An Introvert in an Extrovert World

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I’m an introvert. There, I said it. If you know me, maybe you don’t believe it.  Let me explain.

In Quiet: the Power of the Introvert in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain brilliantly explains the large body of research and her own personal experience around introverts and extroverts. She makes a convincing argument about our North American culture and how it often values and rewards extroverts. Cain also points to how introverts often learn extroverted behaviours to be successful in society and at work.

This book has sparked many conversations with colleagues and friends.  Fellow self-identified introverts feel supported and vindicated. There’s a feeling of “finally, someone gets me.” I know some extroverts too – in fact, I live with one – who found the tone of the book faintly negative towards extroverts. One of them told me she thought Cain painted extroverts as “happy, dumb partiers.” That might be a bit extreme, but I get her point.

Cain has a handy little quiz here that helps pinpoint your preferences. Human beings are complex and we all have some combination of introvert and extrovert tendencies.

Being an introvert does not mean that you don’t like people. It doesn’t mean that you’re particularly shy. It doesn’t mean that you’re some kind of weird hermit. It does mean that you recharge your batteries from being alone. Introverts enjoy social occasions, but in small groups or one on one.  I always wondered why others around me were up for socializing late into the night, but I was ready for some alone time. As I’ve matured, I know that I need to prepare myself for large gatherings, whether a party or a professional conference. It’s really a form of rehearsal. John Spencer, a very thoughtful education blogger at Education Rethink, recently wrote a post about this very thing. He has some great strategies – you should read it. It might help you understand us introverts a little better.

Understanding yourself is always valuable. Quiet helped me peel back a couple more layers. I love the diversity in humans, whether introvert, extrovert or somewhere in between. We have more in common than we are different.

Wanted: Learning Organization that Seeks Problems

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Problems can shut everything down. Sometimes the problem feels so big that we can’t see a solution. We give up. In a learning organization, the only way to overcome is to seek those problems out, putClassified them under a light and work together to find solutions. Sounds so easy, but I know it’s not.

Peter Senge‘s vision of a learning organization is inspiring and exciting as described in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. According to Wikipedia, he says it’s “a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they really care about”. Wow! That’s an organization I want to be part of. Our district’s strategic directions echo his five characteristics, and we are trying to work in structures to move toward shared vision, personal mastery and team learning.

Senge also suggests that problems can stall the process of learning. This comes up for me when I hear people say, “We’ve always done it this way.” I get it. The way we’ve always done it is comfortable, it’s part of our culture and trying to change it seems to involve so many people and structures. And a lot of people get angry when you try to change something we’ve always done to solve a problem. They come up with loud counter arguments, they post on social media, or they call the mainstream media. It’s hard to move forward.

Still, I don’t think it’s a reason not to try. Although I may want to run from those tricky problems, give people that shout the loudest their way, or work quietly away in my own little corner, I need to always have the courage to face the issues, have the hard conversations and find solutions. And I certainly can’t do it alone. We need educators and partners with a growth mindset who have a nose for problems and want to collaborate to learn how to solve them. Let’s seek them out together.

How to Avoid Your Reptile Brain

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Imagine this scenario: you are in a workshop. The facilitator asks for ideas or suggestions. You bravely put up your hand or speak out to offer something. The facilitator says, “Well, but…” What happens to you?

Or this one: you are in a conversation with your boss, who is a great person. She asks a question. You offer a piece of information or an opinion. She looks at you and says, “Why would you think that?” What happens to you?

komodoJohn Clarke, Cognitive Coach extraordinaire and Adaptive Schools guru, would explain it this way: any hint of judgement shuts us down. Our reptile brain takes over and we retreat to safety. Then any possibility of a deeper conversation and learning can disappear.

I have experienced these kinds of situations in both my personal and professional life. Sometimes a sideways look, an abrupt answer or a pointed question has shut me down too, and my reptile brain as taken over. I have to say it: I don’t want to stay there! It’s easy to shut down or withdraw, but that doesn’t lead to change (my #oneword for 2015) and learning.

Here are three things we can all try to avoid the takeover of the reptile brain, whether we see it in ourselves or others:

1)  Listen actively and openly. Begin conversations with a smile on your face and a light tone. Set aside what you think the right answer is and what to say next. As New York principal Tony Sinanis says in his post, The Three, being “the ears” is a huge part of the educator and principal’s job.

2)  Ask open ended questions that invite thinking.  Try “Say more about why this is important for you,” or “Why is this essential for you?”.  We can also practise asking questions like, “How might we…” or “Can we think of ways to…”

3)  Monitor our responses.  When we know ourselves, we know what pushes our buttons.  I try to be aware of when my reptile brain might be stirring, sometimes with limited success! But instead of jumping to defense, I try to sit back, breathe deeply (you can’t think without oxygen, another wonderful nugget from John Clarke) and regroup.  I had great results with this once when a supervisor was questioning me closely. I could feel myself shutting down! I eventually was able to question myself and my thinking and realize that it could change. That was a good moment.

If this seems like too much work, consider this: of course it’s easier to fire out our questions or continue with our usual style. But developing trust and learning is about the way we talk. As Clarke says, “If we don’t attend to it, we can’t change it.” If we see others’ heads go down, eyes to the floor, then we know what we’re doing isn’t working. I want to bring forward people’s thinking and engage in challenging ideas, and I know I have a lot to learn.

I’m in.