How to Speak Up to People Who Intimidate You as an Introvert

an introvert speaks up to someone who intimidates her

If you feel intimidated by someone, your fear gives them power over you — but you can humanize your “monster.”

Communicating with someone who intimidates you can be quite the daunting task. If you’ve ever found yourself stuttering, stammering, or even “radio silent” in the presence of a menacing personality, I feel your pain.

As a staunch introvert, loud, aggressive, or insensitive people used to intimidate me (and sometimes they still do). I avoided them like the plague. When I had to engage with them, I’d lose my train of thought and fumble through my words or simply fade into the background, letting those around me dominate the conversation. I eventually realized that there were two glaring problems with my approach:

  1. I wouldn’t always have the luxury of hiding from those who make me uncomfortable. Clashes of personalities happen all the time (for various reasons). That’s just life.
  2. Hiding or avoiding never actually solved my problem (duh). While I prevented the discomfort of encounters with my “monsters” in the moment, was I willing to spend the rest of my life ducking and dodging them because I couldn’t find my voice? Um, I think not.

If you feel intimidated by someone — whether it’s a coworker, your mother-in-law, or a friend-of-a-friend — understand that your fear gives them power over you and allows them to dictate your thoughts, emotions, and actions. For example, maybe you change your behavior in subtle ways to please them, such as ordering a meal you wouldn’t normally order at a restaurant, or avoiding discussing certain topics. Or it may be more significant, such as letting their criticism get under your skin and seriously harm your wellbeing.

Also, cowering in the face of a challenging personality can come across as:

  • A lack of competency, know-how, or skill
  • A lack of confidence or assertiveness
  • Being seen as “spineless” or weak
  • No need to take you seriously

Identify the Source of Your Intimidation

Want to start communicating like an introverted boss? First and foremost, I suggest turning inward. After all, reflection is what we introverts do best.

Ask yourself why you are intimidated. What is it about this person that induces fear? Is it their overall demeanor, personality, approach, tone, title/position, education level, financial status, viewpoint, or something else?

Then, consider if there is a pattern in the type of people who intimidate you. Think back to the people who have intimidated you in the past. Are there any similarities among them?

When I think back, I can definitely spot a pattern to the type of people I felt intimidated by: Any person with some perceived “power,” such as confidence, assertiveness, popularity, etc. Their ability to effortlessly be who they were, speak their truth, and command the crowd only punctuated the fact that I struggled to do so myself. (My fellow introverts, can you relate?)

For example, during my first year in college, I seemingly out of nowhere developed the uncontrollable, nervous habit of repeating the last thing someone had just said in a social setting. (Think Brick from the show, “The Middle,” minus the whole bow-my-head-and-whisper thing.) Unbeknownst to me, my brief bout of echolalia was really about my inability to comfortably express my own thoughts in social situations and not about the “intimidating” people themselves.

Which leads me to my next point…

Challenge the Story You’re Telling Yourself

What are you personally struggling with that might be coloring your experience with this person? Is there an underlying fear or limiting belief about yourself that’s actually at play?

This might be the (false) belief that no one cares about what you have to say, which might affect how you interact with those who speak up seemingly without fear. Feeling misunderstood or a sense of powerlessness can rear its ugly head when someone else unapologetically takes charge of a situation (as I experienced in college in the example above).

What stories are you telling yourself about this person? What assumptions are you making about them and your relationship? Is there any truth to these stories? We can change our behavior — and our life — simply by challenging the stories we tell ourselves and starting to tell ourselves new stories. In my case, my new story became that I was just as worthy of attention, love, and respect as anyone else — even those who were louder than me.

Tap Into Your Inner Assertiveness

In his book, The Big Leap, Gay Hendricks describes the “zone of genius” as the place where your greatest passion and your innate gifts meet. Your zone isn’t just about what you’re decent, good, or even excellent at… your zone is where you thrive and shine!

What’s your zone of genius? What unique power and talents do you bring to the table? Focus on those strengths — rather than fixating on your perceived weaknesses — and tap into your inner rock star.

Then, the next time you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do, pause and exercise your right to say “no” instead of leaning on an automatic “yes.” Or simply commit to making one relevant point during an upcoming meeting. It won’t be easy, but the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll become with sharing your thoughts and insights.

4 More Tips to Reclaim Your Power

Depending on the person you’re dealing with, the above advice alone may not do the trick. But have no fear! You can take steps toward reclaiming your power and leveling the playing field with these tips:

1. Humanize your “monster.”

Dig beneath the surface. You may find that underneath their scary exterior, there’s a person. Get to know and try to understand that person. Recognize your similarities rather than focusing on your perceived differences. Also, realize that even the most challenging people are struggling with their own insecurities (which may manifest as aggressiveness or insensitivity). While this doesn’t excuse their behaviors, tapping into this perspective can empower you to communicate without fear and to not take their behavior personally.

2. Prepare for your next encounter with this person by getting into the right mindset.

Get yourself in the right headspace for interacting with this person. When possible, prepare and rehearse what you’d like to say beforehand to avoid fumbling over your words or being silenced. Keying into the other person’s preferred communication style can also be helpful in meeting them where they are and having a productive conversation. For example, is this person a big-picture thinker, or someone who likes to deal with one step at a time? Does this person love hard data and facts, or prioritize relationships over the exchange of information? Differences in communication style — especially at work — can cause a lot of unnecessary stress.

3. Clear the air; confront any tension head-on.

If there’s any tension between you and your “monster,” you may need to confront the issue head on, in spite of your discomfort. Have a conversation to get to the root of the issue and move beyond it once and for all. A successful approach to clearing the air includes:

  • Scheduling a time to talk and not catching the person off guard (and putting them in defensive mode)
  • Mentally preparing yourself for the discussion ahead of time (but not obsessing)
  • Considering what role you could be playing in the tension between you two
  • Really listening to the other person’s point of view and trying to see things from their perspective
  • Developing a plan for interacting beyond the conversation

4. Use humor to lighten the mood.

When dealing with an intimidating person, you can always break the tension by adding a little humor (if it’s appropriate for the situation). Never pick on someone in a weaker position than you, though, or it will come across as bullying, according to Kare Anderson of Forbes. Instead, poke fun at yourself — it’s a type of humor that can unify a group — or those who hold the power, like an authority figure or a corporation.

Learning to speak up for yourself can be an uncomfortable yet absolutely life-changing process for an introvert. Believe me, I speak from experience. When you look inward, challenge the stories you’ve been telling yourself about those who intimidate you. When you use your voice, you gain confidence in yourself and your abilities, and ultimately, you’ll reclaim your personal power. 

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