How Communication Is Like Swimming for Introverts

An introvert swimming

Communication skills are just that — a skill, something you can learn through practice, like swimming.

Summer may be over, but the lessons we learn in the water can keep us afloat all year round. That said, learning to communicate is like learning to swim. When you’re starting out, it feels impossible. There’s a lot of flailing and gasping for air and your mind is consumed with fears of drowning.

You might give up before you get the basics down. But if you stick with it, the reward is cool and calming, a peaceful rhythm that propels you forward.   

The same goes for communication. Before you get the hang of it, it can feel terrifying for us introverts.

As a young professional, I mistakenly thought that communication skills were something you were born with or you were out of luck. 

I went on dozens of sales meetings and professional lunches with an extroverted boss and attributed his suave social skills to an outgoing personality and acting school. To be clear, I don’t think those things hurt, but what I failed to see were the hundreds of hours of practice — the countless times he had done this before. 

I didn’t yet know that communication skills were just that — a skill, something you could learn through practice, like softball and swimming.

Your Success at Communicating Rides Not on Your Skill, but on Your Practice

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, consistency and mindset are just as important as your starting skill level. This is true for sports and it’s true for communication.

Henry Ford said, “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.” 

That’s why mindset is a pivotal part of growing your skills as a communicator.

If your practice isn’t getting the results you want, you might not be practicing enough or you might be practicing the wrong things. You might have your presentation memorized and synced with a fancy slide deck, but if you think your content is boring or you’re convinced that your colleagues don’t want to hear from you, no amount of practice is going to make you feel confident

In her book, Quiet, Susan Cain talks about how she overcame her fear of public speaking. She didn’t start by speaking about introverts at TED (although her talk has been viewed more than 29 million times). She started by taking a class and introducing herself to a roomful of strangers. 

If you’re working up the courage to talk to more people at a holiday party, don’t start with unattainable goals. If talking to one person makes you hide in the bathroom, meeting 50 people is probably unrealistic. You can easily triple your efforts (and your network) by talking to three people at every event. If you’re at a dinner party, you might talk to the person on either side of you and directly across from you. Or if you’re at a cocktail party with passed hors d’oeuvres, you can make it a game and talk to someone new each time they bring out a new plate of food. (Of course, the number of people you meet can vary depending on your comfort level).

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All the Pieces Need to Work Together

This past summer, I taught my 7-year-old how to freestyle crawl in the pool and quickly discovered how many different pieces there were to coordinate.

In the water, your arms and legs need to work together to keep you afloat. In communication, your mouth and mind need to work together to get your message across. 

Sometimes it’s fluid, and sometimes nerves leave you gasping for air. If you find yourself tongue-tied or rambling in a meeting or hiding in the bathroom at a party, go back to the basics:

  • Plant your feet on the ground. 
  • Slow down your breathing.
  • Focus on your objective.

You didn’t learn how to swim overnight — you learned through practice, one failed attempt at a time.

So give yourself grace and be patient. Practice builds your muscles, and it’s equally important to practice new thoughts — which we introverts excel at! — as it is to practice your pitch or your presentation. 

Strategy Is Important, but First You Need to Get In the Pool

You aren’t born knowing how to swim, nor do you emerge from the womb knowing how to communicate (crying aside).

You learn through practice, through many failed experiments, and by trying things that don’t work until you find the ones that do.

Two summers ago, I taught my then-5-year-old how to float. He was terrified — every time I removed my hands from his back, he’d collapse. But, eventually, he learned how to float. Floating was followed by dog-paddling. And dog-paddling was followed by swimming underwater. Now we’re working on diving and actual strokes…

But it started with getting in the pool. 

If you’re not willing to get wet, no amount of books or YouTube videos are going to conquer your fear of the water. Similarly, sitting on the couch watching TED talks and reading books about communication aren’t going to overcome your fear of communicating with others.

For introverts who might be self-conscious about trying new things in front of colleagues, it can be helpful to dip your toes in the water outside of work. Some of the best communication training I’ve had is serving as a volunteer board member on my co-op board and getting involved in community organizing. 

You can start by going to a City Council meeting and talking about one neighborhood issue that interests you.

You Have to Dip Your Toes in the Water (and It May Be Cold)

Teaching my 7-year-old how to swim made me think a lot about where I started. 

When I moved to New York as a child, I spent one miserable summer at YMCA day camp. It was my first summer in NY, a foreign land with foreign beings we called camp counselors. I was not confident enough as a swimmer to cross the cavernous Olympic-sized pool.

When other kids changed into swimsuits and splashed around the pool, I sat on the sidelines and pretended to have a stomachache. I spent a lot of time watching other people have fun because I didn’t want to call attention to myself and what I saw as 8-year-old shortcomings. 

This pattern continued into adulthood — a deep-seated fear of exposing my lack of knowledge or undeveloped skills. I can see now that it didn’t help; rather, it just prolonged my suffering and put off the process of learning.  

When a boss told me I was “too quiet” (terrible advice to give an introvert), I internalized that and hid for years. Eventually, I found my way to a Toastmasters club, which helps you work on your public speaking and leadership skills. I almost didn’t join because I was terrified of speaking in front of strangers. But after visiting two different clubs, I decided the only way forward was through. I signed up and got in the pool.  

The hardest part for introverts is to start.  You have to get into the water:

  • Raise your hand in a meeting. 
  • Volunteer to take on a new project. 
  • Talk to three new people at a party. 

Just start.

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