We attended a very interesting presentation by Beth Buelow who addressed these questions at the Greater Marysville Tulalip Chamber Of Commerce breakfast last month. Beth owns a small business, the Introvert Entrepreneur (bethbuelow.com), that provides training and coaching for introverts.
We sat down with Buelow last week to talk about communication styles and strategies for improving communication in the office.
Q: How would you define an introvert versus an extrovert?
A: In simple terms, an introvert is someone who gains energy when alone and drains energy when around too many people. Introverts are internally oriented, most closely in touch with and living from their inner world.
Extroverts gain energy from social interaction and drain energy if they spend too much time alone. Their primary relationship is with their external environment. Their movement of energy is toward the outer world.
Notice that being an innie or outtie is not about your social ability -- it's about how you gain and drain energy. It also helps to remember that we all have innie and outtie traits within us to varying degrees.
Q: What are some common misconceptions about introverts?
A: America is a rather extroverted society, so the introvert tends to be misunderstood. People will often use the word "introvert" as shorthand for a variety of negative stereotypes: loner, shy, socially awkward, wallflower, misanthrope. Of course, it's possible for an introvert to be any of those things, but the same is true for an extrovert. Because of the more reserved, private nature of introverts, people can also think they're aloof or arrogant. I prefer to think of introverts as deep and mysterious.
Q: Most would assume extroverts make the best leaders. What is incorrect about this assumption?
A: My favorite portrait of a leader is outlined by Jim Collins in his classic book, "Good to Great." He characterizes a "Level 5 Leader" as someone who displays "compelling modesty, (and) is self-effacing and understated." Other traits include quiet, dogged, reserved, modest, gracious, calm and one who shares or deflects the credit. While Collins never uses the word "introvert" in describing these leaders (that would be making a big assumption), these qualities are often more closely aligned with introverts than extroverts.
Paradoxically, Collins found that those who were more traditionally thought to be CEO material -- charismatic, outspoken, egocentric -- actually did more harm than good to a company. That's promising news for the introvert: Having a larger-than-life personality does not automatically translate into great leadership.
Q: What are the major differences in communication styles between introverts and extroverts?
A: Introverts are internal processors. Their primary source of information and point of reference comes from within.
Extroverts rely more heavily on external stimulus to inform their views and choices. They tend to be verbal processors and to think out loud.
For example, an extroverted manager calls a team meeting to solve a problem that's just surfaced. Within that team, there are a mixture of introverts and extroverts. The manager decides to have a free-wheeling discussion about the problem and hopes to act immediately after the meeting.
The extroverts dive right in, brainstorming and thinking aloud. There is little to no time lapse between their thought and their speech. Meanwhile, the introverts are taking in the information and thinking through various scenarios and solutions. They silently consider and dismiss several ideas and wait until they have a fully formed idea before speaking.
In the meantime, the manager has moved on, the extroverts have all had their say and the meeting comes to an end. The introverts may or may not have gotten to chime in; several of them choose to have one-on-one conversations with the manager or key people after the meeting.
You can see where the challenges are: Extroverts want introverts to think and speak up faster, and introverts want extroverts to slow down and leave space for more thinking. Without understanding these tendencies, people can go through life thinking introverts are withholding and slow, and extroverts are non-stop blabbermouths.
Q: What would you recommend for improving the quality of communications between introverts and extroverts in the workplace?
A: When talking to introverts, give them adequate time to think through a question or problem. You may need to intentionally call on introverts in group discussions. Ask, "Do you have anything you'd like to add?" or "Joe, what do you think?" Avoid calling attention to their relative silence with, "You're awfully quiet over there." Get comfortable with pauses, longer silences and nonverbal cues. Adjust your pace to allow for thinking before speaking.
When talking with extroverts, give them time and space to process out loud. Listen carefully, and be willing to interrupt if you need to make a point. Understand that extroverts speak first and think later. They may change their mind after some time away from a conversation. Be aware that they make decisions largely based on external feedback, so be ready to be direct and forthcoming.
Pat Sisneros is the Vice President of College Services at Everett Community College. Juergen Kneifel is a Senior Associate Faculty in the EvCC Business program. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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