Typically, introverts listen first—perhaps for quite a while—then speak. But don’t mistake the introvert’s way for not being engaged—or not caring.
One day a few years ago, I drove 40 miles east of here to my hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to participate in the care conference for my then 79-year-old mom, who lived in the memory care unit of a nursing home there.
I brought with me a copy of my book The Introvert Manifesto, to show to her and my dad, who was also on hand for Mom’s periodic health update.
The book ended up tagging along to our meeting with the nurse and social worker who were most involved in my mom’s day-to-day life at the facility. The social worker, Barb—who had always struck me as an introvert to begin with—took one look at the book, picked it up, and started reading.
Introverts Listen Before They Speak
She opened up to page 24, where she was immediately drawn to a piece entitled “Just Because I’m Not Talking Doesn’t Mean I’m Not Engaged.”
As she sat there reading, she nodded and said “yes, yes.” Then she shared with me that she had struggled to articulate this very concept to the other people in her life, especially professionally—and that she was even concerned she might be perceived as disengaged for her impending election run for the Detroit Lakes City Council.
“I’ll listen for a long time before I say anything,” Barb stressed. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not participating. And it doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.”
I couldn’t have put it any better myself.
Introverts Listen Because They’re Engaged
And yet, too often, engagement is equated solely with talking.
Not talking is seen as not caring. Which is ironic—because I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate caring than to listen to someone else quietly, without interrupting.
This same dilemma resurfaced for me when I ran into a thought-provoking Times Higher Education (United Kingdom) article entitled “No Place for Introverts in the Academy?” In it, author Bruce Macfarlane writes (in the context of the college/university classroom environment):
“[T]here is no place in the new regime of student engagement for shy students who might participate in less obvious ways through active listening, making eye contact, taking good notes and even, dare I say, thinking. … Yet … listening and reflective introspection need to be understood as legitimate forms of class participation. Silence is just as likely as talking to indicate an engagement with the ideas of others.”
You can challenge Macfarlane on his use of the term “shy” as a synonym for “introverted,” but his argument is solid.
In fact, he and Barb might as well change places; they are saying the same thing about engagement, an ocean apart and in completely different work environments.
And they are most certainly not alone in their frustration.
True Engagement Is Paying Attention
Introverts listen more than they talk, especially in settings like work meetings or classroom discussions.
Introverts keenly observe the actions of various players involved and the dynamic interactions among them.
Introverts take in the information, analyze it carefully, put ideas together in silence, and then—then—perhaps make a comment or offer some feedback or new insight.
That’s not disengagement.
It’s the ultimate in true engagement.
It just looks and feels a little different from the typical extrovert’s idea of engagement.
Engaged Listening Means You Care
As an introvert, you might not say much during a conversation or a presentation, at least not right away. But it’s not because you don’t care.
It’s because you do.
You’ll likely have to educate the people around you on that front.
Help them see that engagement is just as much about listening, hearing, reflecting, and synthesizing as it is about talking.