Changing the world as an introvert: Interview with Susan Cain

An oldie-but-goodie for Throwback Thursday.

One of the most popular posts on Idealist Careers is job seeking as an introvert, with thousands of people reading and sharing this article. We wanted to dig a bit deeper into introversion as it applies to social change leadership, so we reached out to Susan Cain, author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

In the interview below she talks to us about the different engagement styles of introverts and extroverts, how introverts can build relationships, and why some of our most famous social change leaders were introverts.

When it comes to getting involved in one’s community and connecting with others, how might introverts and extroverts differ in their engagement?

Susan Cain Author Photo Credit Aaron Fedor-1
Susan Cain

It’s really just a question of different styles; introverts are seen as anti-social, but they have a different way of being social. They prefer to connect one-on-one and around an issue they find important.

So while an extrovert might attend an event and end up chatting with everyone, an introvert might attend an event, and have a few one-on-one conversations. For example, when I go to an event, I never see it as my role to leave with a fistful of business cards, but instead to meet just one or two people. The relationships build from there.

Introverts can also be great at public speaking. Many of our great public speakers are introverts, because they prepare so deeply for their talks. So a great way for many introverts to get involved is to give a speech and have small conversations with people afterwards, when you have something meaningful to talk about. Introverts have to be strategic by connecting with people around substantive topics.

Zooming out a little bit, what do introverts bring as leaders to the social sector?

Well it’s funny you mention that, because in my book I profiled well-known activists who were introverts: Gandhi, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt. All were described as quiet people, yet everyone wanted to work with them.

This is because introverts rarely rise to leadership for the sake of being a leader. They get into those positions when they care about a cause and people start to trust them, not because they have the loudest voices or larger than life personalities. People respond to people who have a true, authentic commitment to something, and a deep expertise.

Ashoka is a modern example of this. It was founded by and is currently led by introverts.

What are some of the challenges you think introverts might face as they try to build their networks and get involved in their communities? How can they overcome them?

Usually it just means having to put yourself out of your comfort zone. For example, some introverts aren’t comfortable with public speaking, so they have to keep practicing until they become comfortable. There’s a perception that you have to be a showman when you speak. But you can speak more powerfully when you’re in tune with who you are.

Additionally, introverts are less inclined to be out and about meeting new people. So one way to get more involved without being overwhelmed is to give yourself a quota system in terms of time or people. Tell yourself that every month you’ll go to a certain number of community gatherings or events, say one per week. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll attend this set number of event. The rest of the time, you’ll work on what feels right for you — which might include writing, sharing updates on social media, etc. You have to identify your strengths, your center or core, then focus on those, and only push yourself out of your comfort zone when you need to.

Learn more about Susan, the book, and her upcoming public speaking course for introverts at The Power of Introverts.


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    • Samantha Dawson-Williams
    • July 14, 2014

    Thank you for the article I am an introvert and have constantly had to fight the “stuck up” stereotype, the “she has attitude” stereotype and so on. It’s hardest because I am a Black female so people think that I am supposed to be loud and boisterous when I am the complete opposite. I am observant and I don’t like small talk (e.g. gossip). I don’t like idle “water cooler” chatter aka “small talk”. But if I feel warmth from someone or we are discussing something meaningful then I have no problem sitting with someone for hours discussing that. I think “introversion” should be more publicized so people in the Corporate World would give us introverts a break.

    • Kayla Roy
    • September 29, 2014

    Leading change is a difficult and daunting task. Introverts may especially find it more difficult to voice ideas and opinions to large groups compared to extroverts. However, as this article so rightfully expresses one does not need to be the loudest one in the room in order to gain the attention or respect of others. A leader should be able to communicate with others, as well as listen to other’s ideas, which is a common trait among introverts. You should use the skills you have as an introvert like listening or working with small groups and individuals in order to be a leader for change. However, you must also push yourself a little in order to voice your opinion and work with larger groups. You do not have to be the most talkative or active, but in order to be a well rounded productive leader you must take advantage of your current skill set, while working to develop new methods of working and communicating with others. Introverts are just as capable in leadership roles as extroverts, but in order to be a successful leader for change I believe you must obtain skill of both introverts and extroverts. Leaders who can communicate and work well with both introverts and extroverts will therefore be able to productively work with any individual or group.

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