Introvert Open For Business


Image by Clearly Ambiguous via Flickr


So I have a confession to make: I’m an introvert. For those of you who know me well, this is probably not a surprise. For others, however, this may be significant news. I’ll forgo the usual defense of introversion that normally follows; others have done it better than I ever could.  Instead, I’d like to add to the conversation by sharing my experiences, reflections, and realizations as an introvert exploring the world of business.

However, I would like to clarify the main way I differentiate between introverts and extroverts. An extrovert processes ideas externally. They literally bounce ideas back and forth as they think about them, filling the physical space with words as they examine concepts and thoughts. This method of sharing as they process energizes them. Extroverts are great at collaboration and socialization; however, they often get excited about ideas and fail to fully examine them before acting upon them.

Introverts, on the other hand, process ideas internally. We mull over ideas silently, comparing and contrasting with what we already know and believe. An introvert generally doesn’t speak unless and until she has digested an idea as much as she can. This method of introspection and reflection energizes us. Introverts are great at examining ideas and seeing the logical and long-term consequences of ideas; however, we can sometimes have trouble expressing their thoughts fully, especially if the expectation is that everything should be in short cohesive sound bites.

Silence and the Extrovert

Last week I attended a luncheon workshop by a good friend of mine. She was debuting a new presentation with bunch of really good ideas, and I found it to be a great investment of my time. (That, by the way, is high praise coming from an introvert.) However, I found myself somewhat annoyed during the presentation. Whenever she would ask the workshop participants to reflect or write on our thoughts, she would pause for a second or two, then start talking again. She wasn’t rushing to move on. Instead, she would tell stories of her own experience doing what we were doing. She would clear her throat, then clarify again what she wanted us to do and why. She would go off on a tangent about something interesting that vaguely related to the topic at hand. In other words, she would ramble.

The first few times it really annoyed me. I wanted to scream! “We get it!” I thought to myself. “Just give us some space to do it.” It was about the fourth time that she did this that I realized why she was doing it. She was nervous. She was presenting a new presentation, and although she believed strongly in the content, she was up on stage presenting that content, exposing herself to potential criticism and judgement. Of course she was nervous! That, however, wasn’t the epiphany for me. She was also an extrovert, which made the silent portions of the program particularly excruciating for her. Although she had prepared for the content, she hadn’t prepared herself mentally to tackle the silence that was, by her own design, necessary. Ultimately she ended up sabotaging her own presentation because of it. Faced with a lack of feedback (i.e. the silence), she sought to fill the void the only way she knew how — with her own voice. I certainly do not mean this to be a criticism or critique of her; as I said, I thought she did a wonderful job even with these drawbacks. However, I also think her workshop could have been much more powerful and meaningful if she had been aware of these issues.

Calling Out An Introvert

I also found the workshop exhausting. As an introvert I’ve found that I survive such functions best by sitting quietly at first and listening. I like to absorb the “feel” of the room — the way the other participants interact and chat — and then find a way to slip into those interactions quietly. It allows me to control how much energy I’m putting out at any given time, and to focus my attention in a few places instead of over the entire room. However, as soon as I arrived my friend “outed” me as a physicist. (Did I mention she’s an extrovert?) It was a supreme compliment from her, of course; she shifted the focus of attention to me so that I could effectively introduce and market myself. However, it took me completely by surprise, and left me off-balance. My entire plan for managing energy and efficiently networking was blown out of the water, and I spent several minutes floundering as other extroverts in the room expounded at length about this new information.

Now I certainly don’t mind being called out as smart, but I’d rather people say it because I’ve said or done something that was recognizably intelligent or particularly insightful. I don’t mind if someone recognizes and appreciates the fact that I have a doctorate in physics. However, I’d rather they recognize that I can think analytically and plan strategically. I’d rather they appreciate that I have done more and reached further than a simple title or degree. I’d rather they engage with me individually and authentically, instead of simply taking a title given to me by others at face value.

Networking, My Old Foe… We Meet Again!

Unfortunately, immediately following this interaction was “a chance to network”. Now, if you’re an extrovert networking is the best thing ever. You get to flit around a roomful of people like a hummingbird, exchanging short quips and business cards. For an introvert like me, however, it might have well been a new form of waterboarding. I love making new contacts, and I absolutely adore talking to people about what they do. It’s almost always fascinating, and its amazing what you can learn, both about a specific person and humanity in general, simply by sitting and listening. But I want that interaction to be authentic. I want to have the time to get to know someone. I want to know if my skills and abilities are a good match for that person’s needs, and vice versa. Events where folks rush from interaction to interaction barely scratching the surface of the people they meet is like a tenth circle of Hell. This, combined with the mental disorganization from losing control of my interactions from the outset, left me completely depleted by the end of the workshop.

Working Together: Introvert and Extrovert

(AKA  “… dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”)

So if you’re an introvert, how can you get the most out of your relationships with extroverts, and vice versa? I have a few suggestions:

For Extroverts:

  1. Ask the introvert for his opinion. Because of the rate at which extroverts talk, introverts can often be hesitant to slow the conversation down, especially if the introvert has thought of something that might be met with disapproval. By asking directly for an opinion you are indicating that you actually care about the real and substantial value the introvert can add. The introvert will take it as a sign of respect.
  2. Become comfortable with silence. Remember that introverts need time to think about their response instead of simply blurting it out. Silence isn’t a marker of disinterest or disapproval (usually); instead, the introvert is thinking through what to say so as not to appear stupid. If you wait, you will very likely get some great insights.
  3. LISTEN RESPECTIVELY. I cannot emphasize this enough. Most introverts I’ve met prefer an efficiency of speech, and absolutely hate to repeat themselves. If an introvert says something completely incomprehensible (which happens often, in my experience), the best response is to nod thoughtfully for a few moments, then politely ask, “Could you please explain your reasoning behind that?” Not only does it show respect, it compliments the introvert by recognizing that there was a rather involved thought process behind what she said. It is a rare introvert that doesn’t respond by talking at length in response to such an invitation.

For Introverts (You didn’t seriously think you would get off that easy, right?):

  1. Be patient and listen. Yes, extroverts talk a lot, and often about stuff that is very obvious. But remember, that’s how they naturally think. They are doing externally all the things you naturally do internally. Under what other circumstances do you get a chance to eavesdrop on someone else’s thoughts as they occur? Take advantage of this, and help them prune away the bad ideas!
  2. Practice parallel processing. Because extroverts will often talk at length about things you already know, you may want to learn to listen with half an ear while thinking internally. This is a hard skill to learn, and difficult to do well, but if you can pull it off you get the best of both worlds — you can think ideas through while simultaneously respond to the extroverts in real-time. This can be especially draining, however, so make sure that you are ready to do this beforehand and have adequate plans to recharge afterwards.

Finally, for both the introvert and the extrovert:

Let the other do what they do best. Rather than get annoyed, realize that they, whatever they are, have great skills that can complement your own. I’m going to draw on the cosmology of White Wolf Games as an analogy. In the mythos of the World of Darkness there are three basic forces of nature. The Wyld is the chaos of creation and productivity. The Weaver is the source of organization, form, and meaning, and the Wyrm is the pruning destructive force that makes room for new things. Introverts are the Weavers and Wyrms to the extrovert’s Wyld. Extroverts are masters of producing energy and marshalling resources. Introverts are masters of planning. Let each do what he or she is best at, and your project will reap the benefits of all.

What other suggestions, reflections, or observations do you have? If you’ve gotten through this entire post you’re probably an introvert, but I’d love to hear everyone’s experiences!

1 Comment

  1. Parallel processing…freakin awesome, you may have saved a bunch of marriages and you gave me a concept I shall use for the rest of my life…good work Professor. Next time my wife accuses me of not listening to her, I can say with the utmost of confidence, I was parallel processing.


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