Learning to Listen

Learning to Listen

As my semester of teaching Psychology 101 progresses, I am reminded of new piece of brain science about how Introverts and Extroverts are hard wired found in The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (2002) by Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D. (pp. 74-5)

Recent studies have shown that Introverts tend to exhibit a longer “pathway” between hearing or seeing something and being able to respond. They need more time to think, and often prefer to write rather than talk. Extroverts are talkers, quick to respond, often not taking time to reflect on what is being presented before blurting out their opinion on the subject. This behavior can cause Introverts to feel unheard. Another consequence is that too often ill-considered decisions are made.

This process can be detrimental to healthy relationships because in every dyad, one will tend more toward Extroversion and one more Introvertion. The resulting miscommunication can leave both parties frustrated. Relationships would benefit from change on both sides. It would be great if more Introverted people practiced expressing their ideas and insights, rather than allowing themselves to become suppressed and defer. The more Extraverted person needs to practice slowing down their rapid response and make more space for listening. Introverts can become more expansive, more persistent. Extraverts can become less exuberant.

America is run by and for extroverts who boldly speak their mind without taking long term consequences into consideration. It is compelling to compare this state of affairs to when men ruled the world, leaving women, half of the population, without a voice – without a vote. But even when women were first “given” the right to vote in this country, the fact of their being heard only changed on a small scale. Much bigger change came later, with birth control. Prior to women experiencing the sexual freedom that came with the “pill” they were often depressed because of being ignored and shamed. They experienced anxiety because of not being heard. Today, men and women have equal opportunity for depression and anxiety. Is this discomfort related to the Introversion and Extraversion spectrum?

Susan Cain, author of Quiet:The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (2012), notes that “television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information—make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance.” (p. 52) [emphasis added]. She adds that American society has always valued those who can respond quickly.

Paul is an example of a man who experiences invisibility in this extroverted society. He has come to recognize that as an Introvert, he needs more courage to be persistently more visible. Several negative experiences occurred throughout his life. An early memory is a teacher who asked what is so important for you to interrupt the class, when he excitedly wanted to share. As an Introvert, he was hardwired to share from his inner landscape, and he felt shamed. And something else was learned, “It’s not okay for me to speak my mind.” He recently created Introvert Awareness, a website intended to help talkers slow down to provide more time for listening and for the listeners, who are often Introverts to share their thoughts more frequently.

Extroverts need to value what Introverts have to say, and Introverts need to value themselves enough to speak out. Paul finds that when attending a meeting, “Because I ruminate and thoughts come in waves, I often realize later what I might have said. Because of the way my brain is wired, I need more time.” Reflection leads to clarity rather than rapid decision making. We all need to recognize that we cannot solve problems or make changes in a one hour meeting. Perhaps we need to reconvene, add two or three more meetings to give all parties involved time to think more clearly. What if we learned the consensus process as opposed to Robert’s Rules of ‘Rigidness’ where the majority (read “those who think more quickly”) get to make the rules.

Similar to the paradigm shift allowed by birth control, a whole new paradigm in decision making could be the equivalent of changing the world. Any decision made without adequate time for reflection and consideration of the consequences is too quick. Perhaps we all need to stop and think about how our decisions effect the next seven generations. This alone could bring more balance to the world.

It is important to keep in mind that Asian societies value introverts–value reflection, and those who think more deeply and slowly. How can we, Americans, become more MINDFUL? Therefore creating less anxiety, depression and stress. How can we help introverts become more courageous? How can each of us live a life that is more heart-felt?

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About Suzann Robins

I am an expert relationship coach and professional speaker on the topic of personality dynamics and the effect that have on relationships at home and at work. As a tai chi and yoga instructor, and a social science professor I have written a book that synthesizes Eastern Philosophy with Western Psychology.