Encourage the Quiet to Give Voice to the Sounds of Silence

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

That’s a tricky question. I have a hard time answering it myself.

That’s the problem of binary questions  —  you are forced to choose one or the other. Being quiet is a choice  —  you can be more outspoken in specific scenarios or more withdrawn in others.

Who you are cannot be limited by a label. Especially, when those labels are loaded terms. Our society favors action versus contemplation  —  extroverts have a more positive buzz.

Quiet people have a unique power  —  everyone, them included, needs to pay more attention to it.

The loud are more valued

Our society has a long tradition of trying to define what’s “normal”  —  maybe because we have a hard time accepting that we are all unique.

Being left-handed was vigorously oppressed throughout the centuries  —  lefties were forced to use their right hand to write. Discriminatory practices against left-handers persisted well into the 20th century.

Similarly, people still believe that being an introvert is not normal. Those who act and speak louder are favored.

I remember growing-up, classmates would say, “Why don’t you talk more?” I felt something was wrong with me. I enjoyed listening to others, observing the world, and cultivating my inner-self. Through time, I became much comfortable with being exposed. I can do a keynote speech in front of thousands of people or facilitate workshops that put me in a vulnerable position. I don’t have an issue exposing myself — many people now believe I’m an extrovert.

So, have I changed?

At some point, I became a victim of the push to being more extroverted. I became too loud — I wasn’t listening or reflecting as much as I usually did. In the past year or so, I’ve been finding balance.  I recovered the power of being quiet.

“Society favors a man of actions versus a man of contemplation.” — Susan Cain.

The speaker and author explains on her TED talk how, in the 20th century, we shifted from a culture of character to one of personality. Being bold, having social influence and charisma became critical traits to define a successful personality. We have an outdated “charisma bias” towards the loud — there’s a cult for charismatic leaders, but that doesn’t warrant better results.

Bill Gates has played a transformational role in the tech world, similar to Steve Jobs. However, in spite of the Gates Foundation social impact, he doesn’t get as much publicity or credit as Apple’s former CEO. Similarly, Steve Wozniak is not as quoted as his co-founder.

The press gives the microphone to those who are loud.

However, most successful stories are the result of collaborations among both introverts and extroverts. Wozniak says that he would never have become a computer expert had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up.

Quiet people have things to say too, and most of the time they provide more clarity and depth.

Quiet people have a strong voice

“There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.” — Carl Jung

The terms introvert and extrovert were popularized by Carl Jung in the early 20th century, although both the widespread understanding and usage differ from his original intent. People turned it into a binary approach — you are one or the other. Jung’ suggested that everyone has both extroverted and introverted sides, with one being more dominant than the other.

The Swiss psychologist explained how we recharge our brain differently: Introverts by spending time alone; Extroverts from other people.

Similarly, Hans Eysenck proposed that each type has different levels of arousal — their minds and bodies are more responsive to different stimulation. According to the English psychologist, extroverts have a lower rate of arousal. They need to work harder to get stimulated to the same level as introverts. That’s why extroverted people seek bold challenges, new experiences, and crave company.

Conversely, quiet people don’t need others to feel recharged. Their voices are already strong — they don’t need to speak louder. Also, being alone with one’s thoughts can be as restorative as sleeping.

Introverts are active when they are quiet. Introverts have a lot to say but also value the power of being quiet. Silence is not the absence of words, but the presence of focus. The only thing introverts hate more than talking about themselves is repeating themselves.

Purposeful silence

“There is always music amongst the trees, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it.” — Minnie Aumonier

Being quiet is a choice, not a permanent status.

For Japanese people, silence is an essential form of non-verbal communication ; it’s a sign of respect and personal distance. For Westerners, silence means something is wrong. That’s the biggest mistake extroverts make — they assume that when people are quiet it’s because they are doubtful, lonely or suffering.

Silence gives you the freedom to be yourself. It’s a beautiful choice that can reap many benefits:

  • You listen more to others — Listening is the most essential part of a conversation. We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen as twice as much as we speak as Epictetus said.
  • You avoid getting involved in conversations — The need to speak is an easy trap — we all become victims of our desire to add to the conversation. Gossiping, criticizing, expressing opinions about what we don’t know are clear examples of doing unnecessary talking.
  • You pause and observe life — Talking too much keeps our brain busy. “To fill a cup of tea, you have to empty it first.” When you stop talking, you start paying attention to the world around you.
  • You learn from others — Rather than jumping to quick conclusions, you can listen to different voices. Not only do you learn from others, but it also helps you walk in their shoes. Understanding diverse perspectives is critical to avoid being judgmental.
  • You can spend more time getting to know yourself — Silence allows your inner-voice to speak up and get familiarized with your inner-self. To know yourself is to accept yourself. However, too much self-examination can kill you, as I explain here.

Permanent silence is not always good either — life is a balancing act.

Quiet people need more safe time

The fear of being ignored, criticized, or attacked by others prevent people from sharing their true thoughts.

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Google research discovered that psychological safety can make or break a team. People want to feel safe to express their opinions without the fear of being judged by others. This applies to any team ; working, sports, friends and family relationships must provide a safe space for everyone to speak up. Quiet people need safe time . Let them choose when to talk and respect their opinions.

Accept quiet people as they are. If you lean towards being an extrovert, don’t expect others to behave as you do.

Five ways to give room to quiet people

1. No-interruptions rule — It’s more difficult for women to earn recognition for making a valuable contribution than it is for men. The same happens to quiet people. Make space for everyone to have a turn to share their thoughts and opinions — everyone should agree to abide by the one-voice-at-a-time practice. A “no-interruptions” rule in meetings or social gatherings helps everyone voices be heard, not just those of loud people.

2. Ask for feedback in advance — Quiet people don’t like to provide feedback on their feet. They prefer to take time to review information before they share their opinions. LinkedIn launched the “Quiet Ambassador” Network to recognize the voice of introverts versus extroverts and teach leaders how to pull the most out of everyone. Quiet people are given the notes of a meeting in advance so that they can prepare and have a point of view beforehand.

3. Use physical space wisely — Humans tend to move from one extreme to the other. In the case of office space, we jumped from closed to open spaces without any balance. Some activities require collaboration among large teams, others small social interactions. Many, demand privacy to reflect quietly on specific issues. Introverts don’t thrive in an extrovert-centric workplace. Create quiet spaces and experiences for both individuals and small teams.

4. Recover the value of silence — You don’t need to be loud to be smart. Silence is healthy. When you stop, everything else becomes visible. Encourage those around you to experience how it feels to be quiet but, most importantly, to benefit from silence. Try not speaking for a couple of hours. If you tend to be the first to give an opinion, force yourself to be the last one. Not just to hold your horses, but to actively listen to others. Pay attention. Most of the time silence means that your ideas add nothing to what has already been said. And that’s okay.

5. Get rid of the binary approach — The introvert versus extrovert thing is doing no one a favor. Choosing sides is never a good thing. Avoid the labels by creating collaboration opportunities. We need both quiet and noise. Organizations of all types must embrace and promote the collaboration between the quiet and the loud. Stop extroverts’ rules from bullying introverts because they choose silence.

Silence is a space. Use it wisely. Invite the unexpected to happen.

Gustavo Razzetti

Gustavo Razzetti is the CEO of Liberationist, a change leadership consultancy that helps organizations become more innovative.  His human-centered approach liberates the 'change gene' within every team.

Razzetti has over 20 years of experience transforming human behavior at the intersection of Neuroscience, Design Thinking, Mindfulness, and Creativity.

Gustavo is the author of "Stretch for Change," "Stretch Your Mind," and "Stretch Your Team.” He is also a regular speaker and has facilitated hundreds of change workshops in the US, Europe, and Latin America.

In his capacity advising CEOs and teams of everything from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, Razzetti has consulted companies in almost every business category including Verizon, P&G, 20th Century Fox, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Allstate, Walgreens and McDonald’s, among others. He was previously EVP at Leo Burnett Chicago. Prior to that, he worked as CEO of Euro RSCG in New York, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. 

Gustavo has authored hundreds of articles on innovation, change leadership and personal transformation. He has participated in the—by invitation only—Innovation Leadership Program at Stanford University. 

Now living in Chicago, Razzetti is married with two sons.