Facilitating & Introversion: Tips for Engaging Quiet People

We recently read a great piece on bringing out the gifts of introverted people over at NCDD supporting member Janice Thomson’s blog, Citizenize-Citizenise. Janice has been working with the Chicago chapter of the International Association of Facilitators on developing resources for effectively engaging quieter folks, and we think they could be quite useful to our members. You can read Janice’s piece below or find the original here.


“Stop the madness for constant group work. Just stop it!” pleads Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Group work, she claims, stifles some of the most insightful and creative thinkers and inflates the influence of extroverts. To generate the best ideas, workplaces and schools need to provide more solitude for deep reflection and creative thinking.

As a facilitator, her critiques made me wonder. Do the group processes I use marginalize important voices and perspectives? Is it possible to design meetings and workshops to fully involve introverted participants? I started a conversation around these questions with fellow facilitator Margaret Sullivan and together we designed a workshop to test our ideas and learn from others.

This blog summarizes learning from our “Facilitating Introverts” workshop held May 16, 2014 with the International Association of Facilitators (IAF), Chicago chapter. We warmly invite additional suggestions for how to include introverts in meetings and workshops!

What’s an introvert?

The concept of introversion originated with psychologist Carl Jung who noticed that people tend to be energized either by going inward in quiet reflection (introverts) or outward in interactions with people (extroverts). Later personality theorists added concepts like how one processes information, sensitivity to novelty and stimulation, and attitudes toward privacy and public attention.

Spectrum of Introversion Photo: Al Rush

Introversion/extroversion is a spectrum (see top photo). The population is roughly equally divided between the two halves and most people fall somewhere toward the middle. Although most people can function in both introverted and extroverted ways, they prefer one or the other. So, traditional group work, which is designed for extroverts, can indeed disadvantage introverts. To rectify this imbalance, it is necessary to first understand the special needs and gifts of introverts.

Importantly, since nobody functions exclusively as an introvert or extrovert, it would in fact be more accurate to discuss facilitating introversion or incorporating introverted processes into group work. This however is linguistically and conceptually cumbersome. So, for clarity, we simply use the term “introverts”.

Needs and gifts of introverts

Reflecting on the ideas of personality theorists and considering group situations that challenge introverts, we created a list of needs and gifts of introverts relevant to group work.

Important themes include:

  • Managing energy. Introverts are drained by social interaction and need alone time to recharge.
  • Processing time. Introverts take in lots of multi-layered information. They may therefore need more time than extroverts to process information, reflect, and decide what to say. They also need to understand expectations so they may prepare in advance.
  • Privacy and caution. Introverts do not like to call attention to themselves and can be reticent to share their ideas — especially if they are not yet fully formed or may provoke conflict.
  • Meaning and focus. Introverts are drawn to meaningful conversations and can go deep into subjects. Conversely, they get overwhelmed when multiple themes are discussed simultaneously.
  • Deep listening. Introverts can be very attentive listeners. They may notice things and make connections that extroverts miss. They also ask great questions.
  • Writing and non-verbal expression. Many introverts prefer to communicate in ways other than talking and may be skilled at writing or drawing.
  • Creativity and imagination. Introverts have rich inner lives which can lead them to uncover valuable insights and generate creative solutions.

Tools and techniques to involve introverts

Using these needs and gifts, we brainstormed tools and techniques to help introverts feel comfortable, meet their needs, and share their gifts in group work. We then added ideas culled from online facilitator forums and workshop discussions. We offer this initial list of tools and techniques for facilitating introverts to facilitators as thought-starters in designing group processes.

An introvert-friendly workshop

To demonstrate what an “introvert-friendly” workshop might look like, the methods we used in our own “Facilitating Introverts” workshop and why we chose them are described below.

I. Arrival and Dinner

Arriving at a meeting or workshop can be uncomfortable for introverts, especially if they don’t know anyone. So it’s important to consciously design an experience to put them at ease. We provided:

Photo: Al Rush

Visible agenda. Introverts like to know what to expect, including when they may need to contribute. We displayed a large visual agenda at arrival and reviewed it at the start of the workshop.

Greeter and host. While extroverts can just dive into unstructured social situations, introverts welcome some assistance. Participants were met by a greeter at a registration table and a “host” who mingled and made sure everyone was comfortable – e.g., introducing people and suggesting activities.

Nonverbal check-in. Fun, non-verbal activities done at one’s own pace can be an easy warm-up and help facilitate connections. We invited participants to write their mood on a colored shape and place it on an introversion-extroversion spectrum chart. This also introduced a core concept of our workshop, showed who was in the room, and provided a “temperature check”.

Reflection pond. This served as both “graffiti wall” and “parking lot”. Introverts don’t like to draw attention to themselves or provoke conflict so it’s good to offer ways to share anonymously. They can also get overwhelmed when multiple topics are discussed simultaneously. So it’s useful to use methods like “parking lots” to keep conversations focused.

Dinner choices. It’s important to never label a person or activity as “introvert” or “extrovert”, but rather to offer choices that allow participants to manage their own energy. For dinner, we offered three options: mingling informally, sitting in small groups, or participating in a facilitated “role play” game. We also kept novelty and stimulation low by providing familiar food (pizza) and calming music.

Role play dinner. Since introverts may be reticent to draw attention to themselves, role play games can help them speak more freely. We created a scenario where five famous introverts and five famous extroverts worked together on a project team. Participants described how their character (e.g., Eleanor Roosevelt, Marie Antoinette, etc.) would feel and behave in different group situations. This provided both structured group interaction and a playful introduction to workshop themes.

Flexible meeting space. We chose a meeting space, the Thinkubator, that provides many seating options, nooks and crannies, and an outdoor deck for different types of group interaction and solo breaks.

II. Opening

After introducing the topic, we created community agreements that included:

  • Moment of silence. Because introverts take in so much information, they sometimes need extra time to “catch up”. To create opportunities for this, we created “silence” signs anyone could use to request the group to be quiet for a few minutes – no explanation needed.
  • Breaks. Introverts sometimes need alone time to recharge. So we gave participants permission to take a break at any time, for any reason, no questions asked.
  • OK to pass. Introverts sometimes need additional time to formulate their thoughts. So, in structured go-arounds and sharing times, participants can “pass” and talk later.
  • Don’t hold back. “Quieter people” were reminded that they too have contributions valuable to the group and not to “hold back” sharing.

Homework and paired sharing. Introverts like to come prepared to meetings. Assigning homework is one way to achieve this. We asked participants to watch Susan Cain’s TED Talk to prepare. The first social interaction was low-key: sharing one thing learned from this video with one’s neighbor.

III. Needs and Gifts

An individual “scenario reflection” exercise was used to identify introverts’ needs and gifts. Three situations were described that can be challenging to introverts: 1) arriving at a meeting of strangers, 2) being asked to share one’s viewpoint early in a meeting, and 3) a meeting on a contentious issue.

To share ideas, we planned a structured go-around using a talking stick. This gives introverts the floor without them having to ask for it, but also lets them “pass” and speak later if they aren’t ready to talk.

IV. Tools and Techniques

We began with individual brainstorming, followed by a 20 minute discussion in groups of 3-4 people to modify and add to our initial list of tools and techniques. Especially with introverts, it’s important to begin brainstorming individually. A group size of 3-4 people allows sharing, but is comfortable to introverts.

Here’s a 1 minute video of the entire workshop (thanks to Gerald and Steve at the Thinkubator):

V. Post-event

Introverts often get their best ideas after a meeting or workshop – i.e., once they’ve had time to fully process its content and reflect alone on its meaning. So it’s important to provide a method, such as an online forum, to continue sharing and discussion after the event. That is one goal of this blog.

What do you think?

Margaret and I are sharing this blog with both the Chicago IAF workshop participants and the broader facilitation community. We invite suggestions of additional tools and techniques, needs and gifts, and thoughts on “facilitating introverts”. Please leave your comments below in “Leave A Reply”. You may also post a comment on the Chicago IAF Facebook page or Linked In group.

If there is sufficient interest, we might offer this workshop again, perhaps in modified or expanded form. Please use the contact form to let me know of your interest in organizing or assisting with a future workshop.

You can find the original version of this blog piece at www.janicethomson.net/facilitating-introverts-eliciting-the-gifts-of-the-quiet-ones.

Original post

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4 Comments

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Profile Photo Sharmane

I really appreciate this insightful and resource filled post!! I wholeheartedly agree with the methods that were used and hope that team leaders, managers, supervisors and co-workers would take into account the different working styles between introverts and extroverts. Some assume that introverts are being anti-social in the work place when that is not the case at all. We have to be engaged intellectually, otherwise it’s a distraction from our work. Thank you.

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Profile Photo Roderick Santiago

Thank you for the post! If I may offer a few thoughts, especially since I consider myself as an extreme extrovert. My suggestions are my own and do not imply that it applies to all introverts.

First, a conscious effort by facilitators to engage introverts does not have to be done single-handedly. Smaller groups, given clear instructions, can carry out the tasks of conducting a roundtable approach of individually asking group members for ideas and asking for contributions to discussions.

Second, plan ahead to allocate equitable amounts of time for each group member to be able to discuss ideas. Often, the ideas of the most outspoken are the only ones that are considered just because it received the most discussion.

Third, as I observed in numerous team-building exercises, once the main ideas have been identified, there are times that introverts are slowly forgotten in the course of the meetings. In short, continuous inclusion of introverts in discussions from beginning to end will give meetings a more inclusive atmosphere that may even encourage these “quiet” participants to keep coming (and contributing) to future gatherings.

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Profile Photo Frank Sampsell

Thank you for this commentary. As an extreme introvert, I seldom contribute in meetings because my mind is milling over over the topic(s) in great depth- so much so that I seldom (if ever) feel as though I’ve fully formulated an opinion on the issue prior to the meeting’s conclusion. I fear a great many decisions are packaged as a group opinion when they are actually a solution proposed by a select few contributors during the relatively small period of time in which a group could be assembled.

I hope your models become embraced both inside and outside of government as a way of balancing the personalities.

I am fortunate in that I have my own department and have some degree of control over the pace of our discussions. Because of my introverted tendencies, I generally assemble groups for brainstorming sessions and then schedule a second meeting several days later to discuss solutions. This allows some of my more extraverted people to produce ideas and lead the initial conversation without requiring a solution later that same hour. I am generally much more comfortable with the participants the second time I meet them, and our more introverted people are far more willing to contribute their thoughts once they’ve had time to fully digest the topic.

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Profile Photo Janice Thomson

I’m the person who wrote the original blog and, with Margaret Sullivan, designed/led the workshop it’s based on. I’m thrilled to see this blog shared on GovLoop and am very thankful for your feedback. We designed this as part of a “learning journey” and are indeed learning a lot!

One of the most important things I’ve learned echoes your comments Frank — that introverts simply need more time to process information than extroverts (because they take in more and go deeper). I like your two meeting approach of one for brainstorming & another for solution-finding. I’m rethinking what can be accomplished in a single meeting and proposing more iterative and multi-modal approaches (i.e., in-person meetings + website forums + solo work).

Your point Roderick of designing meeting formats to regularly include all types of participants is important as well. Facilitators can do a lot to involve all participants, but their work is made much easier by an inclusive design. Furthermore, much group work doesn’t involve facilitators.

That the content must be meaningful, which Sharmane you alluded to, seems particularly important for collaborative projects. Sometimes the emphasis can be too heavy on “relationship building” and discount the core issues at the heart of the project.

I’m happy to see this topic picked up in government circles. Since half the public leans toward introversion, it seem to be especially important for public engagement. Yet standard formats like town hall meetings and public hearings can sideline introverts and don’t allow space for thoughtful reflection. Extrovert-centric public meeting formats can therefore be another form of exclusion.

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