be a bit more outgoing with other individuals in public.

I don’t doubt being introverted can cause difficulties, but most human behavior is subject to conditioning and learning. (Sometimes the terms introversion and shyness are used loosely and interchangeably.) Look up social learning theory — you might find it intriguing and helpful. I had the good fortune to study under Dr. Albert Bandura at Stanford, and what I learned from his research about human behavior and modeling has had a profound effect on me.

The best advice I can offer is this: Think of one or two small behaviors that are more outgoing, then practice them as much as you can. For instance, walk up to someone (in an appropriate setting that doesn’t feel threatening to you) and say, “Hi, I’m [your name].” Reach out at the same time to shake hands. Then say, “I understand your work involves XYZ.” Then ask a simple, honest question about XYZ, and let them talk.

The secret to this technique (I hate calling it networking) is that most people love to talk about their work if you ask them. If they ask you about your work next, talk as much as you feel comfortable. If you get nervous, you can always just say, “Thanks, it was nice to meet you,” and move on.

The key to changing your thinking is to start by changing your behavior, but only one step at a time. Keep practicing. You’ll get to enjoy your little successes, and it will not seem phony or contrived as you get better at talking to others. This is the fundamental behavior behind meeting people to get job interviews.

Here’s an excerpt about making new contacts from Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition), (pp. 6):

Scope the community:
You could skip the resume submission step completely, but if it makes you feel good, send it in. Then forget about it.

More important is that you start to understand the place where you want to work. This means you must start participating in [your] community and with people who work in the industry you want to be a part of. [See Meet The Right People.]

Every community has a structure and rules of navigation. Figure this out by circulating. Go to a party. Go to a professional conference or training program. Attend cultural and social events that require milling around with other people (think museums, concerts, churches). It’s natural to ask people you meet for advice and insight about the best companies in your industry. But don’t limit yourself to people in your own line of work. The glue that holds industries together includes lawyers, accountants, bankers, real estate brokers, printers, caterers and janitors. Use these contacts to identify members of the community you want to join, and start hanging out with them.

Jobs aren’t found on computer screens and in postings — or even on LinkedIn, which is, after all, no more “social” than a phone book. You actually have to get out and meet people face to face! Most jobs are found and filled through the personal contacts we make and turn to.

Do you find it hard to talk to people when you want to make professional contacts? How do you break the ice?

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  1. I used to think “Gosh, do I really need to chat at these functions? What a waste of time.” and I would come across to others that way. The thing is this….many other people are probably feeling the same way you do! If you yourself can help them feel at ease and they are feeling shy as well, then it really creates a great dance for both of you.

    So how to do this? I watched others who I thought were pros at “networking” and just did what they did. I found most of them had their introduction down pat, asked a lot of other questions about the other person, and had a few stories or news items to talk about if the conversation started to die. Then, at the right moment, they would excuse themselves in a professional manner.

    Fortunately or unfortunately, as you move up the ladder, relationships will become even more important and how you interact with others that you meet for the first time will be ever so important. If we go by DiSC profiles, probably only 50% are outgoing, the rest are introverted. If you meet an outgoing person, just ride that wave of enthusiasm the other person is showing. If you meet another introverted person, well, then you know that you’ll need to carry the conversation and if you are good at that, it will make the other person more at ease, and you end up having a nice dance.

  2. One on one social activities and speaking are two different things. I’d much rather talk to a crowd of a thousand than mingle at a cocktail party. But you give some good advice on that.
    You are 100% right about community. The feedback we get from a conference I’m involved with is that people attend for networking – one thing you can’t get on-line. There are events to support this, including just sitting down at a conference lunch with people you don’t know. If you have the right skills volunteer. Most conferences could use good volunteers, and you get to meet industry leaders with lots of connections.

  3. i’ve been living in Las Vegas for four years now and haven’t made any friends (among other things I care for a couple of disabled relatives). The economy has improved to the point where I got a work-from-home job for some company back East. That job has mercifully ended (I hated the shift work). Now I’m back to trying to get something local.

    So this big chain of hotel-casinos advertises a job that would be perfect for me, and I decide the position is worth slogging through their mandatory applicant-tracking software. As usual, the app stops when I’m confronted with questions that I can’t or won’t answer and that can’t be skipped.

    The first question, what’s your SSN. I figure the casino already has this from that time, years ago, when I won a jackpot and received a W-2G, so I bit.

    Next, they demand 3 references who are not relatives, former employers, or fellow coworkers. Aside from my somewhat-firm policy of not giving references until after a successful interview, I realize I don’t know anybody in this category, at least not well enough to use as a personal reference! No, I don’t want to join a religion. Help!

  4. “Next, they demand 3 references who are not relatives, former employers, or fellow coworkers. ”

    Basically, they want to ensure that you do not use references who actually know you???

  5. We introverts might want to start with books like _The Introvert Advantage_ and _Quiet_. We need to be aware that meeting people will be exhausting and pace ourselves. Spend extra alone-time before going out to meet people to save up the energy. Also, use analytic skills and problem solving to figure out small steps.
    Finally, as Nick and others have intimated, we are naturally great listeners, so get the other person talking.

  6. As an introvert myself, I struggled in my early years with the same issues. Your advice, Nick (specifically ” I’ve learned to behave in more outgoing ways. It doesn’t always work, but each time it does, I enjoy the rewards and I try to do it more) is right on. Where did I learn how to behave in more outgoing ways? Definitely though Toastmasters as you suggested as well as through the Dale Carnegie course where I was not only a student but also returned the next year to assist the leader as a volunteer. Tools and techniques learned through both Toastmasters and Dale Carnegie have helped immensely in public speaking as well as in social networking situations.

  7. I was thinking of _Quiet_ when I read this post, too.

    Here’s a great TED talk by Susan Cain, the author…

    I’d say there’s a difference between being introverted/extroverted and being shy/gregarious.

    My definition of introvert/extroverted is from where you derive your energy. If you need quiet and alone time, you’re introverted. If you recharge in the company of others, then you’re extroverted.

    I’m often mistaken for an extrovert at work. I need to interact with people in order to efficiently do my work. The more I interact during the day, the more I need to recharge by myself. I’m a closet introvert. :)

  8. Agree w all above. The secret of learning a new way of doing something social is to consciously practice the activity (which usually means using a new phrase for a situation), even though it feels totally unnatural and as if you were reading it off a cue card. After you do it a few hundred times, it gets to feel natural and people admire you for your social ease (!) Although I’m also shy, like any other skill within your abilities, doing a defined activity/using a specific phrase gets easier with practice. (If you have social phobia, with panic attacks in situations, any SSRI can help, and people find them life-changing.)

  9. @Tony: You just nailed it.

    “I watched others who I thought were pros at ‘networking’ and just did what they did.”

    I encourage everyone to check out the “social networking theory” link in my post. You learn by watching others, by modeling behavior. It’s very powerful.

    If it makes sense to you, then look up “self efficacy.” It’s rich stuff.

    As for the breakdown of introverts to outgoing people, I agree that it’s fuzzy. In fact, I don’t really care whether someone is intro- or extroverted. I of course respect the differences, but I don’t really care except about your behavior. What are you trying to do, to accomplish? How are you trying to behave? Is it appropriate, does it “reach,” does it accomplish something?

    I find it’s all too easy to brand one’s self and then let it go at that. Humans make choices. That’s how we’re judged, and that makes us very powerful, both as judges (sometimes unfairly) and as actors in our world. Want to be outgoing? Then do it a little at a time, as best you can. Watch others. Imitate, and smooth it out with each iteration. If it feels phony, keep doing it. If after a while it doesn’t stop feeling phony then try something else. But I think the more we practice a behavior and tune it to our own style, it becomes shaped to us – not the other way around. It’s how we change and adapt without sacrificing who we are. Never sell out. Including to the part of you that says, I can’t do it.

  10. @Mike: Go to casino. Hang out. Pick a suitable employee or two. Chat them up. Ask for help with something. Ask about their job. Ask who the manager is. Try to meet the manager. Be honest. I want to work here, but I don’t do online apps – there’s no odds in that! Talk to me and you’ll I’m worth a job interview. Just tell me when to show up.

    There’s no upside to online applications. Go talk to people on the job.

  11. @Jim Shaeffer: Bingo! People LOVE to talk about themselves! Let them talk, but try to get them to talk about their work and workplace. Get them focused. Then ask for advice about how someone like you could learn more about their business. Keep listening. Find another person. Repeat. Then keep going back to the last ones, listen some more. This is the social friction that creates heat and leads to jobs!

    @Linda: Use whatever tools work, but don’t try to do it with your bare hands :-). My compliments!

    @Peter Liepmann: YESSS –> “After you do it a few hundred times, it gets to feel natural and people admire you for your social ease (!)”

  12. Excellent points, all. When I was a student at community college, one of the most popular courses on campus was a speech course. It wasn’t required, but it would count towards a gen. ed. requirement, and I’d heard wonderful things both about the course and the professor. It was one of the best courses I took. I learned not only how to write a speech (on just about any topic) but how to give one, and learned how to get comfortable speaking to groups of people, large and small, who I may or may not know.

    I’ve never done Toastmasters, so I can’t speak to its quality, but if you’re looking for an alternative to Toastmasters, look into courses at your local community college or state college or university (for any of them, you might have to search through Continuing Education, especially if you just want to take the one course).

    I read the book “Quiet”, and it isn’t a bad place to begin if you want to think more about the whole extrovert vs introvert matter. I’m an introvert. It doesn’t mean shy (though some introverts are shy), but a former colleague gave me a different way to think about it. He said that people who are introverts tend to get re-energized by spending time alone, or quietly. People who are extroverts tend to get re-energized by spending time with people, with more excitement/activities. Maybe that isn’t such a bad way to think about it. Too often “shy” or introverts get labeled as bad or at least as something that has to be fixed, but it isn’t, just as it wouldn’t make an extrovert happy to try to learn to re-energize by spending time alone, quietly, or with one other person when by nature he wants to be with a larger group of people.

    At the end of a long day, I want my downtime, and to me, that means time alone or spent quietly with a friend. A party with lots of people…not so much. It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy parties, but in my own way on my time.

    With regard to “networking”, yes, it can be difficult, but what I do is I think of questions, write them down (so I don’t forget them), and practice. As others noted, getting people to talk about themselves is a good way to network. Observing others who are successful is also excellent advice. And starting out with smaller groups wouldn’t be a bad idea either…

  13. I’m naturally introverted and pretty quiet, but I’m always willing to help someone who asks. So a few years ago I flipped the reason for going to networking events. Now I look at them as opportunities to talk to people and help them with their issues. I’ve been around a while, so if someone is looking for a job, or looking to hire Java developers or business analysts or new product development people I usually can make good recommendations. When I think of it that way, I’m not networking, I’m just helping somebody out, and I like doing it.

  14. Carl – that is excellent advise. Go to these so called networking events to see how you can help others! Perfect. Takes all the shyness and worry about coming across as asking for help since you aren’t.

  15. I’m a 10th degree black belt introvert and was shy. I didn’t & don’t do well with crowds of strangers. “Working a room” is a form of torment.

    All the points herein are great.

    Learning to speak is a big help. And it’s an acquired skill, and as someone said, introverts may be surprised to learn that publicly speaking to a crowd isn’t the same as “working a room” When I became a manager making presentations is part of the territory and I learned to do it. And PS, don’t assume because someone’s extroverted that automatically makes them a good speaker. It doesn’t,

    When I became a recruiter I had to learn to cold call. It too is an acquired skill.

    I think one reason introverts can acquire these skills lies in points made in past subject matter. It has a lot to do about talking shop. whatever your expertise, interests, passions are, that’s “shop talk”. And shop talk is a great bridge to successful networking (and hence job hunting) You’re in your comfort zone and there’s a vast difference in talking about subject matter that you are comfortable with, and randomized small talk. When you ask someone what they do, what they love to do, you enter into comfortable territory. You’re talking about them. and introverts can do fine when they are on the receiving end of the same question.

    I find that when the issue of networking is raised, and why it sends shudders down the back of an introvert is because people inevitably think about working rooms of strangers, trying to talk with strangers. That’s only a piece of it. Today’s technology offers many other avenues, many of which offer great tools for introverts. For instance, the best way to communicate with me is email. Partly or perhaps mainly because I spent so much of my life in the hi-tech R&D world populated by a lot of people who are introverted, who prefer to email you, than call you or worse…talk to you. And you can do a lot of networking with email (or texting) helping to move you to a point that breaks the barrier between stranger to someone you know, and once done you can easily have a conversation with, and through whom you meet other people.

    I’ve taken the Myers Briggs test several times and always score INTP in spite of my wife’s hopes that I’d prove to be cured. But today, I can talk anyone’s ear off if we’re talking shop, or some common interest, but I’m not the guy you’d want to sit next to in an airplane if I didn’t know you. Even my wife doesn’t like to sit next to me with my collection of back dated magazines, books, stereo ear phones on, doing my singular thing, in my singular world.

  16. First, I just want to point out there is a difference between introverted and shy. It was sort of mentioned in passing above, but didn’t really make the distinction. I am introverted; I am not shy. I like hanging with people but I find large groups exhausting, and simply can’t compete in boisterous shouting contests. (More on that…)

    My question, which I’ve never seen addressed anywhere, ever: most networking happens at parties and other large, generally loud, groups. I have an audio processing disorder, which means I cannot pick out the sounds I want to hear from an ocean of white noise. I have good hearing, but I hear EVERYTHING. It’s not fixable, it’s the way my brain is wired. The net result is that if you’re trying to talk to me in the midst of a noisy crowd, I’m either shouting “WHAT?” over and over until I finally give up and smile and nod, or I’m smiling and nodding while resigning myself to making out maybe every fifth word and not understanding a thing about what people are talking about. Obviously I have very little to contribute to a conversation I can’t hear.

    I don’t think noisy networking parties will ever go away, but I don’t have a better solution for meeting and maintaining relationships with people in my industry. I’ve tried Twitter but it has poor conversion to developing relationships in person. I’ve also tried booking informational interviews, but the more formal circumstance doesn’t lend itself to becoming friendly (or even to more than one meeting), and eventually I ran out of people I knew who could introduce me to someone I didn’t. And those I had just met at these interviews were never motivated to introduce me to others, for obvious reasons — they barely knew me.

    Any ideas?

  17. @Don: I’ve taken the MBTI test twice, but 25 years apart. I was an ISTJ as a 20-something recent college grad in her one of her first post college jobs (I worked for a management consulting firm and one of my jobs was scoring clients MBTI tests–by hand with a stylus back then) and when I took it as a mid 40-something, I still scored as an ISTJ. I’d have to hunt down my first scores for the exact numbers just to see how they compared to the later scores. Sometimes age and life experience will have an impact, but I don’t think it changes who you are in terms of your basic personality. I’m like you–I have no problem talking to friends, colleagues, people I know, or if I’m talking shop with strangers. But like Kat, I don’t like large, boisterous parties/groups, and find that my internal circuits get overloaded. It isn’t enjoyable. I don’t consider myself shy either, but I am an introvert. I really like my former colleague’s definition–in order to face the world again, I need quiet downtime, often by myself but I’m okay with a friend or even a (very)small group of people. An extrovert will get energized different. The differences don’t make one right and the other wrong, just different. But it is introverts who are often told to fix their problem. I don’t see it as a problem.

  18. To Kat,

    I have the exact same problem when it comes to hearing. It doesn’t even have to be loud like a rock concert for me to distinguish voices amongst many. And, I live in Singapore where there are many Brisitish and Aussie speakers which makes it even more difficult for me. It’s like people are moving their lips but I can’t make out any words…like the sounds you hear whenever an adult is speaking on the Charlie Brown cartoons…..wah wah wah wah wah.

    My hearing used to be really good until last year. Now I have tinnitus which adds to the frustration!

    I’m afraid I don’t have a solution for you but just wanted to let you know you’re not alone.


  19. I’d like to second the comment on introversion being different from shyness. (You missed the boat on this one, Nick!) Many introverts are comfortable speaking in front of a large group of people but dread the idea of making small talk with them afterwards. If you are truly an introvert (and not shy), then try to prioritize the way you make contacts. Figure out the ones that are the most rewarding, but also honor your need to recharge your social battery. Also, introverts are often better listeners, which can help you develop relationships.

    Try checking out the book, The Intentional Networker (–and no, I’m not the author. Yes, it uses the N-word, but it also has suggestions on developing relationships regardless of your personality type.

  20. I definitely understand how nerve-wracking making contacts can be. One easy way to get your toes wet is to start engaging more on social media. While social media cannot eliminate the need to form contacts face-to-face, it can at least help you get to know the person a little before approaching them.

  21. When researching prospective employers, my first stop is Most of the companies on the site are rated no higher than 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5. Can that many companies be that bad?

    If Glassdoor has no info on a company, then I search the Internet. If the company provides services for homeowners, I’ll check their ratings on or Angie’s List. If a company gets bad reviews by consumers, do you really want to work for them?

  22. I forgot to mention…another source to check for companies that provide services for homeowners is the Better Business Bureau site for the applicable business area.