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The newest book about introverts, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain, argues that Western culture misunderstands and undervalues the capabilities of introverted people. Extroverts are usually defined as outgoing, overtly expressive people who focus outward, while introverts focus inward and are less expressive. This has sparked a few conversations around the office, and has gotten me thinking about the significance of this in our company and in my own career.

There are several introverts here at Ignition72, probably 80/20 introverts over extroverts. Generally speaking, I suspect that most programmers are introverts, but not all. I am so introverted that it can affect my usefulness and my relationships sometimes. I don’t always speak up when I should. So how we can make sure the voices of the introverts are heard?

I recently read a story of a teacher who decided to “help” her introverted students by literally forcing them to speak in class. She gave each student regular assignments and made them present their homework in front of the class. She was proud of herself for thinking of this. I find this both appalling and terrifying. First, she thinks introverts just need practice speaking in front of groups, and then they’ll get over being introverts. Secondly, this is the kind of behavior that could have serious long-term consequences for her victims – her students – who could come to hate school, develop emotional or behavioral problems, or even drop out. This is NOT how to help introverts.

I learned a lot about managing introverts in my 17 years at the National Security Agency, where an introvert is defined as someone who “looks at the OTHER person’s shoes when talking to them.”  I discovered that by watching body language, I could tell who had something to say, but wasn’t about to interrupt the group to say it. So in the course of the conversation, I would ask the person specifically if they had a comment to share. I gave them space, time, and stillness to get their thoughts together and say what they wanted to say. If someone started to interrupt, I would say “let’s wait until they’re finished” so the entire thought could be communicated. And I always acknowledge the comment in a positive way. Nothing is more painful to an introvert than to muster the energy to speak up, and then have the comment ignored.

And it is energy – contributing in a group situation takes actual, physical energy. After a day that’s full of meetings or client interactions, I’m exhausted. Talking in a group is physically demanding. Some extroverts I know actually draw energy from these exchanges. Introverts give it.

In some situations, it may make sense to go around the room and pointedly ask everyone if they have any comments to add. But it’s also permissible to accept a “no” and move on. It is never OK to force someone to speak. Treating everyone – introverts included – with courtesy and respect is always the best option.

Kris Appel

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