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This blog post forms the basis of our podcast on introversion in the coaching room which you can listen to here. 

Coaching Topics – Introversion

Introversion isn’t necessarily something someone would bring as an issue to the coaching room, but it does show up in lots of different guises. Perhaps they feel that they should be a certain way in a given situation, and that doesn’t suit their personality. They might then come to coaching about that situation, or to find a new way to be. Or their introverted tendencies might sit behind some of the challenges they face, perhaps in the workplace.

What Is Introversion?

The eminent psychologist, Carl Jung first developed the idea of the different types of personality people had, and came up with one of the element known as introvert / extrovert. In simple terms, in ‘type’ theory, a person either is or isn’t that type, so Jung would say you were an introvert or an extrovert.

Other researchers have since looked at the aspects of personality in a slightly different way. Personality ‘traits talks of personality elements as a continuum, so you might be lower on the extroversion scale, making you more introverted, or higher, making you more extroverted.

In personality psychometrics, one of the most common is MBTI. The creators of this, Myers and Briggs, two women in America, took Jung’s ideas and turned it into a psychometric where your introversion/ extroversion (and other personality dimensions) were measured. So you would get a measure of someone’s degree of extroversion or introversion.

Introversion is a really broad label to start with. It’s really about how someone appears to other people. They might be seen as quiet and reserved. They might be seen as reflective and thoughtful, perhaps calm and considered, private and contained. Those sorts of words tend to get used as descriptors for someone who has that introversion tendency. Some people might just think they’re rude, perhaps not saying a lot or seemingly ignoring you. How they feel inside might be a different thing, but that’s how they tend to be perceived.

Those phrases or labels don’t capture introversion perfectly, but give us some idea of what we’re talking about when we start to explore introversion. In personality terms, Jung’s concept was around where you get your energy from. He suggested that people with an extroversion preference tend to focus their energy outwards towards activities and other people. People with an introversion preference tend to focus inward, on their internal world and on their inner thoughts.

If you take the MBTI instrument, they suggest that it’s how you recharge your batteries, which seems to make a lot of sense to many people. Extroverts need to be around others for energy, and introverts need to be alone to replenish.

Other people have other ideas. The German psychologist called Eysenck had the idea that there were physiological differences in people’s brains, and introversion/extroversion was about the amount of stimulation that people wanted. People who had an introversion preference were overstimulated already, so they really didn’t want any more stimulation, so they liked quiet environments. People with an extraversion preference were under-stimulated, so they went seeking additional stimulation. His theories are quite controversial, but there is now neuroscience coming through that suggests that there is some difference in people’s brains possibly in relation to the dopamine activations system. It suggests that that reward system is more highly activated in extroverts than it is in introverts, that introverts don’t tend to seek reward in the same way. So there seems to be some connection here with introvert and extroversion. The science may well tell us more in time.

How Does Understanding Introversion Help Us In The Coaching Room?

Let’s start off thinking about the coach and the activity of coaching.

Coaching is really quite an introverted activity.

We’re talking to someone else, so our focus is outwards towards them, but it’s just one individual and it tends to be quite a low key conversation. So there’s lots of time and space within the conversation that perhaps an extrovert wouldn’t engage with. Coaching requires us to spend the majority of our time, as the coach, reflecting and thoughtful, which is not an extroverted activity.

We want to leave space in coaching and not rush in and give our opinion, which tends to be what extroverts do. They go, “oh, I know the answer to this, I must share it”.

All of the activities that we talked about in terms of introverted activities; being quiet and reflective and thinking about things before we speak, that sort of thing is what we would do in the coaching room. So, if you are an introvert and you come to coaching, you have a bit of a head start because you’re naturally going to do what’s required in the coaching room.

If you’re an extrovert, as a coach, you’ve got to flex, you’ve got to be different.

But not all coaches have to be introverts, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do it. We’re both extroverts which is probably why we combine coaching with training and facilitation that help us develop or work with our extroversion tendencies.

So, whether you’re an introvert or an extravert you can be a coach and be coached.

Coaching An Introvert

Coachees who are introverted tend to be more reflective before they answer. They will just sit and think about a question before they come back with an answer.

If they have an extroverted coach who hasn’t learned how to coach properly and isn’t aware of this introversion tendency, they might panic a bit when they’re not getting an answer straight away and they might think, “oh no, I’ve asked the wrong question, I better ask them another one quick”. So they ask another question and then the coachee has two questions to think about before they answer, and so they’ll take even more time. And then the coach might start to think, “oh no, they’re really struggling with this. I’ll ask that question in a different way so that they’ll understand it better”. And so they ask a different version of the same question, which gives the introverted coachee another dilemma, because they’ve now got three questions and they’re just sitting there thinking, “why doesn’t he just shut up and let me think about the question because that’s what I need to do”.

An introvert may need to just sit for a while and think. It might be for about 20 or 30 seconds, which is quite a long time, especially if their process is to look away, perhaps at the ceiling. And it’s an especially long time for an extrovert to stay quiet!

But if you rush them, perhaps interrupted their thinking, you will have denied them that opportunity to do the really good reflective thinking that people with introversion preference tend to want to do.

As a coach, observe the thinking pattern or process of those introverts you are coaching so that you become familiar with it. If you’re coaching online, it may look like they’ve frozen as they may have sat so still for a while!

Allowing them to be their own person and not rushing through coaching in the way that we want to coach rather than treating everyone the same. It’s recognising that introverts and extroverts come with a different way of being.

That lovely space that we try to create in the coaching room is really useful for introverts. But equally, extraverts really want to talk things through, so it’s just as powerful for them.

What particular problems might an introvert bring to coaching?

Just like everyone else, they’re going to come to coaching with a range of desired outcomes. Certain topics tend not to be something specific to introverts, but I think there are some topics that do tend to show up more for them.

  • Quite often they’ll be struggling to get their voice heard especially within an organisation, and maybe a hospital setting or a GP practise or in a committee meeting. The extroverts will get on and speak, and move the conversation on. But for introverts, that’s really difficult. They really don’t want life to be like that, so they’ll just withdraw, they’ll withhold what they were going to say because they don’t want to be spoken over, they don’t want to have that cut and thrust of conversation. And they want to think things through more before speaking. So they may need to think about how they’re going to navigate their space to their advantage.
  • Another issue might be around confidence. or the perception of confidence. There is a societal expectation of what confidence looks like. And when you have an introvert who doesn’t see themselves in that wya, then there’s conflict because they might start to think they’re not confident, or have to be a different way that is against their nature. Coaching can be useful for reframing that idea of what is confidence, and that it’s okay to have a different type of confidence.
  • Coachees might be struggling with the environment that they find themselves in. If you imagine that maybe someone has gone into medicine because they’ve done really well up to that point through studying hard in a very introverted way: They’ve got on with their books and they’ve settled down to do their study, they’ve got to university, they’ve done well at university. Then they start work and suddenly find themselves in a busy A&E department. That’s not really an environment that an introvert is going to always welcome because it’s busy, it’s chaotic, there’s lots of noise going on, so it’s not really how you might want to be as an introvert. So introverts might need to recognise what’s a goodness of fit for them in terms of their working environment, and how they manage that, and themselves within it. Please note: These aren’t absolutes, and you could well have an introvert that turns up to A&E and thrive in that space. But generally speaking, introverts are going to prefer quieter environments where they can think and take their time, and if they find themselves in that environment, it might not be the best place for them.
  • Introverts might come to coaching quite exhausted for many of the reasons already mentioned. If you have to flex out of your natural tendency, we can all do it, but we can’t do it forever. So if you are an introvert and you’re in a very busy environment and a very noisy environment, and having to cope with lots of extroverts, that is going to be exhausting. They might need to spend some time thinking about that idea of replenishing their energy.
  •  One other thing that I think sometimes comes into the coaching room with introverts is that they tend to prefer to communicate in writing, so they probably prefer to send an email than pick the phone up. The world has moved since all of this theory was investigated. The Internet didn’t exist, so everyone either picked up the phone or they sent a letter. Now, everyone communicates in writing. So whilst that’s an introverted tendency, we all do it now and we all do it a lot. It’s useful to recognise that that’s how introverts generally would rather be. So if there’s an issue with communication this is helpful to explore.
  • Where someone has to show up and socialise from a work perspective, introverts may struggle and may need coaching to help them. Perhaps when they arrive at a venue, they don’t want to go in because they’re going to have to talk to people and they might not know them. That’s about finding strategies to deal with that.

So as a coach, working with an introverted client, we want to help them to find their coping strategies to find out how they can make their situation less uncomfortable for them and actually maybe even enjoy it.

 You might want to watch this TED talk from by Susan Kane who wrote a book called Quiet’. It’s about her experience of being an introvert in a very extroverted world. And she talks about the bias that the world has towards extroverts because they tend to move on quicker and because they’re vocal about what they want. 

Look out for a future podcast and blog on the big five personality traits and how that all interplays within the coaching room.

This blog post forms the basis of our podcast on introversion in the coaching room which you can listen to here.