Don’t Forget the Introverts

I left our fortnightly staff meeting this afternoon feeling completely exhausted. I tried to look back on my day to get some insight into what may have led to this feeling. A quiet, reflective drive home got me thinking about extroverts, introverts and their responses to schooling. I think our education system favours extroversion. This includes our students and teachers. For many introverts, schools can be a daunting and exhausting experience. As I look back on today’s meeting, a few observations spring to mind.

The education profession, by its very nature, attracts extroverted people as teachers. Let’s face it, teaching is very much a performance and that is much more appealing for those with tendencies toward extroversion. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great teachers out there who are introverts. It’s just that schools can be a very tiring and confronting place for a teacher with a predisposition toward introversion.

In today’s staff meeting, we were met with an outstanding presentation about Connecting with Community. The presenters had the audience creating radio shows, acting out and responding quickly to prompts. Two of our team performed an inpromptu, 3 minute radio show based on upcoming events in our school. No scripts; no preparation; just live performance. My skin crawled when they asked for volunteers and I made every effort not to make any eye contact with the facilitators. Following this, we had to move into small groups to create and record a similar radio show. The extroverts in the room shone through this experience. As an introvert, I found much of the meeting confronting and overwhelming. As facilitators called for volunteers I was aware of myself trying desperately to be invisible. I left this meeting feeling like I would struggle to stay away for the drive home. At the same time, many of my colleagues bounced out of the event, laughing and commenting on the energy they had taken from the experience

Secondly, I noted one of the facilitators had a big, sparkly birthday message for a student in their class. I heard a number of my colleagues commenting positively about the teacher’s dedication and caring nature, with further comments about how special this child must have felt after having this message displayed on the IWB during class. At the same time, I felt sympathy for the student and imagined how uncomfortable they may have felt. Neither feeling is right or wrong; just different.

My son won a spelling bee competition at his school today. He is something of an extrovert and thrives on performing to an audience. The video of the final round also shows a shy (and possibly introverted) young girl looking extremely uncomfortable standing on a stage with an audience of 350 students and teachers. Without taking anything away from my son’s performance, I wonder if the young girl would have performed better without a large audience.

Extroverted students are seemingly better suited to many instances of traditional and modern schooling. Consider the questioning techniques in any classroom. Students are praised for contributing responses quickly. Our schools recognise the achievements of those who put themselves forward and at times the ‘quiet achievers’ float along in the background struggling to cope with the energy required to match the ‘performances’ of those with a more obvious disposition toward extraversion.

A couple of messages come to mind for our schools. First, and foremost, teachers need to be aware of their own preferences toward extroversion/introversion and ensure that they take into account the needs and feelings of those with a different disposition. Allow opportunities for students to delay responding to questions. Give extroverts an opportunity to perform, but don’t pressure introverts into feeling they need to conform to this. Be careful of how and what you highlight about students. Having your birthday broadcast to a large group can lead to feelings of discomfort for come of your students.

Take time to develop an awareness of your own preferences for introversion or extraversion. It is only through awareness of our own perceptions and filters that we are able to acknowledge the impact of our actions on those around us. Most importantly, respect difference and cater for diversity.

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Managing Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are an expected part of leadership (and life in general). They can occur in a range of circumstances about any number of issues. A few scenarios that may lead to difficult conversations include:

  • Discussions relating to performance
  • Project negotiations – especially when giving or receiving feedback.
  • Situations where conflict arises between colleagues / team members
  • Budget and finance discussions

Let’s also include those difficult conversations that take place in the home between spouses or parents/children. šŸ™‚

I have learned over time that we really can not choose to ignore or avoid the need to have difficult conversations. However, there are a few things that can help us be successful in these situations.

One key learning is that there should always be actions agreed upon at the end of any difficult conversation. This gives all parties an opportunity to move forward.

There are plenty of resources, tools and ideas available to assist with effectively managing these challenging conversations. Some of the useful information I refer to is outlined below.

The Ladder of Inference

I was first exposed to this model approximately 8 years ago as part of an emerging leader project. It’s something that subscribe to and regularly reflect on my interactions using this model to assess my own reactions and assumptions. As educators, we all need to be aware of the implications of making assumptions and forming conclusions based on our filters. This impacts our interactions with students, colleagues, leaders and parents.

Heat / Chill

People respond differently when faced with feedback, a challenge or questions about performance. Some will become angry or hostile, often raising their voice, shaking, becoming red in the face or crying. This is referred to as ‘heat’. At the other end of the scale is chill – shutting down, refusing to speak, the proverbial “nothing” when asked if something is wrong, or withdrawing into themselves. People who respond with chill often resort to email to raise concerns and address an issue. Dealing with heat or chill is critical to success in any difficult conversation.

Step 1: Acknowledge the emotion of the person. Be empathetic. UseĀ perceptual positionsĀ to establish rapport and engage with the person. Avoid comments likeĀ ‘I know how you feel.’ Ā Try using statements likeĀ ‘I can see you’re upset with my decision making and the way this project is running.’

Step 2: Explore what’s behind the emotion. What is causing this? Was it a past event? Something you have said? Once you understand what happened (data) and their interpretation of what happened (their assumptions) you will be in a better position to address the issues. Statements such asĀ ‘Help me understand’Ā can be very helpful.

Step 3: Demonstrate your understanding. Clarify with paraphrasing with a closed question e.g.Ā “Ok, it sound to me like you think I haven’t consulted enough with you during the early planning phase. Is that right?’

This is not a rigid process. You will most likely need to move back and forth through these steps to achieve effective outcomes.

Three Components of an Effective Conversation

  1. Treat the substantive issue as a shared problem – collaborative discussion about how to achieve desired goals
  2. Separately discuss the relation problem – understand why the person is getting emotional. The Ladder of Inference is a useful tool for this.
  3. (Re)Frame the conversation constructively – focus on purpose.