Recently I received a letter from a reader named “Lily” who describes herself as extremely quiet and shy. Lily is part of a women’s group called the “Super Women Sisterhood” which is comprised of eight very boisterous, extroverted women. When Lily attends the meetings she feels invisible and overwhelmed, and she worries that the women feel she is being anti-social or snobby. She wants to feel comfortable with the “Super Women Sisterhood” because she feels it will become a supportive, nurturing environment once they understand her. She asked me to suggest some strategies or ice breakers to help her connect to the women and help them bond and learn more about each other. What a great question! I immediately knew my good friend Jennifer Kahnweiler, who wrote the incredible new book Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference, would have the perfect advice for Lily. Jennifer’s answer was so terrific, I’m sharing her letter to Lily with you. After reading her advice, I invite you to share your favorite icebreakers and thoughts in the comments.
I imagine that as an introvert you carefully considered stepping into a group where you clearly are outnumbered. So kudos to you for signing up in the first place! Despite a mix of differing personality styles, I agree that you can gain a great deal from these gatherings and would like to offer a few ideas to help make that happen.
1) Reframe – Who wouldn’t be frustrated being talked over? Extroverts have a quick pace, and can wax enthusiastic about their experiences. Unfortunately they often don’t have a clue that too much energy can be unpleasant for the introverts in their midst. I doubt they are seeing you as “anti social or snobby” as you put it. They probably aren’t even stopping long enough to think about it! Try this: Instead of thinking about how you are being seen, focus on what you do well and draw on your natural, quiet introverted strengths. For example, your attentive listening will build trust with members of the group. Apply your “introvert instincts” to dig deep and ask pointed, penetrating questions. Use another quiet influencer strength, preparation, by reflecting on what you wish to learn from women in the group. Also use your penchant for taking quiet time to consider what ideas and resources you can suggest to help other group members.
2) Pair Up – I have been in a few groups similar to the “Super Woman Sisterhood” (admittedly with less clever names). A quieter member suggested we take ten minutes to pair up with another woman. This technique proved to be a winner. We got to know each other this way and this camaraderie spilled over into the larger group. I also think the extroverts can focus more and get to another level of intimacy and sharing.
3) Group Activities of Connection – Here are five other ideas for connection. Adapt them to your group’s needs.
Collage night – Bring old magazines, glue, scissors and construction paper. Each person individually creates a collage with pictures and words that represent where they are now and/or where they are headed. This is a great activity because it plays to the introvert’s preference for quiet and the extrovert’s desire to talk. After completing the collage, everyone shares (optional) what they have created and why.
Two facts and a lie – This can be done in pairs in the larger group. Tell two things about yourself that are true and one that isn’t. The group has to guess. This is a fun way to reveal more about yourself in a lighter way and you have control over how deeply you go on this one.
What is on your “Bucket List”? – I would suggest dividing the group of eight into two groups for this activity. Each woman describes one or two things on her list, what she wants to do before “kicking the bucket” and why this is important to her. A follow-up, (introvert friendly) activity is to ask members to solicit ideas for making that bucket list item a reality. Circulate each person’s wish at the top on a piece of paper and keep those papers circulating throughout the evening.
Offers and Needs – This takes a little homework. Each woman writes down two to three work or personal “offers” she has to share on an index card. It can include a new skill, resource or idea (ex: presentation software, a great handyman) you have recently acquired. She also prepares a list of two to three work or personal “needs” (ex: quick dinner recipes, dog friendly restaurants, etc.). During the group meeting, everyone stands up and has one-on-one conversations sharing their offers and needs. Seemingly random, it is a failsafe way to network without calling it “networking.”
Free Writing – This is an unfiltered writing exercise done for a set time period. Suggest a topic (ex: “A woman who influenced me as a young girl” or “The best vacation I ever had”) and ask everyone to write for up to five minutes. Set the timer and when it rings, anyone can volunteer to read their piece to the group. An important ground rule is that no one can criticize the writing, but may comment if the reader gives them the okay. It isn’t only the introverts who will appreciate the chance to go within. Everyone will get into a deeper space and connect in new ways.
I do hope these ideas help you, Lily. You are a thoughtful, quiet influencer who I am confident will make a real difference in this group. Enjoy the experience and let us know how it goes!
Jennifer B. Kahnweiler, Ph.D. is an international speaker and executive coach whose clients include General Electric Co., AT&T Inc., the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NASA. Her new book, Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference (Berrett-Koehler, 2013) further establishes her as a “champion for introverts” and follows on from her 2009 hit, The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength (Berrett-Koehler, 2009), which has sold more than 30,000 copies and has been translated into multiple languages. For more information please visit www.jenniferkahnweiler.com and follow her on Twitter at @JennKahnweiler.
More than anything else I might say, the one thing I’d love for Lily to read is how absolutely impressed I am with you! So many times the natural response seems to be, “To heck with those introverts, who needs them!” Here you are, and describing yourself as quiet and shy, and it is YOU who are thinking about how to reach out to the others! What a goodness of spirit you have, it is a breath of fresh air!
Beyond that, I love the points listed above, some of which were also listed in Susan Cain’s book. We as introverts do not have to become extroverts in order to interact, but rather, we need to become more fully who we are, using our strengths at listening, etc. Many of the ideas above deal with having a mechanism to open the door towards communication, I love them all. I had never heard anyone suggest the writing idea, but what a great idea!
Beyond this, if I could say anything to shy people in particular it would be, please be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break and a hug at those very moments when you feel shy. For shy people please know you have so much to offer, at the very moment where you feel that pressure, step back and look at it, hug yourself and know you do not have to be like everyone else, you are already wonderful! We need you, we have as many extroverts as we need, but we need your inner beauty as well and it will come out in due time. Lily, I am so impressed with your desire to reach out!
Thank you for your comments and recognition of Lily, Rich. “We need your inner beauty” is a phrase I will hang on to as well.
That is a good insight on the importance of having self compassion when trying different things.
Thanks 4 sharing this & contributing 2 me & my environment. I will share this & pass it on sisters
I come from a loud, boisterous family that once a year or so has a reunion. These are such overwhelming experiences that I have to prepare myself for weeks in advance of how I will cope, strategize how I will find some solitude and what my talking points are. I have gotten more and more enjoyment out of them the more I prepare. After reading the 5 suggestions for activities that a group could do to level the playing field for the introverts, I may suggest one or two of these for our next gathering. Even if only a few of us take the opportunity to engage in a less stimulating activity it would provide some new avenues for us to gather in the future. I see some of the younger, shy cousins not attending these events(my own children included) because the loudest, fastest talkers get all the attention.
I love your idea of using some of these suggested activities at family gatherings. Your preparation before these gatherings is a highly effective strategies that many introverts use. Having a “strategy” as you say can make all the difference. Thanks for your insightful comments and let me know how this new approach works!
An idea for a future post (I don’t know if you’ve written about this before) is type of introverts.
I did notice that there are some introverts who are very easy to work with - they are very productive and they follow the directions without any deviation. Their only problem is that they don’t communicate very well.
On the other hand, I’ve seen introverts who do nothing when left alone - they are always need for directions and are very unproductive.
These are the two main types I know of. Hopefully you can include all the types in a future post.
PS: You might be interested in this post we’ve published a couple of years ago on environments that force people to work as a couple such as Scrum: http://www.pmhut.com/the-lost-individuals-of-scrum (introverts, of course, have an issue when working as a pair)
Hi PM Hut, Excellent points. I also think that there are many dynamics and preferences among introverts and it gets dicey when we lump all introverts or all extroverts into categories.
Interesting article that you posted about Scrum. I have found that it depends on what introverts are working on. Pairs vs. groups are preferred for conversations. It allows introverts to get into more substantial, deep conversations where they can finish their thoughts.
I like the suggestions but sound more a group/formal approach. Surely this is interesting to do with my formal and semi-formal groups.
I surely find myself in that situation more often in a personal capacity among friends or work colleagues! But not while in a ‘sisterhood’ meeting. Hahaha. I usually use talking about weekend activities, what-keeps-you-busy and how-are-your-kids kind of thing and somehow it works well. What I find difficult is making a younger-than-me group interested in a conversation without sounding OP (out-of-place).
Thanks Rob. So true about the challenge of not sounding out of place with Millennials, etc. I find that if I take the position of learner than I don’t sound dated. I recently learned about the meaning of a “side hustle” from a young friend.
I’m afraid that I have repeatedly found that being a sensitive perceptive listener in a group dominated by boisterous extroverts simply doesn’t work. Constantly interrupting, talking loudly and jumping around to different topics, all feel terrible when I try to do the same. And I might as well not be there when I don’t.
I most recently tried this with a group of other women professionals in my field, hoping for reciprocal support and friendship and finally had to give it up, after several years of stress filled attempts on my part. Some of those suggestions may very well work in a structured environment with a facilitator (from kindergarten to corporate retreats) moderated by one person, but pretty tough to push through with a group of potential friends (unless, perhaps, you’re a dominating extrovert in a group of introverts….)