Flame and Ember: How the Mighty and Meek Can Work Together

Flame and Ember: How the Mighty and Meek Can Work Together

Recently we attended a panel of speakers, all executives at growing companies. The first speaker—let’s call him Peter—charmed and commanded from the very first moment. There was laughter throughout his speech, and at the end there was resounding applause. The second speaker—let’s call him Thomas—had his thunder stolen before he ever began. He was articulate and knowledgeable, but drew only modest chuckles and tepid applause at the end.

As the clapping died down, we heard someone nearby say: “Some people just don’t have the fire.”

The fire—meaning passion, energy, charisma. The person who said it implied that you either have it or don’t, that the fire is just part of someone's personality. She wasn’t cutting Thomas down; she was merely pointing out that Peter had chutzpah that equipped him better for this situation. Still, it’s worth noting that Thomas had been just as successful in business; if Peter was the better speaker, Thomas was better at something else, something we wouldn’t see that night.

The “fire” harkens back to an older, more established measure of personality: extroversion. Thanks to the popularity of the Myers-Briggs and other personality inventories, you probably already know how this works: extroverted people gain energy engaging with people, whereas the introverted gain energy in solitude. It’s not always easy to tell who’s what—after all, there are social introverts and cerebral extroverts. Still, on the assumption that Peter was extroverted and Thomas introverted, the difference was visible. Peter was better at engaging people.

So if Peter was blessed with "fire," Thomas had the embers instead. That makes him sound second-rate; embers don’t give off much light, and behind roaring flames you can barely see them at all. But the flames are mostly the visible part of fire; it's the embers that make fire hot. Notice, for example, that you can pass your finger through a candle’s flame without burning yourself. (Just don’t touch the wick.)

If the world is full of Peters and Thomases, you need both. More importantly, they need each other. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, it’s not hard to “get" how the other half lives; it can be difficult, however, to translate that understanding into best practice. This week, we’ve got advice for both introverts and extroverts—on how to best use and appreciate one another in a creative or professional space.


Pointers for Extroverts (on Introverts)

While there is a real and important difference between introverts and extroverts, it’s important that we don’t caricature them as simple categories. After all, extroversion is a spectrum, not a black-and-white division. (Never mind that it’s also just one factor in someone’s personality.)

Accordingly, the first tip for approaching introversion is to understand better where a person falls on the spectrum. The particularly introverted might be solitary or even shy; the less introverted, on the other hand, can be very social people who only need small pockets of down time. Having this information will help you understand a person’s boundaries and respect the space they need; it will also help you understand why they engage when and where they do.

Of course, engagement is one of the things you need from friends and team members, which brings us to the second pointer: learn how to challenge introverts in friendly ways. Put simply, they’re not as likely to speak up, they’re not as likely to get out there, and they’re not as likely to experiment socially (though that spills over into another one of the Big Five traits, openness to new experience). Extroverts—who are more likely to do all of these things—can help counterbalance an introvert’s reclusion. Again, make it friendly—invitations, not mandates—but, as you extroverts probably know, there are plenty of ways to get people to engage, even if you have to tempt or coax them.

Sometimes, all this requires is that you know your social “order of operations.” Take, for example, a meeting you might hold to brainstorm ideas or solve a problem. The introverts, once again, are less likely to speak up—but they are listening, and they are thinking. They’ll chime in when they will, but if someone has been listening attentively and hasn’t said anything, ask them what they think. What they have to say, after the time they’ve had to “soak,” might prove especially insightful.


Pointers for Introverts (on Extroverts)

If introverts sometimes need coaxing, like a puppy learning to climb stairs, then extroverts are horses that need to be reined in gently. Where the introverts need encouragement, the extroverts need guidance. (As with this whole piece, we’re talking in broad strokes here.)

Extroverts, by nature, are more likely to speak up during meetings. They’re more likely to spend time talking with or in front of others (and enjoying it). Since extroverts talk more, they’re likely to spill more of their thoughts in the process. Only a few of them are true blabbermouths, so give them space to expand. Never mind if they don’t arrive directly at the point; the same way introverts can mine deep below the surface for insights, extroverts can turn over more ground, California Gold Rush-style. Take out a pen and write down the interesting things you hear; read them back at the end.

A related matter is the tendency of many extroverts to think via “sounding board.” While introverts might prefer thinking by themselves, where their thoughts are clearer, extroverts often find their best answers in conversation with other people. To an introvert, it might seem strange that someone’s best thinking requires someone else present, but so it goes—and sometimes those conclusions are sounder because they’ve already been tempered by an outside opinion. (Perhaps “sounding board thinking" helps explain why some people are crazy about collaborative work while others don’t want anything to do with it.)

With some practice at active listening, introverts can learn how to lead in quiet but profound ways. We’ve all heard of active listening, of course, but what makes it difficult is the fact that it requires you to push back. In a polite way, active listening requires you to know how to interrupt people—how to ask clarifying questions, how to admit when you’re confused or uninspired, how to paraphrase what you’re hearing, and of course, how to offer substantive and honest commentary of your own. Good active listeners don’t just listen; they help direct the conversation. Even if the other person does ninety percent of the talking, your ten percent winds up being just as valuable.

We said before that the world needs both sorts of people. We need the talkers and schmoozers, the ralliers and the partiers—but we also need the counselors, confidantes, and daydreamers. Healthy teams have both groups represented. More than that, these two types of people need each other because they naturally challenge one another to be better. The introverted may not understand social craving and the extroverted may not understand the peace of personal quiet—but if they’re taught to work together, they can help one another strengthen the parts of themselves that they might naturally neglect.

It’s a little too easy to say that Peter had “fire" that Thomas didn’t. They were, indeed, different people with different strengths. But both were successful, and neither of them did it alone. It seems better to say that they were different parts of the same fire—one of them shining brightly for everyone to see, and one of them smoldering quietly in the background.

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blogwe'll talk about the habits of effective speakers and the importance of thinking out loud. (Last week, we wrote about the different styles of handwriting, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here

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