How Introverts and Extroverts Perceive Each Other


In this column, Naomi Karten describes an introvert and an extrovert whose communication styles led their coworkers to perceive them negatively. The way the two dealt with the situation—hoping that these perceptions would change—was useless. Naomi describes the important first step in creating positive perceptions.

In my workshops on introversion and extroversion, participants describe how their coworkers sometimes misinterpret their communication style. Consider Kurt and Sandra, for example. Kurt, an extrovert, is a gregarious, lively team leader who, like many extroverts, thinks out loud. His coworkers hear him doing a lot of talking, some of which—by his own admission—entails working out ideas aloud and in the presence of others. They're not sure what to make of what he describes as his "mishmash of ideas." The result, he told the class, is that his coworkers view him as unreliable and unpredictable.

Sandra, an introvert, is an intelligent, hardworking, personable developer. She carefully thinks through her ideas and communicates them articulately. Like many introverts, she does much of her thinking—her best thinking, in her words—in her head, that private place not accessible to others. Often, by the time she has worked out her ideas, the discussion or problem-solving session has moved on, so she says nothing. The result, she told the class, is that her coworkers view her as withholding her input and refusing to contribute to team efforts.

Both Kurt and Sandra are hard workers who care deeply about the success of their teams and their teams' efforts. Both feel hurt that coworkers misinterpret their communication styles and attribute negative intentions to their behaviors.

Perceptions: Positive and Negative
Fortunately, not all the perceptions of introverts and extroverts are negative. For example, when I ask introverts and extroverts to describe what they like, admire, or appreciate about the other, introverts describe extroverts as:

  • Lively and enthusiastic
  • Bringing great energy to interactions
  • Able to keep any conversation going
  • Skilled in social situations

And extroverts describe introverts as:

  • Deep thinkers
  • Articulate in presenting their ideas
  • A calm and calming influence
  • Good listeners

But there are negative perceptions. When I ask introverts and extroverts to describe what frustrates, annoys, or upsets them about the other, extroverts describe introverts as:

  • Withholding important information
  • Uninvolved
  • Unfriendly
  • Making minimal contributions to team efforts

And introverts describe extroverts as:

  • Talking nonstop
  • Dominating the group process
  • Frequently changing their minds
  • Social butterflies who can't just sit down and do their jobs

These positive and negative perceptions are ones I've heard from a great many people.How to Banish Negative Perceptions
Both Kurt and Sandra understandably wished that their coworkers would stop viewing them in negative terms. But wishing others would change will not make it so; people are not going to wake up one day and suddenly see things differently. If people perceive you in ways you find troubling, you have to take the first step in bringing about the change you would like to see.

For example, if the amount of talking Kurt does leads people to see him as unreliable, he can try to cut back on his word count. He can keep silent during periods when he might otherwise dominate the conversation. He can demonstrate that he's truly listening when others speak. And, to avoid giving the impression that he's spewing forth a meaningless jumble when he speaks, he can explain that he's simply working through his ideas. That way, coworkers won't misinterpret his thought process. Making such changes might be difficult—especially at first, since he'd be going against his very nature—but these small adjustments might lead coworkers to see him more positively.

Sandra, too, should take the first step. If her lack of active participation in team discussions leads coworkers to dismiss her as uncaring, she can try to contribute more. She can make an occasional comment, offer a suggestion, or ask for clarification of someone else's point. She can nod, smile, or even frown in response to others' comments to show she's fully present and paying attention. And, to avoid giving the wrong impression when she needs more time to think about an issue, she can explain that she needs more time. That way, coworkers won't falsely think she has simply tuned out.

Sure, she might find it uncomfortable to speak without taking that extra think-about-it time. In fact, initially, speaking spontaneously is likely to feel extremely awkward. But it might not take long for people to see her more positively.

Both Kurt and Sandra seemed surprised when I suggested that they should take the lead in effecting the kinds of changes they want to see. But, if they want to transform negative perceptions into positive ones, they need to be willing to make some small adjustments in their communication styles. In the process, they might discover skills and capabilities they didn't know they had.

At the end of an introversion/extroversion workshop I presented for an IT division, I invited participants to describe some small adjustment they were going to make. A self-described "relentless extrovert" said he was going to try harder to be a "self-stifling listener." And an introvert—one of the most reserved in the division—said she was going to venture out of her cubicle once in a while to drop in on teammates. On hearing that, the entire class cheered!

If you feel others misinterpret your behavior and your good intentions, what small first step will you make to transform that perception?

For background on introversion and extroversion, see my column, "Understanding Introversion and Extroversion"

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