Volume 6: December 2022
In New England we’re enjoying the inevitable shift of seasons. Only a few weeks ago, we were delighting in miraculous bursts of colorful fall leaves. Now, the days are getting shorter and cooler, and, as I write this, I can see the first dusting of snow.
Yet despite the appearance of predictability, I’m aware of how much the world has changed in recent years, and the myriad of new challenges we face as we go forward. These changes have been the subject of my recent reflections. And it feels like a good time to share some of them with you.
This piece is a collaboration with my friend and colleague Leatrice Oram. As fellow introverts, we are struck by the similarity of our experiences, both during lockdown and after our emergence from quarantine. This article captures some of our observations and what we’ve learned about appreciating and leveraging the “gift of the introvert” in the new hybrid work environment.
We hope you enjoy the article. Please send your thoughts and reactions.
Martha Miser, PhD
Leatrice Oram, PhD
All Ears: The Gift of the Introvert
Authors: Martha Freymann Miser, PhD, & Leatrice Oram, PhD
Leatrice: To this day, I love being alone in my internal world. It’s not that I’m unsociable. It’s just that I long for the moments when I’m entirely with myself, when I no longer have to translate what’s in my head.
Martha: I was an outgoing, physically active child. I just preferred to read a book or climb a tree than share my feelings. For as long as I can remember, I have treasured my vibrant, secret, inside life.
Introversion and New Ways to Work
Let’s face it. After a couple of years staring into the Zoom camera, most of us no longer marvel at how the world of work has changed or how we’ve adapted to that change. (Because of its dominance in the market, we use “Zoom” as shorthand for all Web-conferencing platforms.) Still, adapting clearly has been more difficult for some than for others. In particular, we’ve noticed that many introverts have adapted well, even flourished, in the face of lockdown, isolation, and remote work. Curious, we set out to explore why.
Who are we? We are two US-based scholar-practitioners, educators, and fellow introverts. Leatrice focused her doctoral studies on introversion and leadership; she works in higher education. She has devoted years to lifting up emergent leaders and correcting career-limiting misperceptions of introverts. Martha’s understanding of introversion comes from decades in the field as a coach and consultant, and includes a dozen years teaching leadership and personality type to hundreds of professionals from more than 35 nations.
Introversion is generally understood as the more-reserved companion of extroversion, on a spectrum of preference for processing and interaction that manifests across cultures. Typically, introverts need quiet to recharge their batteries, while extroverts thrive on external stimulation. But through experience, we’ve come to a deeper understanding. We’ve both felt misjudged, seen as awkward, shy, aloof, even lacking in the attributes of “natural leaders.” Still, we’ve benefited from being perceived as empathetic, careful listeners and from seeing our introversion as a source of joy that we’ve learned to champion in ourselves and others.
This article began as a conversation about our reactions, as introverts, to the disruptions of the pandemic, the rapid shift to remote work, and the explosion of virtual technologies. Recognizing the privilege of being able to work from home, continuously and safely throughout this crisis, we decided to deepen our inquiry and see what insights we might offer managers and coaches when they look at these challenges through the lens of introversion.
Loving Lockdown (and Other Lessons)
Leatrice: Working from home was like a reward: 100 percent pleasure. I missed nothing about working in an office. Nothing. My concentration, time on task, and productivity surged.
Martha: Before COVID, I was on the road all the time. In comparison, quarantine was still and safe. When it ended, I grieved the loss of quiet and the security of my inner world.
“Are you dreading a return to normal?” That was the question asked in a poignant video published by the New York Times in June 2021 (Semple and Westbrook). In the video, one self-identified introvert described the relief she felt during quarantine: “Like how a circus animal would feel on a day when there’s no shows,” she said, adding, “Like a snow day from life. . . . I felt safer.” In contrast, she shared feelings of dread and “pressure to reengage” as the end of quarantine loomed.
By and large, our introverted clients and colleagues reacted in much the same ways to lockdown: happy to be working alone and apprehensive about the return to pre-COVID work conditions. In fact, many said wistfully, “I miss quarantine.” To be clear, these sentiments are not meant to diminish the enormous human cost of the pandemic; instead, they underscore the introvert’s need for solitude. In contrast, researchers found those with higher levels of extroversion struggled during quarantine (Liu et al., 2021). The lack of social-connectedness had a negative impact on their sense of well-being.
What are the implications for coaches? Interestingly, several of our colleagues — both introverts and extroverts — told us they became more withdrawn during quarantine and have continued to be more introspective and more selective about when and with whom they socialize. Consistent with this, a recent study examined how coaches experienced their work given the high levels of stress during the pandemic (Irving, 2021). Those interviewed reported an increased emphasis on self-care and reflection, both core competencies of introversion. This was necessary for their own well-being and for their efficacy as coaches dealing with heightened emotions in workplace environments. Finally, the opportunity for more reflection sparked both innovation and a renewed focus on core coaching practices, on listening, reflecting back, and summarizing the experience of those they coach.
This emphasis on reflective practice and a return to basics is interesting. As any experienced coach is aware, rapport, trust, and intimacy are essential to a productive coaching relationship. In fact, an extensive body of brain research illustrates how these practices give us a sense of safety (for example, see Rock, 2008). Skilled and empathetic listening is important for everyone, but we would argue even more so for introverts, who prefer to process their thoughts and feelings internally. For these individuals, being asked to share their feelings — especially in the moment — may feel less natural, even riskier.
The Zoom Paradox
Leatrice: I’ll miss Zoom when it’s no longer our default. As a meeting facilitator, I see facial reactions close up and anticipate questions based on them. What I won’t miss is seeing myself on camera: I learned late in quarantine to turn off self-view.
Martha: I love Zoom because it connected me to my loved ones during the long months of lockdown. But Zoom makes me tired. It often feels as though everyone is so busy looking at themselves and (mis)interpreting facial expressions, they’ve stopped listening.
Paradoxically, in the midst of solitude, Zoom arrived, and in a matter of weeks, video conferencing took over our work lives — and sometimes our home lives. How have these virtual technologies affected the coaching experience, particularly from the perspective of the introvert?
On the plus side, video conferencing is a game-changing tool that has facilitated the rapid shift to virtual work, study, and socialization. Remote work, a by-product of the pandemic, taught many place-based teams and leaders to innovate and achieve new efficiencies. Arguably, Zoom also plays to the introvert’s innate powers of listening and observation. Whereas staring at one another might have seemed intrusive in the past, introverts could now abandon all pretense and happily examine every aspect of their colleagues’ words and expressions.
But Zoom is a mixed bag, and it wasn’t long before the phrase “Zoom fatigue” was coined. Why? One reason is that attending to nonverbal cues can be tiring, overloading us with close-up eye contact and extraneous visual information (Bailenson, 2021). Brain researchers also tell us that people can feel foggy and burned out after long Zoom days because the brain is trying to do its job interpreting visual cues while digitization messes with our ability to understand facial expressions and to mirror — a capability essential for creating empathy and connection (Murphy, 2020). Video conferencing can also feel taxing when dealing with strong emotions. One of our colleagues described feeling “consumed by emotion belonging to a room that was no longer real.”
Examining the pros and cons of Zoom brings us to a long-standing debate about coaching. For many coaches, the default assumption has been that nonverbal cues like eye contact and body language are essential for establishing trust, privileging face-to-face coaching, and making use of visual technologies. Others call this a myth, arguing that choice of words, speech patterns, and other verbal cues (“hmm,” “mmm,” and the like) may be more useful in creating safe and effective coaching environments (van Coller-Peter and Manzini, 2020).
Related to this is a useful body of research on “virtual intimacy” conducted before the pandemic by Ghislaine Caulat (2006) at Ashridge Business School. For many, Caulat found, the phone is more intimate than face-to-face communication because it “feels like whispering into someone’s ear,” amplifying listening skills, and forcing the senses to “slow down and focus solely on the voice.” In addition, the audio-only environment frees the listener to stand, pace, and become more physically involved in the conversation. At the very least, Caulat’s findings should provoke thinking about how and when coaching by phone might benefit introverted coaches and the people they work with.
Keep It Simple. Listen!
Leatrice: My introversion is inseparable from my identity. It is who I am. It is how I am. It was only when I was able to fully perceive and communicate my own way of being in the world that my career took off.
Martha: For many years, I lacked the language to explain my inward focus. Learning to express and honor my introversion has made my life more fulfilling.
So what conclusions can we draw from this inquiry on introversion?
First, coaches should check their biases, preferences, and default assumptions. They also should discuss the pros and cons of technology tools with coaching clients – remembering that most have been so firmly indoctrinated by Zoom that they may need help finding other options.
And experiment: Try shutting off the camera, working by phone, encouraging clients to stand, pace, snack, or even stare out the window to engage other senses and enrich their experience. Coaching, at its best, should feel freeing, should offer new ways of thinking and being.
In the end, whatever modality, coaches must try to honor and optimize both their own and their clients’ introverted superpowers. Only by listening and observing can coaches and clients experience the thoughtful silence, careful attention, and deep reflection that are the gift of the introvert.
This article was previously published in the April 2022 issue
of Coaching Perspectives, the Association for Coaching’s
flagship international publication.
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 1(3).
Caulat, G. (2006, April). Creating trust and intimacy in the virtual world. Converse (Ashridge research journal), 8–10.
Irving, J. (2021, June). How have workplace coaches experienced coaching during the Covid-19 pandemic? International Journal of Evidenced Based Coaching and Mentoring, S15, 37–54.
Liu, S., Lithopoulos, A., Zhang, C.-Q., Garcia-Barrera, M. A., and Rhodes, R. E. (2021, January 1). Personality and perceived stress during COVID-19 pandemic: Testing the mediating role of perceived threat and efficacy. Personality and Individual Differences, 168 (110351).
Murphy, K. (2020, May 4). Why Zoom is terrible. New York Times, A(23).
Oram, L. (2016). A method to my quietness: A grounded theory study of living and leading with introversion. [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Antioch University.
Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 1–9.
Semple, K., and Westbrook, A. (2021, June 30). Are you dreading a return to “normal”? You’re not alone. New York Times. [Video].
van Coller-Peter, S., and Manzini, L. (2020). Strategies to establish rapport during online management coaching. SA Journal of Human Resource Management, 18.