Thursday, June 20, 2013

Understanding is essential. Gregariousness is optional.

Hello, my name is Tim and I'm an introvert. I have been an introvert for most of my life. This will likely surprise most of the people who know me socially and work with me, as only those closest to me are aware of my "horrible" secret, and honestly, they only know out of necessity. They know because I made them aware in the event that I might need them to save me some time from certain social situations that I might unwittingly or unavoidably find myself in and begin to panic.

Now, let's get this straight, over the years I have developed lots of skills and compensatory devices that help me function comfortably, or at least provide me with the appearance of comfort in these situations, despite what is happening below the surface.  I certainly don't mind crowds; they are part of my business, I enjoy speaking to large groups and debating (even passionately) in public; par for my career course. And I certainly don't think that anyone who I know would ever describe me as the shy or retiring type.

And yet...

The scariest place in the world to me is a cocktail party or a post-school event celebration where people mingle and chat.  If you are one of the half to two-thirds of people who psychologists classify as extroverted, you likely see those situations as a pleasant, friendly and enjoyable. For me it's a war zone. Terrifying.  Nothing scares me more than small talk, and with people milling all around me, overstimulating my senses like so many social land mines, I would rather be almost anywhere than there.  Solitary confinement looks like a great alternative to me, honestly, especially if I get to have a book.

But how can a leader be an introvert? Society tells us that in order to be great, we have to be confident, outspoken, happy and sociable. Extroverts are seen as vibrant, charismatic, positive and energetic people. Introverts, by contrast, are, well ...boring. Introversion is even considered a disorder or personality defect by many people, such as parents who typically feel a need to constantly explain their children’s shyness to others and make constant attempts to get them to "come out of their shell.".

When was the last time you saw a progress report that praised a child for their solitary, thoughtful, careful demeanor? The reality is that schools and workplaces are designed to benefit extroverts. But why is it so dangerous to let people simply be who they are? Would you want a few introverts on your most important teams at work? Would you actively recruit them?  You might want to think about it... I know that I do it all the time, because I understand the benefits and powers of introverts.

Being the best talker doesn't necessarily translate into having the best ideas. In fact, in my experience there is often an inverse correlation between the amount of talking someone does and the amount of genuinely good ideas and solutions to problems that they provide.  Just look at any politician for a brilliant case study in what I am talking about.

According to Susan Cain, the author of  Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, and whose brilliant video is above, introverts don't have the same need for external stimulus as everyone else, but if we understand and support them, introverts can produce amazing results in many situations. As Cain brilliantly puts it: “Love is essential, gregariousness is optional.”

This difference between introverts and extroverts is demonstrated in how they work and the social interactions that they enjoy. Extroverts typically seek to dominate conversations, and tend to be multi-taskers who require social interaction throughout their day in order to live and work happily. They think out loud and prefer talking to listening. Extroverts are energized by socializing.

Introverts tend to be slow and deliberate. They typically have great powers of concentration and prefer to work on one thing at a time. Although they might enjoy interacting with others, they tend to prefer to work with a small group of close colleagues or friends, and prefer to listen rather than speak in meetings. They typically avoid conflict, but enjoy deep discussions with people whom they feel comfortable. Introverts are typically energized when they are able to work alone or in small groups, the smaller the better.

QUIZ: Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert?

What are the educational implications for introverts in our schools?  First, let's remember that introversion is not a defect but more of a careful, sensitive temperament that, when nurtured, may support high academic achievement, unique creativity and the development of a type of leadership that is characterized by thoughtful consideration and empathy.

Susan Cain says in her book that introverts "win a disproportionate number of Phi Beta Kappa keys and National Merit Scholarship finalist awards, cheat and break school rules far less frequently, are more likely to be described by parents and teachers as caring or conscientious."

Our classrooms contain many introverted students who have tremendous gifts that likely aren't being developed or supported right now.  Cain advises that students need more privacy and autonomy than typically is available in modern classrooms, and should be taught to work together but also supported in how to work alone. Consider, for example, that recognition for student engagement should not be measured simply by student's oral contributions, as that common practice works directly against one third to one half of your class's natural demeanor.  It's vital that we start to recognize those kids who behave well and say very little while oftentimes falling between the cracks, because that student in the back of the room who we might believe is withdrawn or depressed, when given other opportunities to express themselves and to be known in your classroom, may very well blossom.

Many students who rarely speak in whole group settings are very active in smaller groups and have a great deal to share through other types of feedback, such as journals. If you have quiet kids who write for you, spend a little extra time responding to their journal entries with personal feedback that encourages a continuous dialogue as evidence of their engagement, or reach out to them with a quick comment after class and let them know that you appreciate their contributions, and that you value their input.

Here are some other strategies for helping introverted students, from Canadian Teacher Magazine:

  • Give the students options in assignments and classroom activities that allow introverts and extroverts to choose which helps them learn and develop best. One option is allowing students to choose whether to work in groups or individually.
  • Give introverts the time to process information and respond later. They need time to process information at their own speed and a private space without distractions and overwhelming stimulus.
  • Allow written dialogue and interaction, which now work well with computers, cell phones, the Internet and social media.
  • Break the assignments into multiple, staged smaller assignments, since introverts can be overwhelmed by deadlines and the way they think at length about large tasks.
  • Give introverts breaks to restore their energy.
  • Give the introverts privacy by letting them keep the results of their work private.
  • Be aware that tests favor extroverts, and disadvantage introverts. Introverts need conditions that allow them to focus and concentrate without distractions, tasks that allow them time to process information, which suggests they learn better with long-term assignments than tests with surprise questions. 
  • Give the introverts strategies for interacting with people, such as preparing a script beforehand. Introverts are stressed by having to interact with others verbally in spontaneous situations, including talking on the phone, and by having to attend long meetings with large groups. Being able to take notes helps them adjust.
  • Give the students work with cameras. Like taking notes, cameras allow introverts to mediate with the world in a separate, reflective way and, at the same time, give them a framework for developing interaction and social skills.
  • Empower introverts with the awareness that they have the right to set boundaries that make them feel comfortable dealing with others.

Finally, parents should view their introverted child with understanding rather than fear that they will be left behind socially or in leadership positions. It will likely work out fine. In fact, researchers have found that introverted CEOs tend to perform better than extroverted ones, so there's even hope that they might have a boss who understands them and how they work best later in life.

But, really, how can an introvert ever become a successful leader, you ask? Can a person who prefers solitude to interacting with groups of people ever become highly successful and have people want to follow them or garner a great deal of attention and respect from others?

In response, please consider that: Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Marcel Proust, Frédéric Chopin, Charles Darwin, Steve Wozniak, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling, Charles Schulz, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Dale Carnegie, Albert Einstein, Dr. Seuss, Warren Buffett, Al Gore, Charles Schwab, David Letterman, Barbara Walters, Isaac Newton, Pablo Picasso ("Without great solitude, no serious work is possible”), W. B. Yeats, George Orwell, Johnny Carson, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin and even Moses, Jesus, and Buddha have been identified by Cain in her research as introverts.

If my child or yours were to grow up to have the qualities and accomplishments of those people that came before them, I think we would all be quite satisfied providing them with a little solitude and quiet reflection on which to build their greatness. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Zi said: ''Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.''


  1. And the crazy thing is that, though I consider myself an introvert, I feel that the weight of the educational machine forces me to grade more critically the introverted students in my class. I can empathize completely with them, yet the rubrics and assessments seem to force me to penalize quietness. On the other hand, there is something to be said for pushing the envelope of comfort and forcing all (whether introverts or extroverts) to try things that make them a little uncomfortable now and then.

  2. Beautifully written and thought-provoking. Another technique for working with introverts is having everyone respond to a prompt in writing and to then share the responses and thoughts anonymously. It creates a safe space for an introverted student to hear his or her thoughts aloud and to enjoy the lively conversation those thoughts often inspire.

    1. I like that idea as well, Karen. Thanks for another great contribution.