A few years ago, I was sitting in my cubicle staring intently at my computer screen. I was working for an engineering software company, and have been trying to figure out why a subroutine in the software that my company was developing, kept crashing. I mostly worked on numerical engineering research, but every once in a while, my projects would involve writing and de-bugging code.
I enjoyed those times because I could sit uninterrupted in my cubicle for hours at a time, living in my own little microcosm of numerical algorithms. But that day, my peaceful bubble was about to burst. The Sales Guy infiltrated the personal space of my cubicle. “Dr. Petrova!! Heeeeeey!! How are things?!!” – he roared with such enthusiasm, you’d think he just downed a whole bottle of Prozac.
Every few days, the company Sales Guy would make his rounds through the engineering department, interrupting work, shooting the breeze, and in general spreading the blessings of his persona throughout the R&D department. We would all politely smile, answer his questions, and try to make small talk, while secretly wondering how the heck the Sales Guy manages to get paid for doing absolutely nothing.
As it turned out, there was quite a bit to learn from the Sales Guy. Fast-forward three years. I have joined the sales and marketing team as a support engineer because I discovered an extrovert side in me that enjoyed working with people. The problem was that all of those years in front of the computer screen, gave me little time to practice my people skills. Those skills happened to be crucial if you need to work with, well, people.
Even if you are not planning on working in sales, mastering the art of dealing with people is essential to any professional career. Does that mean that you have to force yourself to make small talk with everyone at your company instead of finishing a project before a deadline? Absolutely not. There are much classier and more comfortable ways to bring out the extrovert in you. I would like to share some of the lessons that I learned from the Sales Guy in my journey of mastering the art of dealing with people, adapted for technical professionals.
Lesson #1: Get a Mirror
After the first couple of weeks of working for the “dark side” (clever term bestowed upon the sales and marketing by the engineers), the Sales Guy, and now my boss, walked into my office. “Masha,” he said lightheartedly, “do you often make people mad?”
By that time I figured out that sales people have a different way of talking to you, so I was not instantly offended.
“Not that often,” I said reluctantly. “Why?”
“Well,” said the Sales Guy, still beaming, “do you know what your face looks like when you talk to people?”
He stumped me with that one. That was a weird question even for a Sales Guy. “It looks like…I am…in deep thought..?” I said uncertainly.
“It looks scary,” said the Sales Guy, smiling as if he was watching baby bunnies frolic in the meadow. “If you want to have any hope of relating to people, get a mirror and put it on your desk. When you’re talking to anyone who comes into your office, glance into the mirror and see what the other person is seeing.”
With that he was gone and I was left wondering why in the world I left my cozy engineering R&D position for this. In the spirit of learning, I decided to give the mirror method a shot and was amazed at what my face was telling people. The first time I glanced into the mirror, while I was talking to a coworker, I saw the face of an axe murderer staring back at me.
Up to that point, I was sure that no one cared about what my facial expressions looked like, but once I started using the mirror and adjusting my facial expressions, the results were astonishing. People were more willing to talk to me, give me needed information and in general seemed to like me better. Being aware of what your body language and facial expressions are saying is an important first step in relating to people.
Lesson #2: Take them to lunch
One of the first things that the Sales Guy recommended I do in order to develop my extrovert skills, was to start taking people to lunch. That turned out to be a great learning experience for me. Many of us working in the technical fields perceive spending a lunch hour with people who are not our immediate friends as an hour wasted. In reality, you can learn more in that one hour, than during many more hours in front of a computer.
The first few lunches with various people in my company were a bit challenging, but practice makes perfect. It became easier and aside from learning more about each coworker, I was able to gather information that was useful to my job as well as establish myself as someone who was genuinely interested in people. That, in turn, encouraged others to help me, when I needed information or resources. I was forced to bring out the extrovert in me during each of those lunches and before I knew it speaking to random people at conferences and professional events was a snap.
If you are an introvert looking to grow yourself as a professional, one of the first things you should to be working on is training your internal extravert to come out at your command. Asking various people at your place of work to have lunch with you is a great way to start. It might be uncomfortable and probably even scary at first. I recommend starting with some fellow programmers, IT people, or engineers at your company. Chances are they will be even more introverted than you, which would make for a comfortable and quiet lunch hour.
Then move on to the sales and marketing guys. Take this to be an exercise. You don’t have to try to be their best friend, but you are looking to learn how to best deal with different types of people.
Lesson #3: It’s not your Thesis Defense – stop proving how smart you are
During the second week of my sales career, the Sales Guy told me that I will be sitting in on a call with a potential client. I was terrified and thrilled at the same time. Finally, a chance to showcase my brilliance!
During the call I tried to answer every question the potential client had in gruesome detail. I was so proud of how well I was doing. The Sales Guy kept shooting me dirty looks, but I figured it was because he was just overwhelmed with my knowledge. The call ended and I was thrilled. “That was a great call!” I said.
“Yeah,” mumbled the Sales Guy, “we’ll never hear from him again.” “Why?” I said, appalled.
“Tell me something,” said the Sales Guy,” how big is this engineer’s group?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
“Can you tell me what the role of this engineer in his department is?”
“Well, I didn’t ask.”
“Can you at least tell me if they can afford our software?”
How am I supposed to know that?” I said irritated. “He didn’t tell me!”
“Interesting,” said the Sales Guy. “You just spend an hour of company time on this call and did not gather a single piece of information that would actually help us make a sale. In addition, the engineer doesn’t think that you care about him or the problems he is trying to solve.”
“Why?” I was taken aback, “I gave him a lot of information about our software!”
“Yes. You took up his time to demonstrate how smart you were instead of asking him questions that would show him that you are interested in helping him solve his problem.”
The engineer never called back. Trying to prove how smart you are during conversations makes people not want to talk to you. People like to feel that they are being heard. Ask a question and then be quiet and just listen. Figure out a way to be interested in what others are telling you. You might have to fake it in the beginning; especially if you are not that interested in a particular conversation topic. Beware, faking it all the time does not work, others will be able to tell and will be offended.
If you would like to better master the art of dealing with people, take some cues from my Sales Guy. Be aware of what your face and body language is saying to people, practice bringing out your inner extrovert, and stop focusing on your own brilliance. With those skills you will be well on your way to a more prosperous career.