by Matt Mikalatos
Empty streets creep me out. I prefer crowds. I try to get to know my servers at restaurants. I’ll sit by you in the movie theater even if I don’t know you, even if we’re the only two people there. I schedule a half hour for leaving my office, because I like to go around and say goodbye to each person. Most days, my “alone time” is in the bathroom, and if someone wants to stand outside the door and talk to me, I would welcome that.
I’m an extrovert.
Marc recently shared some thoughts about being an introvert, and the dangers of using your personality as an excuse for avoiding things you should do. He asked me to share some similar thoughts about extroverts.
The Extrovert’s Excuse
In his earlier post, Marc shared the introvert’s excuse:
I don’t have to talk to the person next to me on the plane about Jesus. “I’m just not wired that way.” Let the extroverts do that.
But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: the extroverts don’t want to do it, either, and we use the same excuse.
I’ll be frank. I may want to get to know the person sitting uncomfortably close to me on my left side, but I’m not necessarily looking for a conversation about Jesus. In fact, I would be fine having a conversation that is largely about, well, me. If Jesus comes up, sure, I’d be glad to talk about that. But if the conversation gets too deep, or takes too long, I may get nervous or bored. It wasn’t that long ago that a young woman told me that she wanted to tell me her life story. She asked for permission and I said okay. She said it would take at least an hour, and as I recall my exact words were, “I’m sure you could do it in five minutes or less.” But she couldn’t, and ten minutes into her life story I desperately wanted to turn and talk to the person who was uncomfortably close to me on the right side.
I was so tired of listening. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I didn’t want to concentrate on her boring story (and she was not a great storyteller). I was ready to move on to another topic, or another person, or another airplane. It’s not that I’m a jerk, it’s that she was a bore. So I sat through the speech without listening. I didn’t feel bad about it, either, because that’s how I’m wired. God made me this way. No meaningful conversation took place (at least, I don’t think so, I might have missed that), but that’s not my job. Let the introverts do that.
So, if someone sat in the middle seat between me and Marc on the plane, they would get ignored by Marc and brushed off by me. He’s a seminary professor, I’m a missionary. I can just imagine the pleased look on Jesus’s face. And yet, Marc and I, introvert and extrovert, are God’s handiwork. He created us this way and he made us to do good works that he set aside for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). It’s just that sometimes I use my extroversion as an excuse that prevents me from doing good things. Let me share a few challenging skills extroverts can work on to minimize using our extroversion as an excuse.
3 Challenges for Extroverts
Here are three challenging skills that extroverts should consider developing:
1. Think with your mouth closed.
Ask an extrovert a question and we immediately start talking. It doesn’t matter if we have expertise, knowledge or anything worthwhile to say. We’re energized by people, and we like to include everyone in our thought process. We’ll throw out ideas based completely in ignorance, passionately defend them, see their weaknesses, denounce them, repeat the process and then start asking other questions, bouncing happily down rabbit trails all in the course of five minutes.
Thinking out loud is not always a bad thing, but there are times it’s inappropriate. If you’re working through a sticky personal situation, for instance, you may share things that might not reflect your true feelings (because you’re still exploring and trying to figure out what those feelings are). Likewise, your center-stage idea dump may prevent others from processing their own thoughts. It can also make you appear uncaring, ridiculous or narcissistic, depending on what in-process thoughts sneak their way out.
When thinking in a group setting, a wise question for us extroverts to start with is: “Should I be saying this out loud?” And if you’re not sure, say that question out loud and someone will tell you.
2. Be patient and wait for an answer.
Extroverts don’t understand the request for “a little time to process” because we want to experience the process together. We need to be understanding of the introvert’s need to have time and space to process alone. Otherwise we have conversations like this:
Extrovert: What’s the matter? You’re so quiet. Are you sad?
Extrovert: Or maybe you’re angry. Are you mad because I hit your mailbox with my car? Did I tell you about that? It was a pretty amazing story. Or maybe you’re sad because you’re alone all the time, like last night you just stayed at your house and didn’t come out with the rest of us. Or maybe you’re tired. I’m not sure you get enough sleep. Does your throat hurt? Are you sick? Now you’re frowning. Do you want to talk about it? Should we go to a movie or something? Maybe we should throw a party.
(Ten hours later, when the introvert is finally alone in his bedroom) Introvert: I’m not sad. I’m just thinking.
A couple tips, extroverts:
One, if you need to have a deep conversation or work on a hard question with an introvert, let them know ahead of time what you want to talk about. Like this: “On Tuesday, when we get together, I’d like to talk about how we can fix the American financial system. Would you mind getting some thoughts together on that?”
Two, invite introverts into the conversation. Extroverts can dominate conversations (especially in groups). Try to be the extrovert who notices which people aren’t speaking up and invite them to share their opinions. Like this: “Hey, Introvert #1. Where do you think we should go to lunch?” You get bonus points if you replace “Introvert #1” with the person’s name!
Three, be patient and give a timeline. If you spring a surprise topic on an introvert, tell them you need an answer next week. Or, if you’re making decisions as a group, set aside some of the “discussion” time for everyone to silently write notes which everyone can then share. This creates more equal footing for conversation.
3. Develop a discipline of solitude and silence.
Extroverts think we don’t need alone time. That’s not quite correct. We’re energized by people. We don’t need alone time to be energized. But solitude and silence is an essential practice for extroverts to develop spiritual and mental depth. We need to learn the discipline of solitude in the same way that introverts need to learn to enter the joys of community. Extroverts have a hard time listening to other people. Is it any surprise we have a hard time listening to God? We need to develop a habit of listening prayer, a devotional life focused on hearing God’s voice in his word, and schedule time and space to meditate on those things. But do not fear, extroverts: when we’re done meditating and listening to God, we can always go tell everyone about it. It might be helpful to remember that you’re not really alone when you’re spending time with God… he’s a person, too, after all.
I’m never going to become an introvert. My first instinct will always be toward the spotlight, the crowd and the party. I have more to say (so much more) but this is a good time to take my own advice and listen to what you have to say. What are your thoughts, insights or angry diatribes on this topic?
Matt Mikalatos is a graduate of Western Seminary, is on staff with Cru, and is the author of several books including The Sword of Six Worlds and My Imaginary Jesus. You can read his unfiltered ramblings on his blog or listen to the Storymen podcast here.