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Where Do You Think? A Key Difference Between Introverts & Extroverts

There are many contrasting and complimentary differences between introverts and extraverts: where we get our energy, what stimulates us, how we feel about small or big groups, to name but a few. The contrasts are rich and numerous. However, as a long-time Myers-Briggs practitioner, I find that the most defining characteristics of the introvert / extravert spectrum is where people think.

In general, extraverts tend to think externally; they need to verbalize their thoughts to think. Thoughts are actually formed as they are verbalized. They speak to think.

In a classroom situation, the extraverts are the ones with their hands raised before the teacher has even finished asking the question. They don’t know exactly what they are going to say at first, but they know their thoughts will take shape as they speak them. That is, an extravert will speak it to think it.

Introverts, on the other hand, prefer to have their thoughts more fully formed before they speak.

An introvert will sit quietly and ponder, mulling ideas over in her head, looking for the right word, and the best description of the ideas that are taking shape.

In class, the introverts are the ones who sit quietly, often at the back of the room. If they raise their hand at all, they will rarely be the first to do so. Teachers often misjudge “class participation” based on who raises their hands and speaks in class. Rest assured, the introverts are definitely participating — they’re listening and they’re thinking.

This dichotomy in where people think has interesting implications. I once had an extraverted friend ask me “What’s my favorite movie?” Certainly she knows her favorite movie, I thought. It turns out, she didn’t ask me because she expected me to tell her; she asked me because she needed to verbalize the thought in order to form it. I just smiled.

An introvert may look like they are not involved — or worse, not interested — when, in fact, they are busy processing away on the inside.

So What? Implications in the Workplace

In the workplace these different preferences manifest themselves in a myriad of ways. An extravert will naturally have a preference for phone calls and face-to-face meetings as the most effective format in which to communicate. An introvert, on the other hand, will have a stronger preference for email, which allows him to work through his thoughts and more fully organize them before hitting “Send.”

I once worked for a leader who had such a strong preference for extraversion that you could almost see the thought bubbles forming in front of his head as he spoke. He was smart and articulate and the words came pouring out of him a mile a minute as he verbalized to think.

In contrast to his style, my preference for introversion meant that I needed to “noodle” his ideas before I could give him a substantive answer. On more than one occasion I told him, “Kenny, I have a brilliant answer for you … and I’ll be back in two hours to tell you what it is.”

How to Create an Introvert-friendly Leadership Style

As leaders, it is important that you leverage both preferences in the workplace.

Introverts often do some of the best thinking in an organization and yet are often left in the shadow of their more verbose colleagues. As a leader, you can’t afford to pass up the wisdom and insights that are percolating in the heads of your introverts.

Here are 3 tips for helping to ensure you include input from the introverts on your team: 

  1. Provide agendas in advance of meetings so the introverts have time to absorb, digest, and “pre-think” some of the ideas that you need them to bring to the table.
  2. If you need information or decisions by a set time, give the introverts time to think before the decision is final. Allow people to circle back with you before you make your final decision — inviting the introverts to continue thinking about their ideas and bring you their more fully formed thoughts later in the day or week.
  3. Match your communication preferences to those of the sender / receiver. For example, if you are communicating with an extravert, keep the email brief and / or pick up the phone — an extravert is not likely to read a long email. If you receive a long email from an introvert, take the time to read their musings — it’s quite likely there’s gold in them there paragraphs.

A simple rule of thumb:

If you don’t know something about an extravert, you haven’t been listening.

If you don’t know something about an introvert, you haven’t asked.

The American workplace has a natural bias toward extraversion. As a result, extraverts often need to remind themselves to stop talking now and then. And the introverts need to step forward. Don’t wait to be asked—and don’t relegate yourself to the shadows.

So, where do you think? Internally? Externally? Somewhere in between?

To learn more about the introvert / extravert spectrum, and how to best leverage your style and preferences in professional relationships, check out Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking. I go into great detail on the differences and provide tools to leverage your strengths, wherever you find yourself along the I/E spectrum.

For an even more in-depth exploration, contact me about a full Myers-Briggs profile assessment. Over the course of several sessions, I will take you through a thorough discovery of your preferences along the four key Myers-Briggs dimensions.


Originally published September 27, 2013. Revised and updated July 5, 2019.

3 Comments

  1. Kurt Lanzavecchia on June 11, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    I think I am somewhere in the middle between extrovert and introvert. I definitely recognize traits and preferences on both profiles.

  2. […] One of the challenges is that everyone wants to be heard. To make it even more challenging, not everyone speaks up. […]

  3. mariosphere on February 6, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I don’t agree with this statement: “In class, the introverts are the ones who sit quietly, thinking. If they raise their hand at all, they will not be the first to do so.” I’m an introvert since birth and I was never shy about raising my hand to answer questions and, as an adult, state challenging or offbeat questions or statements.
    Introvert or extrovert, we do a disservice with sweeping generalizations, especially if we are not clinically trained to give a responsible description. However, I’m thankful for bringing the topic to light.

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