A return to 'interrupt & speak' events - and introvert anxiety
I am an introvert.
Being an introvert is a character trait, not a flaw - and more than 30% of us live with this.
Being an introvert doesn't stop me confidently running workshops, speaking or presenting - I have learned to handle all of these things really well.
But during these months of workplace disruption, one thing that I have haven't missed is what I call 'interrupt and speak' events - the uncomfortable 'any questions from the floor' moment or even worse the dreaded phrase 'wait... pass him the microphone'
All these Zoom meetings have been great for me as an introvert... it has allowed me to dwell on thoughtful questions, allow them to mature and properly form in my head, to write and edit and post these in the chat window and sometimes I even have the luxury of my question being 'asked' by a moderator on my behalf at the right time in the discussion. Where moderators aren't available, I still have a button to 'raise a hand' and I am awarded the space in which to read out my prepared contribution.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend my first live, in-person event in London which included a series of inspiring speakers and 'open floor' discussions. I was looking forward to this - a series of like-minded people meeting on the topic that I really cared about. The organisers were kind and well intentioned.. there was open talk of the need to create psychological safety in the room as the start of the event. There were all of the signs that this was going to be a 'soft-landing' back into the world of public events... except for me, it wasn't to be the case - while much has changed over the past 20 months or so, my reaction and subsequent participation in these events had not been magically transformed to a new post-pandemic reality - it was 'back to earth with a bump'.
During this event I listen to the dialogue.. intentionally curious and eager to learn something.. trying to drop my guard in order to make space in my head to allow my perceptions to be influenced and being open to leaving with some new perspectives. The topics are varied and interesting - and I realise that I have personal perceptions to explain, perspectives to contribute and experiences to share. If this were a Zoom event, I would be busy editing these into something worthy of the opportunity that is coming.
Then comes the 'so are there any questions' moment - and this circle of 30-40 people starts to open up. I hear people who talk as if they are in a 1:1 setting, others who seem comfortable in thinking aloud to the entire room, I hear others sharing their perspectives in the form of a question. I am aware of the calmness in their voice, I notice some of them comfortably leaning back in their chairs as if this is a venue full of familiar friends.
For the 60-70% who are not introverts, here is a personal account of what happens inside of me at this precise time:
I sense a change in my physiology - quickened heart-rate and change in breathing. I am on-edge, thinking about 'the interrupt' that I should make, waiting for the perfect time in the flow of the back-and-forth conversation.
There is a cycle taking place where I am aware of the words forming in my mouth - I sense my body stiffen up - I can hear my own intake of breath (which I assume is also there to signal to others that I am about to say something) - only then to pause and let the moment pass, or to have someone else snatch the moment away with another question or input. I sense the relevance of my prepared contribution slip away as the dialogue moves on, and then as the session suddenly wraps up without providing a pause that's quite long enough for me to feel that maybe now it's my turn to fill the space.. now that I am absolutely sure that everyone else is done.. I feel a sense of deflation - inner disappointment - discouragement.
The session wraps up and instead of sticking around for post-event discussions with other delegates, I take the first opportunity to escape and head to the railway station to get home.
Why this matters to me: having something insightful to share but not getting to share it is crippling.. with each negative experience reinforcing this feeling. I leave deflated and exhausted and remind myself that these occasions are just not for me, and mindful to make my contribution in a different way (here for example!).
Why this matters to all of us... the result is a real lack of diversity in what is heard, or in who shows up to these events in the first place - and that really matters to the breadth of our discovery, the richness of our discussions and the quality of our debate!
My perspective is that it is not reasonable to expect any 'interrupt and speak' event with people who we are unfamiliar with to be psychologically safe for introverts.
But there are some steps that we can consider taking to help in this situation.. a practical toolkit for increasing the levels of psychological safety.
build time in your agenda to break people into groups of 2 to share their perceptions with each other and offer the opportunity for them to co-present/share their learnings or questions
have people move around the room giving a 30sec intro to 5 random people and share with them what they are most curious about in the agenda
build on the chemistry that these 1:1 introductions bring to create safety through familiarity and to stimulate post-event conversations that become continued discoveries
offer participants an alternate way of contributing by running a live chat-window in your event to mimic the best of our online experiences
make this element of inclusion your #1 goal for a your events - to make them inspiring for all. Ask yourself the questions… did everyone here get to properly interact with others?… to make connections?… to share their perceptions and insights? Are they leaving with more than they came with? Leaving energised? Feeling successful?
At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society.
Susan Cain - author: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Phil and I at 30,000 Days Limited are passionate advocates for full-spectrum diversity.
If you could benefit from some help in designing or facilitating an event that you have in order to increase value through inclusivity - please let us know.