Making Conferences Friendlier for Introverts

Last week I attended the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM) Aotearoa conference. I love attending conferences as it is one way of learning new things, however as an introvert, I find the whole networking side of things a bit of a challenge.  This conference, did a number of things that made things a lot easier to connect with other attendees which I thought I would share.

  1. All presentations, including plenaries, were held in rooms where seating was at tables for 6 to 10 people. This made it easy for (or you could say essentially forced) you to interact with other people at the table by introducing yourself when you sat down.
  2. Most of the presentations included activities for people to work on together, or group discussions, reflections, which again encouraged you to interact with other attendees
  3. Name badges were easy to read, and included the name of your institution. This is a useful prompt for engaging with other attendees, for example, “oh, I went to Massey, what do you do there?”
  4. A two hour gap between the last talk and the conference dinner. Engaging with people, even in fun workshops, can be draining for introverts, so a two hour gap is good for some quiet, alone time to recharge.
  5. The conference dinner was followed by a trivia quiz which allowed people to get to know each other (and their knowledge of song lyrics, movies etc).
  6. Conference organisers actively introducing newcomers to other attendees

All of the above in addition to some excellent presentations and workshops made this conference one of the most memorable ones that I have attended.



Factors for Successful Learning

As an educator, one of the things I have spent years trying to understand is the factors which determine whether or not a student succeeds in his or her study. The model I describe below is one that has evolved over the past decade. Currently I think there are five primary factors.

Natural ability – This can be a somewhat overemphasised factor, however, in life there are some topics and activities which we find easier than others. And when we find things easy it can have a reinforcing effect – we like it because it is easy, therefore we spend more time doing it, therefore we get even better at it. However, by itself natural ability does not result in success. Every great sportsperson, academic, tradesperson or artisan excels at what they do because they also continually practice and refine what they do. This is where the next factor comes in.

Motivation – to spend the time required to succeed you need to be motivated. Some people are motivated by the sheer intrinsic joy of what they are learning. For others it is more challenging. Where a topic or field of study does not bring intrinsic happiness there are other ways to keep motivated. One of the best in my experience is to focus on long term goals – e.g. if I successfully learn this material and pass this test, then this course and then this qualification I will be in a career I love/earning a good wage/making my loved ones proud of me etc. Visualisation can be useful here, vividly imagining what things will be like for you 5 or 10 years from now in the perfect career. Rewarding yourself for key successes along the way is also a good approach.

Resources – Even the brightest student cannot succeed without resources.  Resources may include textbooks, online resources, extra readings, practical experiments and on the job experiences. Teachers/tutors/lecturers also fall into this category, as successful students are often the ones that seek help from their teachers when they get stuck.

Study Skills – As well as having access to resources, knowing HOW to use them effectively is important. For example, for most people rote learning is less effective that doing activities which apply what is being learnt.

An understanding of your own learning style is important and so is trying different ways of learning to see which suits. For example, the most effective way for me to learn many things is to understand and visualise the “big picture” by drawing all the key concepts into diagrams. When I can see how everything connects I remember things better. However, this may not be the best way for others. Understanding how you learn best is an important skill which can be developed by exploring different methods (some of which I hope to blog about at a later date).

Support – One of the things which assists with an individual’s success is the support of those around them. A supportive partner, whanau (family) can make all the difference through emotional and physical (e.g. doing household chores for them) support. Supportive learning environments where both teachers and peers provide a positive learning environment also support success.

All five of the above factors contribute to success. Not all five are necessarily required for success but the fewer that are available, the less likely success is. In many ways they are interconnected, e.g. well designed learning resources can guide a student on how to learn, while whanau (family) support will bolster motivation.

If I had to pick one as most important it would probably be motivation. In every field there are those who were initially judged not to have the “right stuff” (natural ability) yet through perseverance and practice were able to excel in their chosen fields. Knowing how to motivate oneself, even in the face of adversity, is one of the best skills we can have.

5 learning factors

Diagram 1: Five Factors for Success in Learning


An Overview of “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patten, Sheila Heen

Although I have already written my own post on How to have difficult conversations I had to write another one about “Difficult Conversations” by Stone, Patton and Heen, because of the authors thorough and insightful approach to difficult conversations. The book is an absolute gem and while I can’t describe all of what it covers here, I will try and describe the model they use.

In essence, the authors consider any difficult conversation to actually involve three different types of conversation. There is a conversation about 1) What actually happened?, 2) About feelings and 3) About identity

1. What Happened?

To be effective this conversation needs to be about what the particular issue was that occurred, and a collaborative discussion about how to move forward from where things are and how to avoid the same thing happening in the future. It should never be about attributing blame. In any situation both sides have had some contribution to the issue and acknowledging this is important. When discussing issues/areas of disagreement there are two key mistakes to be avoided.

  • we must not assume we know someone’s intentions based on the impact they have on us. We are all different and act with different and sometimes complex intentions. Typically when we assume intentions we judge others harshly and ourselves generously
  • When something we do has a bad impact on someone else, simply explaining what our intentions were is not enough, we need to acknowledge the impact we have had (and apologise if appropriate)


2. Feelings

Virtually every conversation involves feelings – it is usually at the core of why a difficult conversation is difficult. We don’t want to make others feel bad and we don’t want to feel bad ourselves. Yet with many difficult conversations the more we avoid them the stronger those feelings can become and the worse the issue at the centre of the difficult conversation becomes.

In dealing with feelings, the authors have a number of key points

Try to fully understand your feelings first.  All of your feelings need to be included in the conversation but before that you need to “negotiate” with your feelings – look at them rationally, consider your contributions to the problem (e.g. drawing on part 1. Why it happened?), and identify where the feelings are coming from.

In a difficult conversation, feelings need to be raised carefully, without attributing blame. Leading with the phrase “I feel ……” is recommended. The intent is to share your feelings without judging or blaming the other person. The goal is after all to reach a satisfactory outcome where those involved understand each other better. We also need to recognise that we will not be the only one with feelings and we need to be open to hearing from the other person about their feelings. And acknowledge the other persons’ feelings thoughtfully – after all sharing feelings isn’t easy


3. Identity

This is described as the most “subtle and challenging” of the three conversations.

We all have a personal identity. This is essentially how we view ourselves and is influenced by many factors, including our values and our experiences. Some of our identity is demonstrated in how we behave and even what we wear, but some parts of our identity are hidden and private.

Difficult conversations may challenge our identity by causing us to question ourselves, for example “am I competent?” or “am I a good person?”. Where these questions appear to challenge our own beliefs in ourselves it can be quite confronting. The authors describe this as an “identity quake” and when it arises during a conversation it can be quite destabilising. They also emphasise that during a difficult conversation it is not only your identity which can be shaken.

Identity quakes cannot be avoided but it is helpful if we understand the identity issues we have so we are aware of them when then they happen. The book offers several ways to help with this.

  • recognise that life is not an “all or nothing” proposition. You won’t always be competent or always be good at everything. Nor are most things in life an either/or proposition, e.g. good vs bad, competent vs incompetent.
  • Become aware of your identity issues. Think about the subjects that have thrown you off balance in previous conversations and reflect on why this happens. Understanding the cause is a step towards mitigated the effect it has on you
  • recognise that you are complex person.  This means you will make mistakes – and that is okay. Also your intentions may be more complex than you realise. It is worth reflecting on this. For example, sometimes we do say things during difficult conversations to provoke the other person.
  • accept that in any situation we have also contributed to the problem/issue. Perhaps we ignored it longer than we should have, or weren’t clear about our needs or expectations.
  • Don’t try to control the other person’s reactions. They are allowed to feel they way they do.
  • Prepare for their response. How do you think they might react? Could it trigger on of your identity issues? If so, what can you do to prepare yourself? If they cry, how will you respond?
  • Get some perspective by imagining what things will be like in a few months or a few years time. Will this difficult conversation be significant in a few months or years time?
  • Take a break. If a conversation, or even the preparation for a conversation, feels overwhelming suggest a break. Make sure you organise another time to continue the conversation, and accept that sometimes a break is the best option.
  • Sometimes it may be valuable to raise the identity issue explicitly. For example, “I find it challenging to hear criticisms of my writing style. I realise your feedback can help me improve so can we agree a way between us that you can provide feedback in a less challenging way?”
  • Ask for help. Some challenges to our identity can cause a major identity quake. Seeking help from someone you trust can provide a valuable third party perspective.


Having explored these three conversations, the remainder of the book looks at how to bring them together to have more effective difficult conversations, and also how to assess whether a difficult conversation is necessary at all. For example, sometimes if we reflect on the issue we may find the problem is inside us and we can fix it ourselves. Or we may recognise the need for a difficult conversation, in which case the following points are invaluable.

1) Begin from the “third story” – no matter how carefully your describe your view of the situation, it may be interpreted by the other person as an attack by the other person. Starting by describing the issue from the perspective of an objective third person can help. e.g. “I wanted to talk to you about how the jobs are allocated amongst the team. We both seem to have quite different perspectives on what the priorities should be so I’d like to understand better why you view things the way you do and share with you my perspective.”

2) Invite them into the conversation (see the wording in the previous example. Be upfront about the purpose of the conversation. Invite them to be your partner in solving a problem, not in fixing a problem they created (because as previously stated, very few problems are the fault of only one side).

3) Be persistent and consistent. You need to live up to your end of whatever is agreed to as part of the conversation. This isn’t always easy and people fall back into old habits, so you may need to revisit the conversation, again in a collaborative and objective way.

4) Listen carefully to their point of view and acknowledge it. Be genuinely curious about understanding their point of view – ask open ended questions, seek clarification for that which you don’t understand, use paraphrasing to check that you do understand what the mean. Keep going until you truly understand their point of view.

5) Acknowledge their feelings, particularly before you attempt to solve the issue together. This does not mean you agree with them, just that you are acknowledging their right to have a point of view/feelings about the issue.

5) Start the conversation with what matters most and don’t beat around the bush. Be direct and remember that you are entitled to YOUR own point of view.

The above is little more than a overview of what I think is a wonderful book. If it sounds interesting to you, I recommend getting hold of a copy. It offers a comprehensive and truly insightful approach to those dreaded difficult conversations.



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Having a Growth Mindset

In her book “Mindset”, Stanford University professor of psychology, Dr Carol Dweck, describes how her over 20 years of research has determined that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life” and, if I may add, what you get out of life.

She describes two different mindsets:

If you have a FIXED mindset you are most likely to believe that your qualities (and those of others) are unchangeable. That you are born with a certain IQ, a certain personality and certain other characteristics and these cannot change. Then you fail at a task it is a bad reflection on you, so you are less likely to take chances, acknowledge when you do make a mistake, and are more likely to blame others. Failure is an indictment of your worth.

However, if you have a GROWTH mindset, you believe that with effort you can improve your qualities and attributes, moderate personality traits and other characteristics. When you fail at a task you use it as a learning experience, you are open to new experiences and challenges, and you take responsibility for your own actions. You accept that outside factors can affect your success or failure, but you are less likely to blame other people. Failure is a learning experience, a problem to be solved.

As you might have guessed from the previous paragraphs. having a growth mindset is the option which best allows us to flourish, though for many people it is doesn’t come naturally. For myself, a growth mindset did not come naturally but developed over time as I observed and reflected on the world around me. If you do feel you have a fixed mindset I would recommend reading this book for its many examples which can guide you towards a growth mindset.

It is worth noting that mindsets may vary in different aspects of our lives. For example, I find it easier to have a growth mindset about my ability to learn something technical than I do about my ability to draw or to sing. Our previous experiences do have some effect on our mindsets.

A growth mindset is not only important in how we view ourselves, it is also important in how we view others. Research has shown that children do better in class when their teacher has a growth mindset. Similarly, a growth mindset in the workplace is likely to encourage collaboration, ongoing professional development and reduce stress.

In conclusion, “Mindset – How you can Fulfil your Potential” by Professor Carol Dweck is a very thought provoking and potentially life changing book, especially if you find fear of failure or the need for constant validation holding you back from what you want to achieve in life.


There is an excellent visual summary of Mindsets here which is particularly directed towards how to support children to growth.

Mindset – How you can Fulfil your Potential by Carol Dweck

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Stoic Philosophy in 5 minutes

Stoic philosophy (Stoicism) flourished amongst Romans and Greeks until about the 3rd century. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence it would be

Shit happens, and when you can’t do anything about it, look for the best way to improve the situation

A slightly more elegant way of putting it is in what is known as the Serenity prayer

Lord, grant me the Serenity to accept things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Wikipedia sums Stoicism up rather well as

“a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”

In some ways Stoicism was a product of its’ time – life could be blatantly unfair and dangerous – slavery, disease, war, violence could all make life unpleasant or end it all together. However, amongst all of this, hard work and grit could help people succeed, – slaves could become prosperous free men for example. The principles of Stoicism described above are applicable to the modern as well as the ancient world. No matter what happens to us, the only choice is to move forward, and hard work, reason and trying to make positive changes in our lives and those of others seems the most sensible way forward to me.

There is a lot more to Stoic philosophy than I have covered here. I currently have “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, a noted Stoic, on my desk to read and Derren Brown’s book “Happy – Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine” has a good section and discussion on Stoicism. (His book is another one of the list I thinks I would like to write about).


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Creating Positive Emotions

Many people think emotions are something we have little control over – that they are something we have to put up with experiencing. However, there are a number of different ways we can change our emotion states short term and long term.

It is also worth acknowledging that negative emotions have value. Fear, for example, can encourage us to be cautious in appropriate circumstances, anger when focused constructively can be used as motivation, while sadness, is an appropriate way to express loss; from a physiological point of view crying can be a good way to relieve stress.

Over the years I have learnt a number of different techniques to shift into useful emotional states. Some work better for me than others, but you may find different ones work better for you.


1) Use the Mind/Body connection

Most people understand that our mind controls our body, however, fewer people are aware that this connection works both ways, our bodies affect our minds. You can see this yourself if you use the following example which increases confidence.

Imagine a thread attached to the top of you head being pulled upwards. As it pulls upwards your back straightens, your shoulders move roll back and your chest puffs out. You should now feel more confident. Research clearly shows that this sort of visualisation/straightening of the body boosts our emotions. I have similar examples where people imagining angel wings unfolding from from their backs causing their bodies straightening and chests expanding as the wings expand. (Seriously what could give you more confidence in any situation than have wings 🙂 )

You can also demonstrate the reverse effect by hunching your shoulders into a slouch – feeling less confident and even a little depressed – it’s simple physiology.


2) “Fake it till you make it”

I’ve heard many a successful person make this comment. As well as moving into a confident posture, focusing on a confident tone of voice and confident gestures can boost your confidence. I know one prominent public speaker who overcame her shyness and discomfort with public speaking by creating a stage “persona” which she shifts into when speaking in public (Twelve Questions: Dr Michelle Dickinson aka “Nanogirl”).


3) The Power of Music

This is one that works exceedingly well for me using specific music playlists when I need a boost of confidence/energy or need to relax. Personally, I favour high tempo music for energy and confidence, and slower music to relax. Some of my favourites (please don’t judge!) are listed below. If you want to put together your own lists, you can find suggested songs by searching in Youtube and Pinterest for example.

Also, because I am quite a visual person, if I am using Youtube, I will often select versions of these songs which have strong visual themes.

For Energy/Confidence

Never Back Down, Dragon Rider, Freedom Fighters and Ride to Victory – Two Steps from Hell

What Heros Do – Thor Ragnarok Soundtrack

Fight Song – Rachel Platten

Holding Out For A Hero – Bonnie Tyler

Unstoppable – Sia

To Relax, Calm Down

Carribbean Blue, Book of Days, The Celts – Enya

The Dance – Colm Keegan

Sound of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Happy Mood Music

Moana – Alessia Cara

Can’t Stop the Feeling! – Justin Timberlake

Age of Aquarius – The 5th Dimension

On Top of the World – Imagine Dragons


4) Recognise and filter that “little voice” in your head

Most of us will recognise that “little voice in our head” which gives us a running critique on what we are doing and what we should or shouldn’t do. For most of us this is quite a fearful and risk-averse voice which tells us things like

“don’t ask a question in class, because everyone will think you are stupid”

“don’t assert yourself, people will think you are pushy”

This little voice makes some silly assumptions, for example, that everyone else is constantly watching us and judging us. Most of the time they are too busy worrying about their little voice and looking stupid themselves. By acknowledging that this voice is often wrong and overcautious is one step towards becoming more confident in oneself. By consciously challenging these assumptions and then acting confidently, through practice we can develop more confidence.


5) Visualisation

Visualisation has developed a bit of a bad rap from all those who claim that ALL you need to do for good things to happen is to visualise them. Visualisation is a good way to get our minds focused on what we want or need to do, so long as it is followed by actions which support your vision.

One way I have seen visualisation shift to positive emotional states is start by visualising all the times you have succeeded just before you do something that you want to succeed in.

Another approach is to think about all the times you have done something well or been successful and while doing this carry out a small action (e.g. by tapping the back of your hand). By doing this repeatedly, your mind connects success (or another positive emotion) with this movement. After a while, all you need is the movement to shift state.

I use this sometimes when I need to put aside my natural shyness and speak up about things important to me, I have a small action which reminds me of my four core values.


6) Understanding Emotions

Knowledge is power, and the more I have learnt about how emotions and people “work” the easier I have found it to shift into positive emotion states. For example, understanding that most people tend to annoy others out of misunderstanding and not malice has help me understand that it is pointless to get angry, particularly if they are going to have no idea what I am angry about. Far better to focus on working out what the problem and solution actually is.

One of the things I have found most helpful in this area is reading about different philosophies. In particular Stoic philosophu has been most helpful.

The list above is not an exhaustive list, simply techniques I am aware of and have tried myself. As I learn more I will add to this list.

Also, don’t assume from this post that I can always control my emotions. Like most people, I have periods of sadness, depression, and anger. What the techniques described above have helped me do is shorten these periods, and spend most of my time in a positive emotional state.


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How to Have “Difficult Conversations”

Difficult conversations are those where we need to raise an issue or concern with someone else and we think it will upset the other person. Often it involves addressing undesirable or challenging behaviour, for example poor performance or bullying. Because we anticipate an emotional response from our conversation partner, most people dread these sorts of conversation. However, in my experience they cannot be avoided, and if the situation is ignored the issue often gets worse and even more difficult to deal with. The following describes the approach I have to developed to help we have these difficult conversations:

  1. Remember it is YOU who has the concern or issue. The other person may be completely unaware of what you are experiencing – this may be the first time anyone has raised this issue or concern with them so it might be a shock.
  2. Don’t assume you know why they behave the way they do. If you do feel the need to try and work out why they behaved in a way that bothered you, then be generous in your assumptions. In my experience most issues arise through misunderstandings rather than through maliciousness.
  3. Before talking to them, be clear about the purpose of your conversation. The ONLY valid reason to raise a concern is to try and reach a mutual understanding/ solution to the problem you have. Using it to vent, make someone feel bad/guilty, or for revenge is not the purpose of a difficult conversation, and will not lead to a useful outcome (if fact it will usually make things worse).
  4. Your attitude sets the mood for the conversation. If your intent is genuine, then this will be reflected in your body language and the tone of your voice which will help maintain a calm and useful conversation. Always stay at the same eye level and use a calm, matter of fact tone
  5. Begin the conversation by recognising that you both may have different views on the issue and that the purpose of the conversation is to find a solution and not to blame anyone.
  6. Raise the issue using the specific example which is bothering you, and explain you concerns using “I statements” which explain how the issue affects you. e.g. “I find it difficult when you…”, or “I am concerned about ….”  NEVER use “You statements” e.g. “You make things difficult when you …” as this comes across as blaming them for the problem and is likely to make them defensive and less likely to respond.
  7. Listen to their perspective. There may be things you are not aware of.
  8. Discuss the issue or concern as if it is a problem which you can both solve together, not as something they need to fix themselves.
  9. Where you come to a solution, summarise what actions you have both agreed to take to address the concern.
  10. Do not lose your temper. If you feel the conversation is not making progress or find yourself getting frustrated or angry, then politely end the conversation. e.g. “It seems we are unable to reach a common understanding, so let’s take some time separately to think about this and meet again tomorrow…?
  11. Remember not all concerns or issues can be resolved, however, if we don’t try at all the chance of solving the is zero.


Skill comes with practice so don’t be afraid of having difficult conversations when they are necessary. The sequence of steps I have described above has helped me through many a difficult conversation and a derived from a range of sources. I can highly recommend the following resources for further reading on how to develop the skills to have difficult conversations.


Other Resources

We need to talk – Judy Ringer    an excellent article with an associated video and pdf checklist.

If you have access to there are several good courses covering “difficult conversations”


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