Are you an introvert? I know I am. That’s why I was thrilled when I discovered Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
As I read, it occurred to me that there must be many introverts just like me at Yale—students, faculty, and staff who are contributing in their own ways, in classrooms and labs, in meetings, and in the office. Inspired by her book, I invited Susan to speak to the Yale community—especially to students who are introverts and those who support them—about life as an introvert and the powerful creativity and productivity introverts can bring to our classrooms and workplaces
This "fairy godmother for introverts" has started something of a revolution. She’s helped us understand that introverts aren't necessarily shy or quiet—they’re people who need a certain kind of environment, a way of being and working in the world that allows them to fully leverage their talents. It was heartening to see more than 150 people show up to listen to Susan and me engage about the power of introverts and the ways in which they can thrive in a community like Yale.
Lessons for Interacting With Introverts
My talk with Susan was part of the “Vulnerability and Leadership” series, which is co-sponsored by Yale Well (a university-wide wellness initiative for students) and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The series was developed by a group of recent graduates, staff members, and faculty who are experts in the field of emotional intelligence.
Importantly, it was the students who decided that other students really wanted to have a conversation about both vulnerability and leadership. And it turns out that their instinct was right. Leadership is full of vulnerability, and nowhere is that truer than for introverts who are living in a world that is mostly designed for extroverts.
So what did I learn during my conversation with Susan that will help me as university administrator? Here are just a few lessons.
- Introverts like—and need—smaller or defined spaces, and university administrators should think creatively about the use of space; we should ensure that open space is not predominant or that within a predominately open space there are contiguous spaces where introverted students can go to take a break, re-center, reflect, and re-join the conversation or activity. As Susan says in her powerful TED Talk, which has over 17 million views, “solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that they breathe.”
- We should make sure that our Center for Teaching and Learning advises faculty to connect with introverted students outside of class, perhaps even reaching out to students they suspect may be introverted instead of waiting for them to come to office hours. We need to listen to these students’ ideas outside the classroom through conversation or email and then weave those ideas into class discussions, so that the introverted students “hear” themselves and perhaps feel more comfortable speaking out or participating in class. Faculty may also benefit from taking another look at the role of class participation in grading. As an administrator, I can use this tactic with student leaders in the many meetings I have with them to ensure everyone feels comfortable and to collaboratively seek solutions.
- Some extroverts are introverts who are passing as extroverts. We need to pay attention to the ways in which students interact with us to make sure that we give them the kind of advice and the kind of attention that will help them feel comfortable contributing all that they can in our communities. I have a lot of conversations with student leaders—many of them women and people of color—who may also benefit from these tips, whether they are introverts are not. These students often have the same concerns about participating in conversations or being listened to.
Incorporating Introverts Into the Boardroom
I think about the classroom as a corollary for meetings inside and outside the corporate boardrooms that I sit in. Yes, I've had moments as an introvert when I'm trying to figure out how to join the conversation to share my view. I try to follow the pace of the conversation and inject myself at the right moment, or I do something embarrassing like raise my hand when that's often not the company norm. It feels to me like doing Double Dutch. Susan says that introverts need to prepare—that if you’re an introvert, it’s better to research your subject, have a couple of questions lined up in advance, and speak first or early. You can then relax because you've already contributed. The added benefit is that often, what you say becomes part of what the dialogue centers on as the conversation moves forward.
If you're a manager and you're trying to run an effective meeting that includes a few people who speak and some who don’t, you can use the same advice Susan suggests to professors: You can call on your slightly introverted colleagues, but make sure that they know you’re going to do so. Have conversations with them beforehand to get their opinions and advice so that you can incorporate these into your remarks and give your introverts a platform to join you in a discussion. Or, do what I like to do: Ask to hear from everyone and then go around the room to get a ton of ideas.
I’m happy to share the video from our talk with you. I hope you will see yourself, or people you study, work with, or teach, and come away with a better understanding of and appreciation for introverts.
Did you have an aha moment as you watched the video? Do Susan’s thoughts resonate because you see yourself or someone you know or care about in her descriptions? I know I came away from my time with Susan with a renewed appreciation for introverts, and a commitment to participate in the "Quiet Revolution".
How can you benefit from what Susan shared, even if you are not in a university setting? If you're an introvert, how can you adapt what she said to your environment in the corporate world?
Let me know your thoughts on Twitter: @kimgcrews.