I landed my first professional acting gig at age 18. When I was 24, I started coaching executives on presentation skills. I deliver dozens of speeches, workshops and training sessions every year. My entire career has been about speaking to people, often from centre stage with big bright lights shining on me. I’m also a hardcore introvert. In the small town where I live, my friends jokingly (maybe?) refer to me as a hermit. When I have been through an extra busy stretch of teaching or speaking, often traveling to do so, I need to retreat to my pottery studio, or hop in my canoe to recharge my batteries. Being an introvert has in no way hindered my ability to communicate in public. In fact, when I worked as a theatre director, I was surprised to discover that many of the best actors I worked with were introverts.
To understand this apparent contradiction, it’s important to look at the definition of introverts and extroverts. Quite simply, an introvert likes to form her/his thoughts before speaking and it takes energy to be around people. An extrovert likes to form his/her thoughts while speaking and gets energy from being around people. That’s it. It’s not about being shy or outgoing. And introverts and extroverts can be equally successful in a variety of roles that would often be thought of as the other’s domain.
The issue for many introverts is that the work environment often throws us into situations that reward extroversion. Because extroverts like to think on the fly, the hectic pace of communications can actually be a benefit. Extroverts are able to make comments in meetings, answer questions quickly and brainstorm ideas very easily. So, having a day of back-to-back meetings, conference calls, with e-mails and texts crammed in between doesn’t present the same challenges to extroverts that it does for introverts.
This can cause problems, particularly for teams that have a mixture of introverts and extroverts. I have often encountered this type of situation with marketing teams. Marketing teams are often made up of a blend of introverts and extroverts – the introverts often enjoy the data analysis side of marketing, while the extroverts often enjoy the salesmanship of marketing. Both are essential to the success of the team, but the different styles of thinking and communicating can cause tension. There are some very simple things that can be done by both introverts and extroverts to improve work dynamics:
- Prepare notes
- Make eye contact
- Follow-up with an e-mail
Have a substantive agenda
Having a proper agenda should be mandatory for any meeting, but it is especially important for introverts and extroverts to work effectively together. I was working with a marketing team for a telecommunications company that was neatly divided down the middle between extreme introverts and extreme extroverts. They were having a hard time working together and it was generating frustration and conflict. At one point during a session I was teaching, one of the extroverts asked the introverts, “What’s one thing that I could do that would help?” One of the introverts in the room immediately blurted out, “Have an agenda!” Given that introverts like to form their thoughts before speaking, having a substantive agenda will allow them to enter the meeting prepared, allowing them to participate more effectively. The key word in that sentence is substantive. Even when meetings do have agendas, they are often standing agendas that lay out the flow of the meeting, or they are a list of topics to be discussed. A good agenda will clearly articulate the point and the desired outcome of the meeting. This will allow all participants to come prepared and will help the meeting be shorter and more focused. In fact, I am of the mind that if a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, it shouldn’t be accepted.
It is actually a good idea to prepare notes for any communication situation, regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. Preparing a few notes will allow you to be more present because you have already put your thoughts together, freeing you to be more present in the conversation, meeting or call. It is especially important for introverts. Preparing notes shouldn’t be time-consuming. It is simply a matter of considering the communication situation and figuring out what your desired outcome is, and then building a main point and a few supporting arguments. For introverts who like to form their thoughts before speaking, this is invaluable. It is also important for extroverts who like to form their thoughts as they speak, as it will help the extrovert be more succinct and focused. You will be shocked at how much more effective and how much shorter your meetings and calls will be when both parties come prepared.
Very few speakers pause enough. Pauses make us more effective speakers by helping our audiences follow our thinking. It allows the audience to process what they are hearing. For the introvert, a pause is an essential moment of time to collect his or her thoughts before beginning the next sentence. Introverts struggle to form their thoughts as they speak, but this is often the situation we are thrown into in meetings, calls and Q&As. Our brains move quickly – even a brief pause is enough time to form the next thought. And because extroverts like to think out loud, they can sometimes take awhile to figure out what their real point is. A pause gives the extrovert that extra moment of time to form their thoughts with greater precision. But for the introvert, the pause is especially important, particularly as it relates to the next point, which is to make eye contact.
Make eye contact
The thing about eye contact is that it connects us to the person we are talking to, which draws us out of our internal thought process. It helps us connect our thoughts and feelings to the person we are speaking to. But one of the side products of this is that it tends to shut the voice in our heads up. This is often an extremely valuable thing to be able to do, as the voice in our heads isn’t always being helpful. But it can be problematic for introverts who struggle to form their thoughts as they speak. Introverts often avoid eye contact, even finding that making eye contact can make them lose their train of thoughts. This can come across as shyness, a lack of engagement, or even sometimes hostility. Introverts will often stare at the table while they are speaking, or in some extreme cases even blink repeatedly to break the eye contact, allowing them to continue along in their thoughts. By pausing, you are giving yourself time to think, which will allow you to deliver your next thought with eye contact. Pausing and speaking with eye contact will also help extroverts, who are often accused of ‘loving the sound of their own voice’, when in fact they are simply forming their thoughts as they speak.
Follow-up with an e-mail
In person communication is essential to coming to a place of agreement. But when introverts and extroverts work together, there can often be confusion as to what was agreed upon. Introverts often like to process their thoughts. If they haven’t spoken up in a meeting, their silence can often be misinterpreted, when in fact they simply need time to form a response (although, hopefully the abovementioned tips should help decisions be made in the moment). Likewise, an extrovert may often say something, or have an idea in the moment that they aren’t really attached to or move on from very quickly. But other people in the room might take something they said quite seriously (particularly if the extrovert in question is the leader). This confusion simply arises from the different ways of thinking/speaking of introverts and extroverts. After a conversation or a meeting, it is always a good idea to follow up with a quick e-mail laying out what was agreed upon. Not only does this create a paper trail, it helps to avoid confusion and conflict.
The world is full of introverts and extroverts working side by side. You can’t know at all times whether the people around you are introverts or extroverts. The points I’ve laid out in this article are simply good practices to adopt regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert (it’s never a bad idea to have a good agenda!) The one objection you might have reading this article, is that the things I suggest take time and time is one thing you don’t have. Preparing an agenda, jotting down notes for everything, following up with an e-mail, who has time for that? If you do these things, you will save time. Meetings will be shorter, you will come to decisions more quickly, action items will be acted upon and conflict will be reduced. But how investing time to save time works is the topic for another article!