A different way of thinking about the categories of introvert and extrovert might change how you see yourself and some of your colleagues. (And may help you solve some of your team’s most frustrating dynamics!)

Most of us understand the categories of introvert and extrovert to be primarily about how we interact with others. Typically, we think of introverts as people who are drained by social engagement and need alone time to recharge; and we think of extroverts as people who are energized by social interactions and need together time to recharge.

If you can, set those definitions aside for a few moments. A different way of thinking about the categories of introvert and extrovert may help you better understand yourself and your colleagues.  

In our work, we use the terms introvert and extrovert to describe the way someone processes their thoughts and emotions. 

  • Introverts process internally; in other words, they think before speaking. 
  • Extroverts process externally or out loud; they think by speaking.  

You can read a full explanation (with lots of funny examples) of introverts and extroverts in our colleague Kathleen Edelman’s latest book, I Said This, You Heard That. Doing so might improve your work life, because understanding what this can look like in the office may explain (and help you solve) some of your team’s most frustrating dynamics. Here’s a brief primer.

In the context of work, introverts are likely to:

  • Sit quietly through meetings, often not speaking up unless explicitly invited to.
  • Arrive having already prepared or begun working in advance.
  • Request time to think before making decisions or forming opinions.
  • Resist spontaneous requests or unplanned changes.
  • Share thoughts and ideas after the fact.

If you’re not wired the same way, introverts’ quiet, deliberate processing can be incredibly frustrating. Can’t we just decide and start working already?!? Why didn’t you say something sooner?!? 

With just a few accommodations, though, you can capitalize on introverts’ wisdom and thoughtfulness without sacrificing your team’s momentum. 

  • Send agendas and/or discussion topics ahead of time. “Here’s what we’ll be covering in our team meeting tomorrow afternoon so you have time to prepare your thoughts.”
  • Invite introverts to speak up (and if possible, give them a few moments’ warning). “I’d like to hear from you, Steve, once Ava and Wilson have weighed in.”
  • Extend the window of time for ideas and feedback. “We’ll settle on the plan at the end of this week. In the meantime, my door is open if you think of anything else.”

In the context of work, extroverts are likely to:

  • Jump into discussions, then ramble as they figure out what they’re trying to say.
  • Rush to judgment, then change their mind.
  • Make very quick decisions, sometimes without gathering all the facts. 
  • Show up ready to think on their feet (in lieu of preparing in advance).
  • Seek out others to listen to them as they talk things over.

If you’re not wired the same way, extroverts’ chatter can be overwhelming. Will you get to the point already, no one can get a word in edgewise?!? Whoah, shouldn’t we slow down and think this through before making a decision?!?

As with introverts, making a few changes to the way your team works can help you benefit from extroverts’ energy without growing frustrated with all their words.

  • Solicit their thoughts and opinions outside of meetings. “Before our executive team meeting next week, let’s you and I sit down and talk through the big discussion points.”
  • Create structure around group discussions. “Let’s have everyone share in 30 seconds or less.”
  • Build in (a reasonable amount of) deliberation time. “At the end of the meeting, I’d like to hear everyone’s final thoughts. But for now, let’s move on to the next topic.”

Even if you aren’t in a position to implement any of these changes, simply recognizing that your colleagues’ behavior may be the result of their wiring can improve your working relationship. When your officemate stops by your desk to chat (again) about your shared project, knowing they are an extrovert who needs to talk in order to think may help you feel more cheerful about listening. Or when your boss tables a decision (again), knowing they are an introvert who needs time to weigh all sides of an issue may help you feel more patient about waiting for their final word. 

Do these alternate ways of defining introverts and extroverts change how you think of yourself? Your teammates? Which do you think you are—an introvert who processes in your head or an extrovert who processes with your words?

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