About a year ago I heard The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain’s Ted Talk, and I thought: that’s me. That’s totally me. She had published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a book about what makes introverts tick, and how we function in a world that generally rewards extroverts. She described how introverts get their energy from quiet and calm, and extroverts are recharged by being with people. Introverts are overwhelmed by sensory overload. Extroverts thrive on activity and lots of inputs. Cain estimated that a third to half of all people are introverts.
I went to two workshops in September. I left the first, on placemaking, thinking: I have lost two days of my life I’ll never get back. I left the other, on reaching new audiences with effective communications, thinking: that was worthwhile. That was good. Both workshops tried to engage participants; one successfully included introverts. The other didn’t.
These two meetings reminded me that placemaking for everyone, not just anyone, needs to include a process and an outcome where introverts feel comfortable. We are the 30-50 percent of the population least likely to leave our houses to participate in a group activity, which is the foundation both for planning placemaking projects, and for the places typically thought of as having placemaking amenities.
Planning for placemaking is supposed to be bottom-up, where community members lead and planners put the community vision to paper. The planning process frequently begins with a walk around the area to be placemade. There’s a conversation about what the place needs to be more people-friendly. There are public meetings, opportunities to provide input, plan reviews, tweaking, reporting out, and fine tuning. Opportunities to participate are overwhelmingly group activities.
The placemaking workshop was led by a national placemaking organization. We met in a small downtown in southern Michigan. Attendees were randomly placed into groups. Mine and one other were sent to a pre-selected location downtown, a T-shaped alley behind the main street’s shops, to talk about how it could be made more appealing. We reconvened at the meeting location and compared notes with the other group that had gone to the same spot. Each group reported out at the end.
Pretty standard stuff, right? But I felt excluded almost from the beginning. My random group had four people (including me) and I had never met the other three. The group’s leader (chosen by the organizers) and another member had strong personalities. The leader didn’t make an effort to solicit input from the two quieter group members. He dismissed comments he didn’t agree with. After trying two or three times to contribute and being shut down each time, I finally gave up and started looking at my phone. The fourth group member was already looking at his.
Once back at the meeting location, with about 100 people trying to talk over each other to compare their findings, it was clear there was no comfortable way for me to contribute and I walked away from my group. Sensory overload, pushy people, and a process that made it difficult to contribute. I checked out.
The communications workshop (facilitated by Arts Midwest) began much differently. The first group activity was an icebreaker – tell the person next to you about your first or your most recent arts experience. I was sitting next to people I’d met, but who I didn’t know well. Sharing a memory and why it was important helped us know something about each other that wasn’t too intimate, but still very personal. We had other group activities through the day, but groups were no more than two or three people, the same ones we’d done the icebreaker with. Reporting out was voluntary, not required.
It was easy and comfortable to evaluate communications tools with someone who had told me her first arts experience was being a star in the 4th grade Christmas play. There were only two or three of us talking, having an actual dialogue, and we all respected the other’s input.
Lately I’ve gotten back into meeting facilitation, which I really like doing. I’m planning to steal Arts Midwest’s approach, and flip the lessons from the first workshop so that my participants don’t feel excluded. My takeaways:
Do an icebreaker. People will have more meaningful conversations when they feel safe. Even though I didn’t know my tablemates well, we had a personal conversation at the start that helped us know each other and built trust between us. It was a great way to begin. Random people placed together without an opportunity to feel comfortable with each other won’t have an open conversation. It’s easy to ignore or dismiss a stranger. Not so much when it’s someone you know, even a little.
Google found that staff were at their most creative when they felt safe and confident to talk about their ideas. They call it psychological safety, which is dangerously close to the eye-roll-inducing “safe space,” but it’s true. I didn’t have a trusting relationship with the random group at the first workshop, but I did after the icebreaker at the second one. I felt more comfortable contributing there, and my ideas were respected.
Smaller groups with fewer voices helps ensure introverts are heard, not overwhelmed. In a larger group, if everyone’s opinion is going to be heard, the facilitator needs to go around the table and ask each person for their input. In a group with 100 people all talking at once, people need to be spread out so the noise doesn’t become overwhelming.
Give people some quiet time to think and reflect. Introverts don’t think well on the fly or in a noisy room. When I facilitate a group input session, I give participants a few minutes of quiet to think and write down their ideas on the main question. For a placemaking project, notify people in advance where the targeted area is, and suggest that people go there on their own. Give them some questions or things to look for, to see it at different times of day. Give people time to noodle and make notes about their impressions and ideas. I’ve done this for other types of meetings too: give the participants a detailed agenda ahead of time, so they can think about questions ahead of the meeting.
If I had the opportunity to go to other training offered by these organizations, I’d sign up for Arts Midwest again in a heartbeat. I would not go to another training offered by the national organization. They shouldn’t be telling people how to do placemaking when they can't get people to effectively work together at their own training. And do we want to speculate which one of the two asked participants for an evaluation after the meeting? You guessed it. Arts Midwest.
If you’re an introvert, what places do you feel most comfortable? Let me know. I’ll do a post sometime on Places for Introverts.
Bonus material: Are you a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet? I am definitely an Order Muppet and was married to the Swedish Chef, a Chaos Muppet.
And staying with the Muppet / introvert theme, Ray Charles singing “It’s Not That Easy Being Green.” The CeeLo-Kermit duet is better than you would think too.
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