Do You Know How to Engage with Shy People? 7 Tips for Increasing Engagement

Late last year I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful writer on an article dealing with how to engage with people who are shy. During the editing process, much of the original information was omitted due to space constraints, so I thought the subject merited some additional attention.

With the exception of those individuals who have a more quiet style of communicating, there are a number of reasons why people might not take the initiative to engage or be more outgoing. Some people are shy because they are afraid of rejection or being embarrassed. Still others may have a past where they were constantly put down for a number of reasons. Whatever the reason may be, these individuals are uncomfortable speaking up, drawing attention to themselves, or putting themselves or their ideas up to the scrutiny of others.

Before offering a recipe to effectively deal with those who are shy, there are a number of communication principles that will help you to become more engaging with a shy person.

Use questions to establish rapport and a relationship. Asking questions is the easiest way to create respect and demonstrate an interest in another person or their ideas.

Ask simple questions. Begin by asking questions that are safe and personally less revealing. You might ask any of the following questions:

“Hi, I’m John. What is your name?”

“What brings you to this event today?

“What is your area of expertise?”

Take a genuine interest. Make the conversation about them, their interests, desires, and needs. The purpose of the conversation should be about learning about them, not talking about yourself unless you are asked.

Be present with the person. As you are asking questions and they are answering, don’t be looking over your shoulder and thinking about the next person that you want to meet. You will miss the opportunity to connect with this person and your distractive behavior will do more damage than good. 

Listen to them. This means that you will take the time to hear them, comment on what they may be saying, and ask questions to clarify or test whether you have understood them or not.

If you will be in a situation where you know someone may isolate themselves and hold back from interacting with others, here are a number of suggestions that will help you make them feel more at ease.

1. Be prepared. It will help if you have a number of questions prepared to ask a person who is shy. Having a few questions in mind allows you to focus on them and not have to worry about identifying what question you should ask next.

Here are a few to consider: “What’s up today?” “How are you doing?” or, “What brings you here today?” Once you have begun the conversation, you can ask more personalized questions. Having a few questions you know you can ask is a great way to start an interaction with someone who usually doesn’t speak up because they are shy.

2. Take the initiative. Don’t wait for the other person to start the conversation. You may wait a long time. Smile, introduce yourself, and ask them who they are. Then continue by asking some of the questions above. During the conversation, be sure to acknowledge the interaction by expressing something like, “It is great to meet you today.” Or, “I am so pleased to be able to visit for a minute.” This acknowledges them and will help them to be comfortable.

3. Use their name. People love to hear their name. It also demonstrates that you heard them and are attempting to acknowledge who they are. When I taught at the university, I made the attempt to memorize everyone’s name on the first day of class during introductions. I got to the point where I could memorize about 200 names in a first meeting. The rest of the semester, I would always call a person by name. I found that it made a huge difference to the students. Calling people by name says, “I care enough to let you know that I know who you are.”

4. Ask for their opinion. Once you have established rapport, you may want to ask more personal questions. For example, asking questions like, “What were you hoping to gain by being here today?” “Is there a particular challenge you need to resolve that this meeting would help?” or ”What did you think of …?” If they feel comfortable and safe, they will answer your questions helping you learn more about them while increasing engagement.

5. Offer assistance. Ask if there is something that you might help them with. You might ask, “Is there something that I can do to be of help?”, “Is there someone here you might like to meet?”, or “Is there anything I can do for you?” Someone who is shy would not tell you of their needs without having some semblance of a relationship first. If they ask for assistance, then you know that rapport has been established.

6. Be sincere. No matter what you say, your sincerity will go a long way to helping a shy person feel comfortable and engaged. Because people who are quieter tend to spend a lot of time observing others, they will know if you are truly interested in them or just going through the motions. For example, if you are preoccupied during a meeting, you may say all the right things, but you will most likely not make eye contact, you may doodle, change the subject, or not even hear another person’s answer to your questions. When such behavior occurs, your listener will doubt your sincerity or your interest in them or what they have to say.

7. End graciously. When the conversation is seemingly at an end, express your pleasure at the opportunity of meeting them and then excuse yourself. For example, you might say, “It certainly was a pleasure meeting you. Thanks so much for spending a minute speaking with me. Have a great day.”

There are a number of things that you can do to increase the opportunity for engagement with those who are shy. There are some basic communication principles that are worth remembering and a process for engaging with those who might not speak up in conversation or at a first meeting. By following the steps I have outlined, you can help put others at ease and encourage them to engage in conversation.

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