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What Is Introvert-Friendly Learning? Reflections for Coaches, Conference Organizers, Seminar Leaders

by Marcia Yudkin

Recently on the ABC TV show "Shark Tank," on which entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to a panel of multi-million-dollar investors, there was a scene of gratuitous cruelty that lived up to the "shark" metaphor in the show's title.

(If you're British or Australian, you may be familiar with the show "Dragon's Den" on which the American show was modeled.)

A woman whose pitch did not fly with the investors and who was visibly upset about having failed offered a strained smile and said "Thank you" before turning to take her leave.

"Don't say 'Thank you,'" admonished one of the investors, a man whose motto is that nothing counts except money. He argued that she certainly didn't feel grateful and shouldn't say it. Two of the other panelists stuck up for the woman as being appropriately polite, but the man insisted that thanking the ones who had all turned her down was wrong.

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The contestant couldn't manage any words in reply. It seemed to me that she found his attitude revolting, but she was much too well brought up to disagree with him or insult him back. And in the man's expression I saw self-righteousness, superiority and an egotistical pleasure in seeing her squirm. I know he felt he was teaching her a lesson, but it was vicious and power-hungry of him to use that tone in that moment.

Introverts are especially sensitive about being put down in public, and particularly so when the criticism has nothing to do with the official purpose of the occasion. Losing is not fun for anyone, but to have to deal with mockery of one's appearance or background or manners on top of that is unbearable to an introvert, because we need time to process an attack that comes out of left field. Only much later can we think of an eloquent retort that would have exposed the attacker as being in the wrong.

This incident got me thinking about learning environments that are not safe or productive for introverts. More than 30 years ago, I experienced humiliation like the Shark Tank contestant's at a prestigious writer's conference. In front of 100 other writers, an award-winning nonfiction writer asked me to come up front and read the first page of my novel-in-progress. After I did so, he belittled my writing skill, disparaged the intent of my story and told all the others in the room that he saw no redeeming qualities in what I had done.

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Years later, when I was able to look back at this incident apart from the torrent of tears it brought on, I concluded that no valid educational points were made to me and no learning about writing took place in me or anybody else that day. As with the Shark Tank exchange, the so-called expert and some listeners in the room expressed superiority, but not in terms that showed me how to improve.

There's an echo of this atmosphere in the "hot seats" at some marketing conferences, where an aspiring entrepreneur describes what he or she wants to achieve and what he or she has done to try to get there. The reigning experts then comment. When the experts play to the peanut gallery, show off their knowledge or shake their heads disparagingly without explaining the principles underlying their scorn, they are not helping the one in the hot seat to learn.

What kind of seminar or conference is conducive to learning for introverts, then?

  • It's small - 15 people or fewer. If it's larger, criticism is delivered one-on-one rather than in front of everyone.

  • It's confidential. Interchanges where participants talk about themselves, share their work or make themselves vulnerable are not preserved for posterity.

  • Steps have been taken to make the setting less intimidating for participants. For example, the expert sits or walks around at the same level as participants, rather than on stage or in a director's chair.

  • Someone who doesn't feel comfortable sharing or participating can take a pass.

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  • Criticism is couched not in absolute, take-it-or-leave-it pronouncements but in terms of options, experiences and "If you want to do X, then Y is a good way to get there."

  • The discussion stays on topic.

  • Instead of simply shoving ideas at participants, the learning structure provides an opportunity for introverts to absorb and integrate the information so it relates to their aims.

Use these guidelines to design a learning environment that's comfortable for introverts, and chances are, extroverts will appreciate it also. Your reward: long-term allegiance from those who thrive with your instruction and guidance!

Your marketing mentor,

Marcia Yudkin

P.S. If you're an introvert and could use intensive feedback and guidance on your branding, web site, marketing strategy or a publication project, come work with me one-on-one next spring on Maui. Your retreat is structured so you have ample time to relax on the beach and tour the island, too - and most likely, your whole trip is tax deductible.  Maui private marketing retreat. 

And be sure to download the free Marketing for Introverts Manifesto!

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