Designing with introverts in mind


A long time ago I was an introverted person and over the years that has completely changed.  If you know me, you’ll know I love talking to others, being around people and engaging in meaningful social interaction.  I still love my solitude but I love hanging anround in my local coffee shop and pub more.

As a process designer, creating good meeting and learning spaces for introverts has long been a blind spot for me.  Facilitators by definition bring people together.  If we are extroverted, the processes we design can often contain an overwhelming amount of social interaction for introverts which actually alienates them from the group and marginalizes their contributions.  Sometimes I have run meetings where the introverts never contributed at all.  That wasn’t through their fault – it was the fault of my process design that never took their learning styles into account.

You might call it extrovert privilege.

Back in June I was on the hosting team for an Art of Hosting in northern California.  A long time friend was there – Tree Fitzpatrick –  one of the most deeply intensive introverts I know.  She is also a long time process designer and facilitator nd she knowns her stuff.  She left after the first hour of the workshop, but not without having a long conversation with me about what she was experiencing.  She later made a beautiful gift of sharing her insights with me in a long email on designing processes for introverts.  In the past six months, these insights have been a gorgeous gift to my own practice and have radically shifted the way I design, by actually putting the needs of introverted people at the centre of the work.  The core of her message to me was this, quoting:

“Please consider integrating some introvert work into your designs. You don’t have to worry about the extroverts: while you give the group quiet time, which is giving the introverts permission to reflect inwardly, most extroverts will just go on doing whatever they want to do but the introverts will feel better if you give them permission to reflect. It only has to be a minute of reflection before speaking but it can make a huge difference to the introvert’s experience in small group talk.”

In the past six months, I have done several things to attend to this.

  • Be aware of your “extrovert privilege.”  You will know that you suffer from this if silence and solitude seems anaethma to you in a group setting.  You will often find introverts confusing and will lose patience with their demands for personal space.  You may harbour thoughts about them that are mean spirited, feeling like they are acting out or making some kind of victimization power play.  These are your thoughts, and they are not reality.  Work on them and recognize your extrovert privilege.  I have been working over the past six months to take long periods of solitude for myself just to build up that capacity.  I have come to deeply appreciate it as a learning modality
  • Introverts need silence and space.   When you are working with silence, make sure you build a strong container for it.  Sometimes this means really enforcing the silence, but I do this by explaining why this is important and invite people who are uncomfortable with silence to see it as a challenge worthy of their leadership.  It’s fierce hosting work, because extroverts are very dismissive of it, and I haven’t always been successful. In Ireland in September we had a particularly gregarious group of Irish language scholars and activists, and I learned about “Irish silence” which something of a dull roar rather than a raucous buzz!  Our hosting team was highly amused at my attempts to get anything better than that in the room!
  • Build in long periods of silence before asking people to engage in conversation. A minute sounds good but two minutes is better.  For deeper conversations even five minutes of silence is powerful.  The extroverts will get fidgety, so invite them to write their thoughts down to give them something to do with their hands.
  • Provide a meaningful time for reflection at the end of a day.  At Rivendell, one of our local spaces for retreat here on Bowen Island, the whole space goes into an hour of silence at 5pm.  Anything happening at the facility must also go into this period of silence – it is one of the conditions for being there.  For the core group that maintains the space, this is a spiritual practice, although people working there are free to see it in another way.  The first time I encountered it I found it a nuisance because at the end of a day of learning usually the groups I am with are bubbly and excited to chat.  But working at Rivendell over the years has exposed me to the deep wisdom of building in long periods of silent and solo reflection.  It takes all of the learning from the day and plunges it deep into the heart.
  • In larger learning initiatives, build in long periods of reflection time out of doors.  In Theory U based change labs, the solo presencing retreat is a crucial part of the work.  This is where participants spend time alone on the land reflecting.  I have been building in long periods of solo time on the land recently.  In Ireland our team there uses half day guided walks in The Burren to deepen relationships between people and immerse them in what the land has to offer.  I have brought that approach back to Bowen Island and in recent leadership development work we have been doing here, a half day process including an hour long silent period on the land is a core part of the work.  This needs to be hosted very strongly…we invite people to hold the silence together from the time we leave, through the solo time, until the time we return.  This is a powerful experience for introverts and extroverts alike.
  • In smaller settings, building in reflection activities is easy.  The reflection toolkit from the Northwest Service Academy in Portland, Oregon is a fabulous resource to share with groups and to invite groups members to lead one or more of these exercises throughout your process.  My colleague Jerry Nagel inserted this kit into a training workbook we used with the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Foundation in Minnesota and was immediately useful.

This has evolved into a really fabulous learning edge for me both personally and professionally and I am grateful to Tree for setting me on the path.




  1. Great post, Chris. Would love to hear more about this process as it continues to unfold — including the irritation felt by extroverts, which we introverts sometimes have a hard time understanding as well.

  2. Very interesting and helpful piece, Chris. Thank you!

    There has been a lot of information out recently on what it is to be an introvert, live with an introvert, and this adds to that conversation.

    As another extrovert, I, too, have found the silences and meditative spaces at events I have attended often excessive and annoying. Now, I get what was going on !

    I had never thought of “extrovert privilege” before. Hmmm….

  3. Thanks so much for this.

  4. In our park (forum), we have a coordination team which mostly consists of extravert people and in most cases 2 different topics are discussed at the same time.

    A few weeks ago, one introvert member just quit the meeting shouting that she cannot stand the way we “think” we conduct meetings :)She left leaving her bag and mobile phone behind, she totally disappeared for 10-15 minutes. She later on came back, saying she walked and her time alone calmed her, and she stayed, and we started to talk one-by-one, which also helped her.

    I will share this blog writing with her, I am sure she will laugh :)

  5. I had completely forgotten I wrote you anything after our conversation in June in Petaluma, Chris.

    Everything you say is right. A minute is better than nothing but longer silence is better still. As I suggested on your FB wall the other day, making it a ground rule throughout any event that anyone can ask for a moment of silence, with no judgment or explanation as to why, at any time, can also have a profound impact.

    As to the insensitive extroverts, I hope you actually talk at the beginning of your events that you facilitate that extroverts and introverts don’t understand one another.

    I wish I had access to some archival film footage I was privileged to watch of Kathie Dannemiller and a dear friend of hers who was VP of OD at Ford in the early eighties. Kathie is credited with helping to seed the creation of the field of OD, of course, and she and her Ford pal was raucous extroverts. I told you how the two of them would sarcastically announce “and now it is time for “I” time for any introverts in the room” and the two of them would go on yakking away, completely dissing the “I” time as having any value.

    As Jeremy points out, we introverts can become irritated with extroverts. We introverts don’t quite get how extroverts can be how they are.

    It might help if you share what a mentor shared with me that actually lead me to realize, in my forties, that I am an introvert. Since I am a chatterbox and never shy, I had always assumed I was an extrovert. In a class in my MS in OD program on Myers Briggs, the teacher, who knew Myers Briggs as well as anyone ever will, glanced at my answers as he waited for the whole class to finish completely the MB survey. In one glance, he knew I was profoundly introverted and said so to me. I had not answered a single question that was NOT introverted. He could tell in a glance because the columns where extrovert answer would have been was completely — completely — blank. But when he said “Oh, I see you are an introvert” I said “Oh no, I am an extrovert, I talk all the time.” And he called the whole class to attention and asked all “How many think you determine extroversion or introversion based on noise level of the person?” Everyone in the class raised their hands. He said “Thank you Tree for saying what you did to me. Whether or not someone is an introvert or extrovert has nothing to do with how much they talk. It is about where they get their energy. Extroverts draw their energy from others. Introverts draw their energy from within.”

    Maybe if you shared something like that as you open groups, pointing out that introverts need some quiet to draw their energy from within themselves and it might help introverts to realize extraoverts can’t help reaching outside themselves (talking in quiet time) because they get their energy from others.

    That one MB class and what the instructor said changed everything for me.

    Unless someone knows me pretty well, people rarely believe I am an introvert. I am not shy. But if someone sees me as a member of several groups, they begin to see that I very rarely speak in groups. I belonged to an ongoing experiment in open space community called Spirited Work that met for four-night weekends four times a year for many years. Always in open space, so each day began and ended in large group circles. Unless I was the actual convenor, I never spoke in those large groups except if, in the closing, everyone was asked to say something in the final closing. Years went by and I never talked in the large groups. And guess who noticed? Only other introverts. As I began to point out to people who had become dear friends over the years that I never talked in large groups, they would realize “oh my gosh, that’s right!”

    It’s not that I didn’t have things to say. It’s that I need some silence to hear it.

    This world is complex. Very tricky. We have so many shared challenges to resolve. We do not need to make the difference between extroverts and introverts a point of contention but, instead, see it as an added richness to any group. If all groups only hear from the extroverts, it’s comparable to agricultural monocultures where everyone grows the same potato because that is the one McDonald’s likes to buy. Or other monoculture planting decisions.

    We need all the humans in any circle or group. And as extroverts learn to give some space for silence and introverts learn to accept extroverts discomfort with silence, we’ll all be richer for it.

    Congratulations to you, Chris, for integrating the difference of extroverts and introverts into your work. Doing so is world work, above and beyond any of the events you do. I bet integrating a consideration of how humans show up differently into your work makes your work more powerful and the results of the groups you facilitate better and richer.

    Good on you, mate.

    And, I reiterate: I completely forgot writing to you. Gulp. I hope I was kind.

  6. One more thing: you did a very fun, very chatty opening to that event in June. It wiped me out. Left me drained. I would have fled the venue but I had to wait all day for my ride home. I had a lovely time out in the lobby. There were several people I knew at the event and each of them swung by and I had lovely chats with all of them.

    I remember telling a facilitating colleague shortly after the event that you had done a lot of creative, fun exercises, all rushed together at the beginning. I remember asking this friend “I am wondering if so many exercises, one rushed after the other, actually serves the field for an event. there was not one moment of silence.”

    In Spirited Work, we worked with silence a lot. But SW was a long-time experiment. We became a very adept group, adept at flying in alignment the way birds often do. There is usually a point bird and when that point bird tires, it just drops back, trusting that another bird will take the point position. We were like that in SW. And I believe all groups should, ultimately, aspire to fly in an alignment that embraces everyone.

    It is my wish that every extrovert could feel love for introversion. I wish every extrovert could trust that introverts have as much to give as extroverts and vice versa.

  7. I just shared this blog with my whole work team after several days of minute games I would never dream of doing in any other context. Gave me the chance to reflect on how the group has helped to strengthen my own container, try new things, as well as point out that my behaviour is mine. Also, we don’t want to box in introversion/extroversion. A lot of how we are depends on context, who we are at home and comfortable with can guide participation with talking or attention.

  8. Thanks Chris for posting this, and to Tree for raising this with you in the first place, and contributing here.

    I am a facilitator and improviser, and an introvert in the way that Tree is: able to chat, and joke and connect with many new people, but drawing on my energy from within to do so. I am better at recognizing this than I used to be, and now ensure that I have time completely by myself when I have been with a group all day, as I will then feel drained.

    I don’t think I’ve given enough thought to the needs of people like myself in my own process design! I think I design as if everyone is an extrovert, and as if facilitation has to be done that way, without paying attention to the effect that has on me when I am a participant rather than a facilitator. So I have come back to this post several times since I first read it and think it will have an important effect on my design in the future. Thank you.

  9. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for your post, which I came to through Nancy White’s blog. It’s interesting that more attention is being paid to introverts these days, as another comment noted.

    In my organization’s approach to facilitation, time for reflection is built in to the day/workshop and in fact is an integral part of our facilitators’ work.

    I am currently planning an online community for facilitators who use our program and am exploring ways of promoting reflection space online. Though commenting and posting demands reflection, I wonder if it is enough or if there are other ways possible…

    Thanks again!