How to facilitate introverts

Key points

  • Introverts want to learn and add value as much as extroverts, they just have a different way of showing it
  • Build a container of psychological safety prior to and during your workshops
  • Include solo exercises and mindful reflection
  • Make yourself available for individual interaction during breaks and activities
  • Give participants the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback and suggestions during and after the workshop

I’M STARTING THIS POST BY YELLING! THAT’S BECAUSE EVERYWHERE YOU TURN IN THIS WORLD, IT'S SETUP TO YELL BACK AT YOU. THE ADS, THE PRODUCTS, THE SERVICES. ALL YELLING FOR YOU TO LOOK AT THEM. BUY THIS! DO THIS! BE THIS NOW!

And this continues in our workplaces. It seems the loudmouths get all the attention and often, the rewards. Or they get eye rolls, but even if they do, they take up an inordinate amount of space and focus.

So what about the quiet ones? Where do they belong? And how the heck do you facilitate them in a workshop? They’re not the most immediately forthcoming of people.

If you are a facilitator, you will have been around these types of people many times and maybe struggled with how to get them involved. After all, facilitating is about drawing information out of participants in service of a shared outcome. How can you do this when a third to half of the room is sitting there quietly, not engaging in dialogue?

Of course I’m talking about introverts. The aim of this article is to reassure you about how to access their genius. But first a story…

Many moons ago, I was a brand strategist in an advertising agency. One important part of my role was to run qualitative focus groups and hunt for insights. These insights would then form the heart of the creative brief which would then be turned INTO AN AD THAT WAS YELLED AT YOU! Sorry about that.

I learnt very quickly that it wasn’t the most audible person in the room who had the most insightful things to say. Sure, they had LOTS to say and that helped me feel satisfied that I was receiving a response. Yet those people weren’t the ones with the most depth and clarity. It was always the more reserved people in the group. They would sit there for almost the entire time and not say anything.

When I was a rookie and first started running groups, I felt intimidated to call on these people. I was misreading them as not interested, or worse, judgemental of the whole process. Either way, I was chicken to ask them for their opinion, even though we were paying them for it. This was a wasted opportunity as my wonderful boss pointed out to me at the time.

She taught me two major points when facilitating focus groups (or any workshop for that matter):

  1. Call on the quiet ones.
  2. Learn to sit in silence.

Today we’ll be focusing on point 1.

So shhhhh.

We’re going to use our inside voices and focus on our more subtle colleagues: the introverts.

I have to correct myself though. Introverts are not always the quiet types. I should know. I am one. If you met me, you’d surely pick me as an extrovert. I’m outgoing, playful and like to talk. Yet, in the truest definition of an introvert, I get my energy from myself. After a day of facilitating, which I love, I need to go home, be alone and reflect in silence. This recharges me until I’m tip top, ready to go again.

It’s also worth mentioning that introversion and shyness aren’t the same thing. Shyness is a fear of social judgment, whereas introversion is how you choose to respond to social stimulation. I’m not a shy person by any means. I love meeting people. I can be a total clown too. Yet, if given the choice, I would choose my own company over others. I can go a whole day on my own and not even notice I’m alone. My inner world is full and busy.

The terms introvert and extrovert were first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. In the simplest definition, introverts are more focused on their inner world and are thus more motivated by their own decisions and convictions. They are rarely influenced by others. They can be aware of what’s going on outside them, but are not motivated by this. Sounds like a challenge for a facilitator, right?

Extroverts, on the other hand, get their energy from others, from interaction and external connection. They love the pulse of music festivals and open plan offices and talking to think. They can be insightful too, but it comes through hashing things out aloud, in real time. They are excellent to have in workshops because they are responsive, decisive and embrace activity.

In a workshop setting, an introvert will quietly fuse information with their mind and intuition, then distil it into a simple, elegant response and…keep it to themselves! They will rarely volunteer the information unless explicitly asked to do so.

Here’s another story to illustrate.

When I was a student at drama school, I had a number of casual jobs. One of them was as an in-store demonstrator for Pioneer electronics. The year was 2002 and they’d just released the first…wait for it…DVD recorder! Yep. You could painstakingly record things from your TV to a DVD. Ah…mazing!

I was part of a small team who were hired to go to places like Harvey Norman, The Good Guys, etc and educate potential customers on its features and benefits, then provide a warm lead to the sales teams.

When they sold one of these $2,000 miracles of tech, I was also part of the deal. I would be booked in to go to the customer’s house and show them how to use it. How’s that for human-centred design?

Before that could happen, we had to be trained on how to use the recorder. Myself and a group of guys were taken to Pioneer HQ and given two days of training. The first day was all technical and how-to. On the second day, we had to prove what we’d learned by role playing a demonstration with a pretend customer in front of the team and the management.

For the entire first day, I barely spoke. Then on the second day, we arrived in the morning and there was a noticeable tension in the air. All of us knew we had to be “on” and we were feeling nervous about getting it right. The time came and the boss asked who would like to go first.

I put my hand up. Then I stood up. Then I ran through the entire demonstration start to finish with some creative flair thrown in for fun.

I’m happy to say it went well.

At lunch that day, the boss pulled me aside and told me something I’d never forget. He said he’d basically written me off after the first day because I was so quiet. He didn’t think I had the chops to be in front of potential customers in-store and was planning on cutting me from the team. He was obviously shocked when I volunteered to go first. And more so that I actually knew everything inside out.

He was so happy with my presentation that he made me the lead demonstrator and flew me around the country to train other people! I also worked with him on a number of other projects for many years to come. It was a very fruitful relationship.

I was so grateful for that experience, because it showed me how perception shapes people’s behaviour. Throughout that first day of training, I wanted to absorb everything and learn as much as I could. The best way I knew to do that was to shut up and listen. The other guys were making jokes and doing their extroverted thing, but I was focused on the prize and it meant being quiet.

Yet for the boss, he was seeing this guy who was not interacting, not saying anything and coming across as not getting it. Such different perspectives.

In future years when I started training and facilitating others, I made sure to include everyone, especially the introverted types, because I knew they had much to offer.

So how do you include introverts?

It starts before your participants even walk in the room. At Huddle, we’re very conscious of creating the right container. We also call it holding space.

When you’re running a workshop with people, they are taken out of their regular space, be it their office, their desk, their home. They are coming in to a new environment and because they’re humans, their brains will be on alert, looking for potential dangers. It’s hardwired into us. It’s the facilitator’s role to reassure that part of their brains and ensure the environment is as welcoming and safe as possible. This is what it means to hold space.

Google did an extensive study on successful team building and the number one criteria to come out of the research was psychological safety. Psychological safety is defined as a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.

It was conceived by Amy Edmondson, who is the Novartis Professor of Leadership at Harvard Business School, as she developed a learning model for work groups. She was researching the small risks people face at work each day by speaking up, sharing ideas, seeking feedback and being part of something bigger than themselves. They are seen as risks because the person interacting with others doesn’t know how their contribution will be received.

This is often amplified in a workshop setting where there may be new people or people from different teams or a contentious topic that needs to be explored. It’s a big deal to speak up in these situations. The need for psychological safety is HUGE.

The way you can create a container that ensures psychological safety for your participants is by first deciding on your own stances. Stances are how you consciously choose to ‘be’ in your work and in the world. They represent what you accept and believe which then influences how you perceive and behave.

For example, at Huddle we have four stances that support us to work in human-centred ways. They are:

Be in service with - which is about prioritising people

Be creative - which is about always learning and being willing to shift perceptions

Be collaborative - which is about valuing diversity in thought and perspective

Be courageous - which is about taking yourself and others to places that may be vulnerable and necessary

As you can imagine, these four stances set a solid foundation for connection, purpose and empowerment in the realm of human-centred design. They are also a powerful way to underpin facilitation work.

The stances you choose can be anything as long as they have meaning for you and you believe them. Ensure they are stated as above: “Be (insert meaningful words here)”. A stance is an active choice, so it needs to be communicated as such.

Once you have stances that resonate with you, the next step is to be explicit about your intentions for how the group will work together. The Huddle approach is to have a set of agreements which we share openly at the beginning of any workshop or training. This sets the tone and primes participants for what’s ahead.

Here's a slide we use in our keynotes:

We also ask participants what other agreements they would like to include over the day. Considering that introverts may not speak up at this stage, it’s worth pre-empting this by including a subtle nod to them in the agreements you propose.

Some examples could be:

  • One speaker at a time
  • All voices are valid
  • Listen without judgement
  • Encourage participation at any point, now or later

Granted, some introverts may still be reluctant to share, so the psychological safety may need to be more explicit. Amy Edmondson recommends these three tools to assist in creating it:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Acknowledge your own fallibility.
  3. Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.

While all points are important, as a facilitator, I’ve always found point 2 above to be very helpful. It’s important to share of yourself with the group. Be transparent. It builds trust.

I am more than happy to talk about my own inwardness in these settings. It’s a different experience when I’m up the front running the show where I have to be on all day, but if I’m a participant, I am usually one of the quiet ones. I like to take it all in.

When I am facilitating, I make a point of letting the introverts know I have their back. This is supported by a range of activities that appeal to them. This means including individual activities, silent reflection and one-on-one exercises that don’t require sharing at the end of them.

I also make sure I’m available at tea and lunch breaks because that is when an introvert will often come and ask a question. I know, because I am that guy.

Susan Cain, in her best selling book ‘Quiet’ which is dedicated to the power of introverts, states that introverts need individual attention. They’re typically more effective in one-on-one meetings than in big, group settings. Give them individual attention so you can hear the best of their hearts and minds, and so they know you genuinely care - and in return they’ll give you their commitment, their engagement, and their very best work.

Obviously this can be challenging in a group setting like a workshop, so another technique is to make available some kind of feedback or query capture mechanism AFTER the workshop.

Introverts tend to be very reflective people. They’ll leave a workshop and on the way home or the next day, may have an insightful thought that could benefit the outcome. If there is a safe, easily accessible way to share this, they will. It could be as simple as providing your email address or a digital suggestion box.

If you absolutely must reach a resolution or outcome during the workshop with no possibility of receiving more information afterwards, include some kind of anonymous voting exercise or indirect way to receive information, like doing a drawing exercise. An introvert will feel much more comfortable to contribute if they don’t have to blurt it out in front of the group.

The most important point is this: no matter what happens, if you sense someone is introverted, DON’T PUSH THEM TO SHARE if they’re not comfortable. It will have the opposite effect. They will shutdown and disengage.

If you notice a more reserved person in the group, the best thing you can do is acknowledge them one-on-one. Set the rest of the group to do an activity then subtly pull the person aside and ask them for their insights. Or even let them know you’re aware they may not want to openly share, but you value their contribution, so would it be OK if they wrote their thoughts down and shared them with you at the breaks or after the end of the workshop? They will appreciate the gesture.

Introverts bring many qualities to a learning and facilitation experience, including insight, depth and a more wholistic understanding of the issues at hand. Give them opportunities to share in their own ways and they will enrich the outcome for all...without the need to scream it from the rooftops.

 Huddle offers a 2-day Human-Centred Facilitation course. Learn more here.


 written by Ben McEwing

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