Coaching an Introvert

Unfriendly. Aloof. Quiet. Awkward.

Many introverts have heard these words all their lives. From childhood, many quiet, reserved kids are encouraged to change — to become more animated, more outgoing, more raucous, more… extroverted.

In one of the most popular Ted Talks of all time, “The Power of Introverts,” author and speaker Susan Cain described her first visit to summer camp. She arrived with a suitcase filled with books, ready to spend the summer reading alongside her campmates. She quickly stashed them away under her bed, however, after her counselors encouraged her to pep up and show more “camp spirit.”

Introverts in Society

Introversion is a normal, healthy element of temperament, and there’s certainly no need for introverts to change these fundamental characteristics. They are the deep thinkers, the creative minds, and the innovators of our society.

But modern society and modern workplaces tend to cater to extroverts. Between flashy graphics on practically everything, constantly buzzing cell phones, loud movies and open-plan offices devoid of walls, introverts often need to construct boundaries to tone down external stimulation.

Furthermore, we value the employees who speak up in meetings, those who put forth ideas in brainstorming sessions, and those who seem to speak with ease in front of groups.

Despite this societal preference toward extroversion, introverts make up a significant portion of the population – most sources say 30-50 percent. So it’s vital to understand introversion in order to avoid unconscious bias and help your clients support their goals while still honoring their temperament. And, if you’re an introvert yourself, it’s also critical that you understand your own needs, in order to be at your best for your clients.

The Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum
Introversion and extroversion are temperaments that lie at opposite ends of a spectrum (with “ambiversion” in the middle). There are varying degrees of introversion, of course, from those who thrive in near total solitude to those who need to balance their days with a mix of socialization and alone time.

The difference between the two lies in how they gain and spend their energy. Introverts expend energy by being around others. Being social drains their mental batteries, and they can only “recharge” when they’re alone or with close friends or family. Extroverts experience the opposite: Being around others charges their batteries, and solitude drains them. In addition, introverts’ brains are more sensitive to dopamine, which makes them less likely to enjoy risk-taking or intense experiences like loud sounds, bright lights, roller coasters, and horror movies. Introverts can also take more time to retrieve information from long-term memory. So as a coach, you may need to allow space for ideas to surface. Take longer pauses and hold the space your client may need to dig deep in their memory vaults. For more on introvert neurophysiology, check out Marti Olsen Laney’s book, The Introvert Advantage.

Coaching an Introvert

Sometimes just sharing the concept of introversion and allowing a client to explore it can lead to huge breakthroughs. As a speaker and coach, I have shared this information many times over, and the reaction is almost always one of immense relief. I often hear, “Finally, an explanation for why I am the way I am!”

In your sessions, reinforce the idea that introversion is normal. Due to inner criticism from themselves and overt criticism from others about their “shyness,” they may struggle with imposter syndrome or low self-confidence. Explore any “stories” clients might be telling themselves. Work with them to find solutions that challenge them to stretch without fundamentally changing who they are.

Here’s one deceptively simple exercise you can try. I ask clients to draw a large circle on a piece of paper. This is their “comfort zone.” Inside the circle, I have them list the things they find most comforting and reassuring in their lives, like their family or friends, hobbies, or favorite activities. Then outside the circle, I ask them to write down goals they would like to reach but that make them feel a little uncomfortable, like “speak more often in public,” “make new friends,” or “earn a promotion.” Then I explain that in order to reach these goals, they’ll have to leave their comfort zone temporarily. I reassure them that they can always return to what makes them comfortable when they need self-care, but growth happens outside the circle.

Helping a client realize their needs, normalizing introversion, and helping them build a schedule that includes adequate downtime are all great coaching strategies. Here are some of my favorite resources for developing a better understanding of introversion.