Laurie Helgoe and her husband have loved each other deeply and completely for more than 30 years. But that doesn’t mean they have always known how to talk to each other — especially since they stand on opposite ends of the introvert–extrovert spectrum.
“My husband and I prided ourselves on our good communication, but when I started writing about introversion, we noticed ways we had been missing each other’s cues,” says Helgoe, an assistant professor of psychology at Davis & Elkins College and author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength. “Once we took our communication differences into account, we were able to have more satisfying conversations. It was like learning another language.”
Most of us have struggled when talking with someone — even someone close to us — whose personality and habitual ways of interacting don’t sync with our own. It can be frustrating, making us feel like we’re not being heard or fully understood.
Part of the problem arises from our tendency to focus on clichés regarding these polar opposites. Stereotypically, extroverts are gregarious and outgoing, but not very introspective; introverts are shy or aloof, but enjoy a rich inner life.
Such stereotypes are just that, says Sharí Alexander, founder of Observe Connect Influence, a Los Angeles–based consulting firm that teaches strategies for effective personality-profile observation.
“When talking about these terms, some people want to put you in a box and seal it up, then stick a label on it,” Alexander says. “Or you may use that term for yourself as a kind of security blanket, to explain certain attributes about yourself so you don’t have to be flexible in your choices.”
But typecasting yourself (or anyone else, for that matter) this way can be very limiting, she says. What works better: actively and compassionately exploring our differences.
By moving beyond our categorical limitations, we can enjoy a more nuanced appreciation of our different-typed partners, siblings, and colleagues. We can enrich our relationships and learn to interact more successfully with people who have different energetic styles than our own.
Ultimately, by recognizing and adapting our own style (without sacrificing our authentic inclinations), we can deepen our communication and -connections with others.
Reaching Across the Divide
“Making a strong connection with someone else is all about being observant and making subtle communication changes,” Alexander says. “Be curious about yourself — your reactions, your personality — and equally curious about the other person.”
This requires close attention and a shift away from automatic relating patterns, Alexander notes, but the payoffs can be huge.
Once Helgoe started recognizing and learning the “other language” of her extroverted husband, for example, she realized that her sisters spoke this language, too.
She observed how they often treated her thoughtful silences as an invitation to keep talking or explain further, so she began asking them to pause while she considered how to answer a question or respond to a comment.
To Helgoe’s surprise, they liked letting go of some of the responsibility for the conversation. In time, they began to allow more space for silence, and she also made a subtle shift toward talking more in their presence.
The result has been a revelation, she says: “I feel like we’ve all found common ground. After a lifetime of not quite connecting on the same level, that’s huge.”
Note that this is not about learning to “fake it till you make it,” but instead exploring the full range of the -introversion–extroversion scale within yourself, so you can call on the energy and skills each style offers when it’s needed.
Alexander recommends a technique called mirroring, in which you adopt some of the physical or verbal patterns of your conversation partner.
“By mirroring someone you consider to be opposite to you, you can learn how to dial up your energy, or dial it back,” Alexander says. Whether physically leaning in, taking long pauses before answering questions, or even moderating your tone of voice, mirroring requires taking cues from your conversation partner so you can find common communication-style ground.
So while we may be inclined to approach the world in our introverted or extroverted ways, we don’t have to pack ourselves into those boxes any more tightly than we choose, Alexander notes.
Reaching out of our comfort zone to understand someone else’s energetic and communication perspective can also help us feel freer within our own self-expression.