People are often surprised when I tell them I am naturally shy, and I can understand why. This week I made my 6,000th connection on LinkedIn, I feel perfectly relaxed when standing on a stage, and next week I expect to chat with 50 experts and address over 2,000 online viewers whilst compering RAG’s latest virtual conference. I even have the confidence to write the words you are reading now. However, I rarely spoke when I was a boy, and never to strangers. Eye contact was difficult throughout my teenage years and I would typically make excuses to prematurely exit conversations just to avoid the stress of finding something to say. As a young adult I would go to parties with the expectation that I would spend all my time listening to other people. Some may have considered me aloof; others may have thought me mysterious. But there is no mystery surrounding shyness, which is the anxiety that anything you do or say may prompt a negative reaction, and thus leads shy people to do and say as little as possible. The real mystery is in finding ways to overcome shyness because inhibiting yourself inevitably means inhibiting your chances to succeed at many aspects of work and life. Risk managers need to be good at consolidating a lot of information, and it is very difficult to gather all the key facts if you cannot obtain them from other people. But probably a lot of risk managers chose that line of work because they are shy. They obviously did not apply for the job of a salesman or an entertainer, and shyness may be the reason they prefer to work with computers and data. So how do you turn yourself from a shy risk manager into somebody who is not afraid to ask a difficult question, and is happy to state your opinion about the seriousness of every kind of risk?
One way to start a conversation is by making it obvious that you want to listen. When I was a junior auditor I realized that most people want to tell you about their job, because nobody asks them about it. If I could allow time to let them talk freely then I would learn what I needed to know. Start from a humble position where you admit how little you know, and begin with simple, open questions about who does what and how they do it. Maybe you only need to learn one specific fact from the individual, so have that question written on your notepad as a reminder, with the intention that you ask it when it feels like the right time. Because you listened beforehand, they are less likely to reject or evade your specific question when you ask it. And the fact you listened to more general information means you have a better chance of understanding the answer because you have more context. So one of the best ways to learn how to talk to strangers is by first being a good listener and then turning that to your advantage.
It is important that we never confuse listening with hearing. Shy people may be more aware of this distinction because they will be sensitive to other people nodding their head or tapping their foot in such a way as to indicate they are not really engaged and want to leave. But being sensitive to other people’s rudeness does not automatically make you polite. If you are tempted to run from a social interaction then you will just have to resist it. Hold on to the conversation for longer; it may get better. The longer it goes on, the more you demonstrate you are willing to give your time to the person you are talking with (even if they do not want it). Instead of leaving with a half-answer that you do not really comprehend, find ways to ask the same question several times by rephrasing it. This will not just increase your chances of gathering all the information you need because most people will also take your commitment to the conversation as confirmation that you respect them and are sincere about learning from them. Rephrasing a question can also be vital to identifying and eliminating bias in the information given to you. For example, if you ask somebody about whether a plan is risky, you should also ask them about the risks associated with alternatives to that plan, including the risks associated with doing nothing. Perhaps they will say every option is risky. If you only asked about the first option then you may walk away with the erroneous impression that it is riskier than the alternatives.
If you can progress to the point when you are confident about asking questions of strangers, then a world of opportunity will open to you. I learned to ask questions because it was central to my work as an auditor but now I ask questions because I want to, and I ask them of anybody without fear. “There is no such thing as a stupid question” is such a common expression that there is even a Wikipedia entry for it. Admitting you lack knowledge may seem shameful, but the quickest way to end that shame is by acquiring the knowledge. Some will respond negatively to your question, but others will not, and I find the best experts are also generous with their knowledge. This is because they associate their area of expertise with positive emotions, and want to feel those emotions by thinking and talking about the subject. Only inferior so-called experts will disrespect you when you ask question, and probably because they are afraid you will find gaps in their knowledge. So whilst there is always a risk that you will feel demeaned by an impolite reaction to your question, if you hurry up and ask more questions to more people then you will make connections with real experts more rapidly, saving you time and unpleasantness in future.
Dale Carnegie wrote the first self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, and the observations he made in 1936 are still useful because human nature does not change. Carnegie was a successful public speaker, and his essential advice on public speaking is very straightforward. To satisfy an audience you should have already earned the right to speak. And there are only two ways to earn that right: you either talk about something you understand because you did it, or you talk about something because you have done the necessary research. All other aspects of speaking to an audience, whether it consists of one person or a hall of people, become minor details if you concentrate on your right to speak to that audience. So address that part of shyness by earning the right in your own mind. For a risk manager this means doing the research. Ignore short cuts and gimmicks, and do the hard work that entitles you to express an opinion about the risks faced by the business. This might involve crunching data, or it might mean speaking to somebody in a rival business about how they manage risk.
As long as you have ways to obtain useful information not already in the possession of your workplace colleagues then you have proven your worth. And if you focus on the content, as opposed to the way you talk or how the listener reacts, then your anxieties will subside. There will still be rude people who disrespect the opinion you express. But if you know you have done your research then you will also discover that you will have less respect for people who lack interest in the facts, and you will not be so bothered about their opinion of you. The truth is that they are rude to you because they see people as tools they can use or as threats to their position. Little can be gained by trying to please somebody like that. There will always be another manager who does want to make decisions grounded in facts, and who will appreciate you more. And you will have developed the confidence to choose to seek those managers instead of accepting a bad situation in your workplace.
If you keep on this path then every step makes the next step easier to take. My shyness meant I could barely talk to friendly people at a party, but now I have no fear about asking the ‘stupidest’ questions to important people, and do not worry if they are rude in return. A lot of people have been rude to me, including CEOs and famous film directors and board members and politicians, but none of that gets under my skin like it once did. The more questions you ask, the more you discover who really knows the answers and how many are bluffing. And if you express opinions that are wrong, then the negative feedback helps you correct your mistakes and get things right in future.
The game of interacting with other people is like taking up a new sport or learning a new language. Whilst you will inevitably be poor at first, your rate of progress depends on how much time you invest. You can turn your anxiety into fuel that propels you forward, safe in the knowledge that good people will help you on your journey, and that you only hurt yourself if you let bad people influence how you behave. So reach out, ask questions, share opinions, and meet all the good people you can. Then you have a chance to unleash all your other talents and achieve your full potential. Maybe you will become a Chief Risk Officer, or maybe you will decide you would like to try working in sales after all. Whatever you decide to do, you will have increased your value to yourself, and your value to everyone around you. Overcoming inhibitions can seem impossibly difficult at times, but being a good listener and establishing your right to be heard will release everything good inside you, and gives you opportunities to make the world a better place. And that is why you deserve to overcome your shyness.