I’ve been doing more interviews on introversion this year as a result of the success of my eBook, “The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership” and my Harvard Business Review Blog Post. A recent trend in these interviews has been a discussion about how our introversion affects us in our formative years, and at what point we start to feel the impact of our introversion, but perhaps not understand it.
As a parent I see it affecting my daughters in middle and high school, both in their approach to their schoolwork and how they are perceived by their teachers. Though I can’t always smooth the waters for them, or clear the path, here are the ten things I wish their teachers – and all educators – knew about introverted students.
1. Introversion is about energy, not shyness or social aptitude
This continues to be an issue I spend a lot of time discussing because there is so much misunderstanding in the world about what it really means to be an introvert. Introverts get their energy – we fuel ourselves – through our inner world of ideas and images, memories and visions. We get drained in the outer world of people and activity, such as in your classroom. This is simply an innate reality for us and not something we have control over.
The extroverts you teach will be energized just by being in your classroom, because they fuel themselves through the energy of being around people and activity. If you misunderstand this innate reality and see your introverted students as shy or socially lacking, you will have misunderstood them from the get-go.
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2. Introverts excel at individual and small group work
Because this is our comfort zone and where we are naturally energized, this is the environment in which we can easily do our best work. If you are giving us an assignment that requires us to immerse ourselves in images, ideas, memories and our perceptive inner world, like interpreting great literature, or being astutely analytical such as figuring out a geometry proof, don’t ask us to do it as part of a large group. You will get our best insights and analysis if you let us work alone or in very small groups.
3. Introverts have the capability to succeed in a large group setting, but it’s more draining for us
Just because our innate preference is to be alone or in small groups, it does not mean we cannot succeed in larger groups. We absolutely can, it’s just important for you to understand that it requires us to get out of our comfort zone and is energetically draining for us. Of course, it’s important that we learn to get out of our comfort zone in order to succeed in life, so large group activities will play an important role in our educational development.
However, please be mindful that getting out of our comfort zone is stressful and will impact students differently depending on their age. Consider limiting the time dedicated to large-group activities during any one class, and give us a clear role in the group to minimize stress. The more uncertainty you take away (which often comes in large-group activities when there is no clear leader or defined role/objective, or a lack of supervision by the teacher), especially at a younger age, the less stressful it is for us to be out of our comfort zone. If introverted students learn over time that they can be successful in this type of environment, even though it’s not their comfort zone, they will be more confident and adaptable as they move to college and then out into the world.
4. Introverts prefer time to think things through
We think “in our heads” unlike our extroverted fellow students who may think out loud. Thus, our fear of being called on in class, particularly with no warning. It’s not that we don’t have an opinion or the desire to share in class; it’s simply that we prefer time to mull things over in our heads.
Try asking a question and then telling the class you’re going to give them a minute to think it through. Then call on the extroverts. Then call on your introverted students. Chances are you’re going to get much more confident and insightful responses from the introverts this way because you honored their need for a bit of time for thoughtful consideration.
Note, this is probably one of the main reasons people misjudge us as shy – or worse, standoffish – throughout our entire lives. We stay quiet because we’re thinking in our heads, and end up being mislabeled.
5. Introverts love stories and excel at storytelling
Stories invite us to revel in the world of images and ideas we sincerely love, so give us the chance to do this as much as possible, and allow us the chance to share the stories in our heads with you. Introverted students will be more passionate about getting up in front of class to share a story than to recite historical facts, for example. If history is the topic, let us tell a story about something historical that happened and you’ll discover our ability to relay details and facts becomes much deeper and richer and allows us to shine. Encourage us to see this strength within us as much as possible and to work to hone it.
6. Introverts create strong one-on-one relationships throughout our lifetime
We’re the students with one very best friend, or a few close friends, because that’s the comfort zone of sharing our ideas and feelings and dreams. We learn early on in life how to create deeply genuine relationships and connections, which is an asset we’ll use throughout our life. (I am in no way implying extroverts can’t do this, I’m simply focusing on introverts.) It’s easy to misjudge us as socially unpopular or lacking because of this. Instead, encourage, recognize and honor this trait by asking your introverted students to mentor other kids who need personal guidance or by serving as an ambassador for the class/school/team, etc… They will fulfill the role brilliantly.
7. Introverts make exceptional leaders
I’ve seen counselors and teachers assign leaders based on a child’s outgoing nature rather than innate leadership ability. Introverts make exceptional leaders for a million reasons, but as students their ability to listen to ideas, share their passion for their own ideas, and gel with other students one-on-one gives them a natural ability to connect and inspire through their words and quiet actions. Please give your introverted students every opportunity to show you how they can lead.
8. If your introverted students raise their hand, it’s very important that you listen
If your introverted students step out of their comfort zone in your classroom (remember, just being there with all those other students drains them) to raise their hand, it means they’ve given great thought to what they want to say and genuinely want to be heard. If it’s at all possible to honor that request, please do so. As mentioned earlier, it may be well after you’ve introduced a thought because the introverts needed time to think it through, and you may be ready to move on to something else. However, if you can take that extra minute to give them the chance to contribute, it will go a long way toward encouraging future participation and to them feeling valued in your class.
9. Introverted students’ strengths should be appreciated and valued
When teaching through group activities, try to make part of the process to appreciate the diversity of strengths each student brought to the group. Naturally, your introverted students will probably have been quieter than the extroverts for all the reasons given above. Help your students learn to appreciate what each person contributed regardless of how much they participated verbally. Even quiet encouragement from an introverted student should be valued and recognized, as should one small idea that was shared. This helps both introverts and extroverts work well together throughout their lifetimes when they learn the importance of appreciating all forms of diversity.
10. Introverts should be encouraged to be more of who we are, never less
The most important thing you can do as an educator in the formative stages for your introverted students – speaking solely in regard to their introversion – is to encourage them to honor who they are. I have heard from executives who read my book and admitted to years of trying to pretend they were an extrovert, only looking foolish in the process. I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I’m trying to get over my introversion,” thinking that somehow being an extrovert will lead to more happiness or success. It won’t.
True success and joy in life come from a foundation that honors being more of who you are truly meant to be and less of who you are not. Help your students understand this and you’ll be setting them up for success in ways you never dreamed!
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Being an introvert is truly an advantage in business and leadership if you know how to leverage it, and if you remain true to yourself.
Photo of Classroom by evmaiden.