Communicating with Introverts
You’re likely familiar with the basic definitions of introversion and extroversion. Introverts draw energy from being alone, while extroverts draw energy from being with other people.
Though this may seem to make sense, there isn’t a neat dividing line between introverts and extroverts and both groups can exhibit behaviors typically characteristic of their opposite type. In fact, a study recently confirmed that extroverts also can be drained by social interaction just as introverts are, and sometimes need alone-time to “recharge.” Similarly, there is a common misconception that introverts don’t like social interaction, when many introverts actually lead very rich social lives and can also be very effective team members.
This blog contains some effective strategies for communicating with introverts that are based on peer-reviewed studies, not just conventional wisdom. (Note: in my next blog, I will cover important aspects of working with extroverts.)
If an introvert doesn’t seem to be totally into your discussion about the weather outside, it’s not because they abhor social interaction – rather, introverts aren’t particularly keen on engaging in conversation just for the sake of conversation, or what is often called small talk. One study measuring attention in introverts and extroverts found that extroverts tended to be more sensitive to social stimuli than neutral stimuli, while introverts reacted similarly to both types of stimuli. In other words, extroverts may see reward in social interaction in and of itself, whereas introverts don’t necessarily experience social interaction differently than any other source of stimuli. With that in mind, instead of using small talk with introvert colleagues, try engaging in a conversation with some substance (think scientific studies, new technology, or the latest global news).
Be patient and allow space to think
While much conventional wisdom about introverts isn’t built on concrete evidence, the phrase “still water runs deep” does have some merit. A Harvard University study discovered that introverts had thicker gray matter in the part of the brain linked to decision-making and abstract thought (the prefrontal cortex) than do extroverts. This suggests that introverts are more inclined to meticulous, drawn-out thought, meaning they may need time and space to think things through before they make decisions or take action. Further, introverts get pleasure from turning inward, rewarded with a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. With these elements in mind, don’t push for a quick decision from an introvert. Be patient and give them the time they need to think.
Choose a comfortable environment
There’s a reason introverts aren’t as attracted to loud, crowded parties as extroverts – and it’s not because they don’t like being around people. Mainly, a “party” atmosphere is chock-full of external stimuli, and it can become too much for an introvert’s active prefrontal cortex to process at one time, especially over longer periods of time. If you’re going to meet up with an introvert, find a small, quiet place without distractions so they can focus on you, not the music blaring through the speakers.
Get to know the unique individual
The problem with the introvert-extrovert dichotomy is that it treats each group like two different species. In reality, introversion and extroversion exist on a spectrum, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle. When communicating, it’s important not to assume people are introverted or extroverted. Rather, get a sense for each person’s unique preferences and tendencies, and try to gauge how they’re feeling during your interaction. As with any type of interaction, awareness is key.
Your introverted co-workers have a lot to offer. Give them the time and space to share their ideas and insights and you may be surprised by what they give back. Keep in mind that a diverse, yet inclusive workplace creates fertile ground for innovative ideas and creativity.