Harnessing the power of introverts – a LinkedIn discussion

Introverts are definitely the talk of town then… After a last post touching upon the matter of introverts and social media, I landed in a fascinating LinkedIn discussion about introverts and how to facilitate workshops so as to harness their power.

Emma Konopka started this conversation on the basis of a blog post and of  the TedTalk video below:

“…what (more) I could do to make sure introverts have a voice in workshops, and whether/how I could build in some solitude in my sessions. What do you do? And what do you think of the TED Talk?”

About 18 rich responses came in from 14 different people. I hereby attempt to summarize them according to the main patterns of the conversation.

Susan Cain: The power of introverts (the TED talk which triggered the discussion)

Who are introverts?

Clearly there was some ambiguity as to what is meant with being an ‘introvert’, as Susan Cain explains herself in the video. A key point is that introverts are not ‘shy people’ but rather people that give their best in a quiet environment. We probably all fall on a continuum from introvert to extrovert and as Viv McWaters mentioned, we can allow ourselves to be introverts or extroverts, depending on the situation. Even though most of us probably identify with one end of the spectrum more easily.

Recognising and using diversity

Another crucial hint from many participants is to recognise and accept diversity and to design and implement an event according to the different learning styles in presence. Keith Warren Price wonders why quiet people should be forced in any direction. “People work best in their
Diversity (Credits: librariesrock / FlickR)
Diversity (Credits: librariesrock / FlickR)
preferred styles.” Whether we like or believe in the theory of learning styles, there is something going for embracing diversity and using it. And it starts before the event…

Being introvert-friendly? It starts before the event
The whole design of the event or workshop ought to be ‘introvert-friendly’. Pamela Lupton-Bowers reveals that planning activities should recognise and allow different learning styles. Discussing this with other organisers helps get that message across and embed different practices in the workshop which put all participants at ease and in a position to collaborate.

One of the best ways to empower introverts – as recommended by five participants – is to prepare activities before the event takes place – particularly if there is a specific question that needs to be asked to participants. This can be done through either a short questionnaire/ reflection sheet – as suggested by Elizabeth Mc Donnell – an email or a flipchart sheet on a wall as hinted by Rosemary Cairns. Using that pre-thinking during the workshop (as suggested by Monica Bolland) also matters to pay attention to introverts.

Embracing diversity in practice, during the event
Once at the event, embracing diversity translates into several approaches and tools…

  • Monica Bolland recommends using Team Ground rules to set up a team process and ensure that all participants have a way to contribute.
  • In line with this, I personally mentioned it’s a matter of getting participants acquainted with one another and appreciate each other. Along these lines, Debjani Biswas also suggested reading comments others have written about themselves.
  • Elizabeth Mc Donnell recommends a mix of processes for group and individual working (with people going to work on their own) – although of course, all of this depends “on the purpose, time and context of the work”.
  • Elisabeth Tepper Kofod praises the ‘Whole Person Process Facilitation’ approach of “Sitting in circles (to insist on the equality among participants as suggested by Thomas Herrmann)… acknowledging hopes and fears… understanding learning styles… understanding preferences (visual, auditory, kinesthesic) and allowing for different moments of interaction”
  • Using visuals (photos and postcards) helps connect participants to their personal side and creates opportunities for introverts to express themselves. Keith Warren Price also points that: ”cards, shapes, colours and specific processes and big pinboards” help celebrate that diversity better than flipcharts and whiteboards. He further suggests using ‘idea galleries’ rather than group presentations, to facilitate questions and establish common ground.
  • Using auditory or kinesthetic activities (voting with your body e.g. on a continuum) also brings people in a different dynamic that might give better chances for introverts to express themselves and rely on their preferred learning style.
  • Drawing, writing, reflecting, along talking… all activities that resort to different parts of our personality help in accepting that diversity and creating better options for introverts (and actually everybody).

Interactions between introverts and extroverts in plenary groups:
The other side of the coin is to ensure that extroverts do not monopolise air time when in plenary. Ensuring a balance between them and introverts is a must. On top of other approaches recognising diversity, these approaches specifically address the introverts-extroverts balance.

  • A talking stick,  can be a great device to give a chance to all, as hinted by Thomas Herrmann.
  • Talking one after another – in whatever way – also naturally creates space for everyone.
  • Rosemary Cairns evokes the ‘three toothpicks’ technique, an old Quaker method whereby “As you spoke, you had to throw down a toothpick. Once you had thrown all 3 toothpicks, you could no longer speak”.
  • Because introverts might need more thinking space in groups, Fern Richardson suggests asking extroverts to express themselves before moving on to an introvert, to not ‘put them on the spot’. If that is not enough, Debjani Biswas recommends moving “from popcorn brainstorming to formal, person by person brainstorming”.
  • The balance is also about making participants aware of their role in the whole group: Pamela Lupton-Bowers explains: “I encourage the extroverts to be more aware of when they might be hogging the space, but I equally remind introverts to notice when they are holding back from sharing an idea that might unlock a situation or solve a problem. We all have obligations and responsibilities to the success of the meeting.” Viv McWaters echoes this “I try and create an environment in which people can contribute if they wish”.
Aren't we all ambiverts (Introvert-extroverts)? Don't we all need our individual thinking space? (credits: Jerry Cooke / FlickR)
Aren't we all ambiverts (Introvert-extroverts)? Don't we all need our individual thinking space? (credits: Jerry Cooke / FlickR)

Thinking space during the event:
If introverts are to find their place in an event, they have to find a safe space for thinking. The TED video and some participants emphasised that there is currently a strong bias towards group interactions and collaboration rather than individual work (which a few references I blogged about in that previous post argue against). It is therefore all the more important to create thinking space for introverts during the workshop, by e.g.:

  • Planning moments of individual work, work in pairs and small groups.
  • Involving participants in social reporting, blogging etc. and using those as inputs to the workshop to share introverts’ gems.
  • Rosemary Cairns recommends ensuring a safe, quiet space where people can relax and think individually somewhere in or around the venue, perhaps outside.
  • Giving time to participants to think when asking questions. Fern Richardson suggests another 10-15 seconds of reflection before moving on to the next question.
  • Similarly, encouraging individual reflection before getting back to group brainstorming.
  • Responding on paper rather than verbally.

The role and responsibility of the facilitator:
In all of this, clearly the facilitator has the sacred role of creating the space for a certain dynamic that includes and involves introverts. In the conversation, I mentioned that it is something that needs to be built in from the start and followed gradually, by letting people know each other, co-create the dynamics according to the initial ground you have created for them. And indeed it’s your job as a facilitator to make all people feel valuable and able to contribute. Rewarding (verbally) the thoughtfulness of (introvert) participants encourages those participants to share more.

At the end of the day, together with Nic Stephen we recognise that for us facilitators, it is a matter of being flexible on group work and collaboration, but also of putting the responsibility on the group to develop the dynamics further: Keith Warren Price reminded all that “the essence of what we call Pinpoint Facilitation is to ensure the group does all the work, not the facilitator.”

Additional information:

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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