by Kerry C. O’Hallaron

If this is even possible, I came out of the womb shy.

Have you ever interacted with a baby – had him play with your finger, watched her smile and giggle at you just because you were trying to be friendly?   If you’ve ever experienced that joy, I was not the baby in question.  If it had been me, I may have barely acknowledged you and then gone back to playing with my stuffed animals. I just was not a big fan of people back then!

I always wanted to interact, be part of the group, and join in the conversation. I just didn’t have much to say.  It felt kind of like a “disease” – I was “that shy boy who doesn’t talk much.” But being otherwise like most kids, I didn’t let my “disease” hamper me.  I went to school, spent a lot of time by myself but also played with a very small group of friends – I was just socially awkward, and very shy around all but my few friends.

Additionally, I’m a lifelong introvert.  An introvert somewhat similar to but not the same as being shy.  Introverts tends to feel drained after spending time in social settings, and they regain their energy by spending time by themselves.  In spite of being shy, I’ve always liked almost everyone; but spending time with them socially tends to exhaust me, while it would tend to energize an extrovert.

Shyness and introversion are not quite the same thing, even though people like to think otherwise.  They’re more like “cousins.”  Consider it this way.  An extrovert, who will typically love to socialize, will feel recharged after doing so. A person who is shy, introvert or not, will tend to have little desire to socialize – and won’t know what to say when she does socialize. And, if that person is also an introvert, she feels physically and emotionally drained after she does socialize.

So now you know what my world is like.  Welcome!

Now that you know “where I live,” you’ll find the following true story – which happened to me years ago – to be fitting for a serial shy introvert.

Picture this.  The place was St. Louis, Missouri, 1993, in the accounting office where I was working as a client executive.  My job was a little complex. I had to oversee delivery of the business consulting services that our salespeople had promised to our largest business clients.  It was technically complex. However, in reality there was only one job requirement.  I was to manage the client relationships.  In other words, I was to keep clients happy and satisfied – so that they did not leave our company for one of our competitors. 

That was the entire job.  Keep customers. Period.  The job was really more about exercising business relationship skills than it was about technical consulting skills.  In retrospect, that may not have been best career path for a guy born who was born shy, with the added “bonus” of being an avowed introvert, who desperately needed the income from the job to help support a lovely wife and three young kids. 

And yet there I was, about to face the reality the fact that I had just lost the biggest client in the office!

Our biggest customer had ended our contract because they believed that one of our competitors could do a better job for their company, even though we knew it wasn’t true.

To put it in the perspective of my bosses, I had had only one job to do – keep customers from leaving us – and I hadn’t done it!

My boss asked me into a meeting in his office, to discuss the “situation”.  Have you ever had such a meeting with your boss?  If so, you know the feeling.  It’s like “fear on steroids.” You know for certain that your life is about to change radically – and in all probability you will be looking for a new job.

The boss asked me to come in ad sit down.  There, to my surprise, were both the president of the company and the Human Resources Director, flanking my boss on either side.  They had stern looks on their faces.  I knew this would not be good.

“Kerry,” said Tom, my boss, “I’m sure you know why we’re here.”

I did know why, so I forced a little smile, nodded, and started preparing my résumé mentally so that I could send it out – maybe to the competitors who had stolen my account!

“To be honest,” said Tom, “We’re very disappointed in you.  The company trusted you with its largest client.  We gave you everything you needed to manage that relationship. 

“You only had one job – don’t lose the account.  And yet, you lost it. We think we underestimated your people skills, and that’s why we are here today.  We think your people skills are among the worst we have ever seen.”(I’ve added the emphasis, though at the time it sure felt like he actually was emphasizing those words.)

I suddenly stopped smiling, and my jaw dropped a little.  My bruised ego shrunk. Tom was being far too direct for my liking.

“I’m afraid we have no choice in this matter, Kerry.  We are going to have to…”

You know what’s next.  The “axe” was about to drop.

My heart started racing.  My face got flushed.  The meeting would end as quickly as it had begun. I’d take a “walk of shame” to my desk, gather a few things, and leave the office stunned and unemployed.

I knew I could find work elsewhere.  But it could take some time, six to twelve months at least.  It might require moving to a new town. The money from my wife’s income and from our meager savings as a young couple would not last that long.  I try not to show fear, but I’m sure it was showing at that point.

Tom continued, “Our only choice is to demote you, and put you into a back-office role where you will not be dealing with clients. This is effective immediately.  We hoped had the necessary skills to interact with our valued customers.  You don’t have them, and there’s no place where you can learn them.  I’m sorry it’s come to this, but our decision is not negotiable.”

Now, I may not be all that smart – definitely not a genius – but I’m absolutely a quick thinker.  The quick thinker in me realized that this could actually work.  Before I could be too stunned, my brain quietly said, “Let’s do the math here, Kerry.   Sure, you worked hard to get the client executive position and now it’s evaporated, probably permanently.  Sure, it’s an ego shock, and yes, you’ll have to keep your head down when you show up for the back-office job.

“However, you still do have a job, and most of your income.  Your family will never know what a major blow this event was to your pride (unless you one day decide to write a book about it); Your mortgage will continue to get paid, and your kids will continue eating and being able to look up to their dad.  All factors considered, this is a win, even if it doesn’t feel like one.”

I knew my brain was right, and so I did what was necessary to maintain the income I had somehow kept from losing.  I told the bosses I was genuinely sorry for letting the company down. I promised I would do my best work in the new role. I thanked them for giving me an opportunity to continue with the company, smiled sincerely, shook their hands with as much enthusiasm as I could, given the circumstances, and left the meeting.

As I left Tom’s office, two very important things came to mind:

  1. I agreed with Tom that I needed additional “people skills” training – but he said there was no place to learn them.  Is that true?   I’d actually done modestly well to that point for a guy who was born a painfully shy introvert. I’d gotten that job, and kept it at a time when most people would have been fired.  And Tom tells me there is no place to get additional people skills training, so I have to work in a back-office job forever?  Where did I get the knowledge that had gotten me where I was, when I started a shy introvert pretty much afraid of any human contact?!
  2. Again, given that most people would have ended up fired in this situation, I did a really good job “working the room” and convincing them they had not made a mistake in keeping me around – for a guy who allegedly had no people skills.  The ridiculously shy Kerry from childhood could never have pulled that off!

I was strangely not angry at the guys or at the situation. I was actually appreciative that they hadn’t discharged me. But at the same time, I wondered if they couldn’t have taken another approach, one which helped me further master the skills we all agreed I needed.

I was relieved at the situation, and I decided to set two goals for the future.  My first goal was to always protect my income so that I could properly take care of my family.   Nothing could be allowed to get in the way of that objective.  My second goal was to earn my way back into a client executive role.  I loved the job; I almost succeeded at it; and darn it, I was going to figure it out! 

I looked back at my days as a brutally shy kid with nothing to say, and realized just how far I’d come.  I had learned almost enough to do that job. I thought to myself, “Tom, you’re right about some things.  But don’t tell me there’s no place to get better at people skills. I’ll find one.  Or I’ll create it myself!”

My story does have a happy ending. As all of this was taking place, I was quietly hoping to find a similar job in Florida where I’d always wanted to live. I learned that I’d better never stop learning about interpersonal skills.I read countless books on shyness, human interaction, different personality styles, advanced presentation skills – if it existed, I read it.  Somehow it worked – a company in Tampa hired for that client executive role.  When they welcomed me to the company, they told my new co-workers that they believed my “people skills” were some of the best they’d ever seen!

Yes, me – the shy introvert!

But I didn’t stop learning. Tom had made one valid point – there really was no specific training to learn the human relations skills I so desperately needed – so I created the training.  I literally distilled dozens of books, countless interactions, and years of experience into one book – which allows me, after all these years, to prove Tom (remember Tom?) wrong!

Thank you, Tom! By telling me it couldn’t be learned, you forced me to find a way to learn it; and then you allowed me to teach it when you said it couldn’t be taught. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m actually in your debt!

*********************************************

Kerry O’Hallaron is an author, speaker, trainer, and successful business executive. His latest book is People Skills 101-tm: How to Have More Friends, Fewer Conflicts and Better Relationships.  In its recent launch, it catapulted to #1 in the Self Development category.  It’s been called a life-changing twist on Dale Carnegie’s timeless classic. You can buy it today in Kindle and paperback versions on Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/People-Skills-101-Conflicts-Relationships-ebook/dp/B07KXDBMX8

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