In 2015, driven by the observation that a large percentage of the people I work with are quiet 'do-ers' or quiet thinkers who struggled to raise their profile or get traction and visibility for their work, I wrote and published the Art of Shouting Quietly - a guide to self promotion for introverts and other quiet souls.
Not just shyness and introversion
Since then, I've noticed something else. Susan Cain's seminal book, Quiet, placed introversion centre stage in the dialogue about quiet people and their potential. Indeed, in my work with quiet people - both as a coach and in my writing, introversion is a recurring theme. However, I feel that the current focus on introversion and it's conflation with quietness has a hidden danger - namely, masking the fact that people are quiet, or have become quiet, for very many different reasons. It is the work with 'other quiet souls' that fascinates me most.
Working with the quiet souls
When people approach me for help with lack of confidence in self-promotion, fear of public speaking, or frustration with their own inability to stick their heads above the parapet, I'm immediately curious about the underlying nature of their quietness, how it manifests itself and whether there's a straightforward reason for it or not. Is the person I'm working with quiet by nature or through force of circumstance?
In this article I'm going to think out loud about the things I notice. I'm going to try and tease out the complex interrelationships between quiet, introversion, shyness, lack of confidence and all the other things that conspire to hold people back.
For now, I thought I'd share just a few of things that emerge from my sessions. Sometimes, mind-bogglingly complex juxtapositions of causes, events and interventions conspire to drive an individual into quietness and inaction.
- Extremes of perfectionism.
- Aspects of Neurodiversity.
- Debt and other chronic worry.
- Bullying or being subject to manipulative behaviour.
- Post traumatic stress - diagnosed or not.
- Knowing they need help - and too scared to ask.
- The impact of 'well intentioned' criticism.
- Illness and pain.
- Exhaustion/given up/worn out with 'trying'.
- Compassion fatigue.
- Misplaced parental 'guidance'.
- Destructive teaching.
- Inability to acknowledge/internalise skills, ability and expertise.
- Inability to receive and properly process praise and positive feedback.
- Extremes of sensitivity.
These are just a few examples of what can be a very long list of things that act alone or in complex combinations to stop a person in their tracks.
Those of you who are coaches will be familiar with the iceberg analogy - the behaviours we see are driven by the invisible factors that sit beneath the surface of the waves. How, in our work with quiet people, can we reveal and work with these without further depleting their energy stores?
Is the aim to release them from a prison of quiet or help them be a happy and effective quiet person?
The dangers of labelling
I'm not a great fan of attaching labels to people. Don't get me wrong - they can be a useful device, but I don't find them useful in my coaching work.
It's too easy to think of people being on spectrums or continuums - on straight lines between extrovert and introvert or being extremely autistic or not at all so. These devices are hugely misleading.
The danger of classifying people is that it's an easy route - you do a diagnostic and you find a label and it's tempting to think that's going to make the coaching easier. The danger is that we see what we want to see, attach the label our thinking is biased towards, and fall straight into a trap. The better the quality of the attention you pay, the less appealing your initial labels seem. The need to label begins to disappear as rapport and empathy increase.
In some respects, I'm a deep deep introvert. I like my alone time - lots and lots of it. I'm not comfortable making small talk - I feel like my tongue swells up and I get a sense of paralysis. Put me in front of an audience with a clear brief and some great slides and all my energy comes to the surface and I feel joyfully connected. How does that work, then? Am I extrovert, ambivert, introvert or what?
The truth is we all pop up in many different places on our own unique existential scatter graph of introversion, confidence, flow, joy, energy - so many variables... I could go on, but I'm sure you see what I mean. The moment we try to understand someone else, we're stuffed. I don't want to be understood, I want to experience empathy. And I think my clients feel the same. It's the 'being with' that counts - not just the listening, or the exemplary reading of body language, or the mirroring or the incisive questions.
What am I trying to say here?
Change is the norm. I sometimes see people’s conscious perception of themselves change in an instant. What I’ve not had the luxury of seeing is all the cogitation that’s been going on under the surface that’s led them to that point. Nor, as coach, should we be arrogant enough to take the credit for transformational change when it does happen. It may, or may not have been, our fabulous work.
"Learn your theories well but put them aside when you confront the mystery of the living soul." Carl Jung
If change is the norm, we need to be with our client as they present their ever changing, ever evolving selves to us. We need to stay with the notion that change is what we are working with, not a person with a defined and constant set of characteristics. We are all very different, we are all constantly changing.
As I move through my work with people – some of whom tell me they are quiet or shy or introverted or lacking in confidence – I’d like to invite you also to question how and why we label people in the way we tend to do.
I write about quiet from the perspective of being an introvert myself. My Dad was an introvert - some of these traits can be inherited. My own introversion, however, was amplified by the trauma of childhood pain and illness and a messy near-death experience.
How to find out more
I coach quiet people. If anything I've mentioned here strikes a chord with you, please do get in touch. Or leave a message on 07810 415402 and I'll get back to you. I also run workshops and masterclasses for organisations that want include quieter team members, help them flourish and gain from their amazing quiet insights.
If you have enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it - and do follow me on Twitter @petemosley
P. S. I create hand illustrated coaching cards and tools - have a look here.