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:


What is learning?

Time for new stuff!!! Ah, love the learning!

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

(Social) learning: how we evolve (together) by questioning our environment

After over three weeks hectic weeks that kept me away from blogging, I’m happy to finally be back on the (WordPress) dashboard to share some recent work. And the biggest item on a long list of ‘to blog’ is this presentation that I just prepared about learning. I will be giving this presentation today for an all-staff meeting at IRC as an introduction to one of our ‘travel free weeks’.

Travel free weeks are given a negative name (about what we don’t do: travel – we’re all supposed to be around) for what is essentially a week of organisational learning. And learning we do and talk about at IRC. A quick search for ‘learning’ gave back 992 hits on our website – on a total of I suspect over 12000 items. This is seriously core to our business. But do we always refer back to the theory and practice of learning, at personal, organisational, collective and even societal level? That I question, and anyway for whoever wishes to work on learning, going back to the white board with the ‘where are we at’ question every so often is just a standard (good) practice. That is the key to becoming a learning organisation. Remember Einstein: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

So here’s the presentation. I made it on Prezi, because it’s a new tool I wanted to (indeed) learn about, also because I think its fresh feel may put the audience in a different seat and engage them in a different way. I got triggered to use Prezi when I first heard @Joitske (Hulsebosch) tweet about it, then when I read this great blog post by Robert @Swanwick about his own experience with Prezi and finally when I saw my first Prezi about designing an academic poster, by Adam Read. But no more talk now, check the presentation:

… or online: What (the heck) is learning?

My learning curve with Prezi?

  • It’s funny how it actually feels like Prezi has been around and we do Prezi-type presentations all the time, whereas the logic of the presentation is very different to Powerpoints and it really has the advantage of focusing on one point at a time, which gives the audience a better chance to relate what you’re saying with what they’re seeing. Oh sure you can (and should) do it with Powerpoint but we all know our tendency to use as much of a white space we can with text, text and more text, especially when we’ve been trained to keep Powerpoints to an average of 10-15 slides – something we are un-learning at the moment, but it takes time to un-learn!
  • The development logic takes a while to master, not least because it involves a lot of zooming in and out to write text in small enough a display to keep it invisible when scrolling from one bit of text to another in the presentation.
  • I really like the canvas logic, the liberty and reduced linearity that you enjoy when developing and showing the presentation.
  • Framing the elements of your presentation in consistent blocks is helpful but perhaps the last thing to do in the presentation because any edit on the presentation requires you to zoom in on the element you need to edit and the overlay frame tends to be the element you pick up when you try to edit a smaller element.
  • I haven’t yet explored the possibility to embed video and audio bits and I hope it is possible or there is a (Power)point to keep using PPTs (which can do that). There is anyway as Prezi should just complement the current offer of presentation tools and find what works for you, and most importantly what because matters in the presentation, with Prezi or else, is what YOU are saying, not what’s on display.
  • I found the set of backgrounds rather limited too and hope it is easy to use new/other backgrounds.
  • Finally, for future presentations I will think further about the way I wish to use because there is a lot of learning (and effectiveness) potential there, but even with a simple – read: no-surprise – presentation like mine the surprise effect is there yet – I reckon!

Let’s see how my colleagues react to it! This, in itself, would deserve a reply blog post, don’t you think?

Related blog posts:

Learning cycle basics and more: Taking stock

It seems that, home page aside, the most popular post on this modest blog has been the one I wrote about ‘cycles, circles and ripples of learning’.

Finding light through a different reflection? Deep learning loops (Photo credits: Philippe Leroyer)

Finding light through a different reflection? Deep learning loops (photo credits: Philippe Leroyer)

Search engine queries confirm that a lot of people out there are looking for more on these dizzying learning cycles and loops.

That learning cycles were so popular was a discovery for me. I like the idea of learning cycles but never used the model much in KM training or discussions. The recent poll I organised to elect the topic of this stock-taking post confirmed the general curiosity for learning cycles. Following your wishes, here is a stock-taking post on learning cycles, but to keep it interesting and different I’m foraying into adjacent areas such as…

Kolb learning styles (source: www.businessballs.com)

Might as well begin with the beginning as David Kolb has theorised learning styles and experiential learning (1) which are at the cornerstone of learning loops and cycles. There are other authors upon which Kolb inspired his work but this is only a short visit to academic park.

The theory here distinguishes four distinct learning styles:

  • Concrete experience (related to feeling);
  • Reflective observation (watching);
  • Abstract conceptualisation (thinking);
  • Active experimentation (doing).

These learning styles are connected, in Kolb’s theory, through the following cyclical sequence:

Kolb's experiential learning cycle (graph credits: Businessballs)

Kolb contends that every person uses the four learning styles in different ways depending on their progression on a maturity path that spans acquisition (of basic abilities and cognitive structures), specialisation (towards a specific learning style) and ultimately integration (where other learning styles are also expressed / used in work and personal life). But he also contends that we cannot use two styles simultaneously so we opt for either doing or watching and then either for thinking or feeling.

At the intersection of these two dialectical sets of choices, Kolb places his theory of preferred learning styles, as shown in the table below:

Doing (Active Experimentation – AE) Watching (Reflective Observation – RO)
Feeling (Concrete Experience – CE) Accommodating (CE/AE), i.e. hands-on, intuitive, relying on others’ information, group-work focused… Diverging (CE/RO), i.e. making links between different approaches, interested in brainstorming. Emotional, group work-focused…
Thinking (Abstract Conceptualization – AC) Converging (AC/AE), i.e. with a practical focus, interested in technical problems/solutions, specialist/technological applications… Assimilating (AC/RO), i.e. logical, concise, interested in readings, lectures, analytical models…

This model has been elaborated on by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. They relabelled the four preferred learning styles to use some labels that are more familiar to us:

  1. ‘Having an Experience’ (stage 1), and Activists (style 1): ‘here and now’, gregarious, seek challenge and immediate experience, open-minded, bored with implementation.
  2. ‘Reviewing the Experience’ (stage 2) and Reflectors (style 2): ‘stand back’, gather data, ponder and analyse, delay reaching conclusions, listen before speaking, thoughtful.
  3. ‘Concluding from the Experience’ (stage 3) and Theorists (style 3): think things through in logical steps, assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories, rationally objective, reject subjectivity and flippancy.
  4. ‘Planning the next steps’ (stage 4) and Pragmatists (style 4): seek and try out new ideas, practical, down-to-earth, enjoy problem solving and decision-making quickly, bored with long discussions.

I think this model has a lot to be argued with – any model that claims too quickly to show the truth is disputable, however useful that claim is to stimulate critical reviews and further researching limitations, gaps, edges of this theory.

More information can be found on the learning and teaching website, about learning styles: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm with some additional adaptations as briefly mentioned above. This resource also contain some links to critiques made on the Kolb model – in stock-taking posts I refrain from giving an opinion.

Chris Argyris / Donald Schön: theories of action, double-loop learning and organisational learning (source: Mark K. Smith – INFED)

The other heavyweights in learning cycles and styles are obviously Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, and in this extensive explanation by Mark K. Smith, we are touching the inner cords of learning loops and cycles. This is hard to summarise here but the starting point is the difference between theory and action and the fact that everyone has two theories of action: theories in use (governing our actual behaviour) and espoused theories (what we say we do). In popular terms this also relates to the saying: “do as I say (not as I do)”. Argyris argues that effectiveness comes from aligning these two theories of action.

Then comes learning (seen here as detection and correction of errors):

  • Single-loop learning comes from the fact that human beings, faced with adversity, just try to set the same governing variables in a different way – as a quest for efficiency.
  • Double loop learning is when we look at the governing variables (norms, policies, objectives) that guide our activities and our responses to events occurring. This is where effectiveness (as opposed to just efficiency) comes in.
  • In another article, another author explains that on the topic of organisational learning, Argyris is also referring to deutero learning as the awareness that (single and double-loop) learning must happen. This means identifying the learning styles and facilitating factors to understand the gap between targeted outcome and actual performance (not a very complexity-friendly theory really though).

Double-loop learning according to Argyris (graph credits: Deborah Kendell)

Argyris and Schön considered how to expand the capacity of organisations to engage in double-loop learning – as they saw this as crucial to adapt to fast-changing environments – but it is also inherently difficult because the reasoning process of individuals “inhibits exchange of relevant information”. In his study, Argyris compares two models of human behaviours and contends that almost everyone follows model 1, a model that promotes superficiality, not losing face, defensive relationships etc. as opposed to a more win-win focused model 2.

Of course a lot of this theory should also be taken with a pinch of salt and some distance with respect to its linearity and dual approach. But the bottom ideas stick around.

The author of this article also points to the fact that Argyris and Schön’s theory has been central to unearthing the role of facilitators (of learning), reflecting on and questioning the difference between the two theories of action, as opposed to individual / private learning.

All in all, this web page is probably one of the best introductions to Argyris’s work without digging out the books.

More on single, double and triple loop learning

On the topic of learning loops, the ‘Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development’ offers a short and to-the-point definition on this one-pager (PDF document):

  • Single-loop learning is understood here as following the rules – like a thermostat that only corrects temperature when it goes too low or too high.
  • Double-loop learning is described as changing the rules – where the focus is not on applying the rules but on using creativity and critical thinking to find out if the rules that you are applying are indeed most appropriate.
  • Triple-loop learning is simply referred to as learning how to learn, implying that not only should we think about applying the rules or changing them but we should think about the rules themselves. The authors also depict triple-loop learning as double-loop learning applied to double loop learning itself.

This reference has the merit of being short but thereby offers little value to apply the analogy to other contexts (if the examples provided do not make enough sense).

In the context of learning alliances (one of my hobby horses as I work with learning alliances and IRC wrote about it (2) and works a lot with this type of multi-stakeholder approach),

Double loop learning in learning alliances (graph credits: CIAT)

CIAT one of the CG centres who has pioneered learning alliances refers in the ILAC sourcebook (part 2 – tools and approaches, chapter 14 on learning alliances) to the importance of a double loop learning cycle to implement strategic actions, as depicted in the image (right here).

Then there is this interesting article ‘Transformational change in organisations’ by Mary R. Bast which focuses mainly on individuals (contrary to the organisational double-loop learning practice described in the figure above) and particularly emphasises triple-loop learning as the condition for transformational change, as opposed to incremental learning through single-loop learning and reframing through double-loop learning. This article borrows from Robert Hargrove’s Masterful coaching and explains that the essential contribution of triple-loop learning is that it paves the way for transformational change (3) – a process that essentially requires that we reassess our point of view about ourselves. Another interesting point made here is that transformational change can be hindered by single and double loop learning. This article covers, with explicit (and built-on) examples, the three types of learning loops and gives perhaps the best illustration about learning loops that I could find, even if it could have been written in a more simple manner.

Learning cycles, according to Wikipedia

Of course I shouldn’t afford not to mention what Wikipedia has to say about learning cycles… in this case not very much (nor to the point) as it goes on about a research-supported method for education looking successively at engaging, exploring, explaining, extending and evaluating… ah, when the wisdom of the crowd becomes the wastedump of the proud…

Learning and KM in the development sector, a KM4DEV discussion

And finally, although this wiki entry could be a bit more structured, it offers a number of very valuable insights into the topic of learning and touches upon the learning loops (particularly by Irene Guijt).

I hope that these references provide a bit more information about this topic of learning cycles. As usual, feel free to point to more relevant resources…

In the meantime, I’ll be working on my next stock-taking post, either about complexity theories or about facilitation tools and approaches. What say you?


One of the key references that is not mentioned here but was talked about in the previous post on learning cycles is the article (PDF) that Marleen Maarleveld and Constant Dangbégnon wrote, where they refer extensively to triple-loop learning.

In-text notes:

(1) Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development was published in 1984

(2) The book that IRC authors wrote about learning alliances in the water sector is available here.

(3) Transformational change is described as: “…empowering people to transform who they are and reinvent themselves by helping them to see how their frames of reference, thinking, and behavior produce unintended consequences… to surface and question the way they have framed their points of view about themselves, others, or their circumstances with the idea of creating a fundamental shift”

Related blog posts: