You Don’t Need to Be Talking to Be Engaged

One day a few years ago, I drove 40 miles east to my hometown of Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, to participate in the care conference for my 79-year-old mom, who lived in the memory care unit of a nursing home there. (She has since died of Alzheimer’s disease.) I brought with me a copy of my new book, The Introvert Manifesto, to show her and my dad, who was also on hand for Mom’s periodic health update.

The book ended up tagging along to our meeting with the nurse and the social worker who were most involved in my mom’s day-to-day life at the facility. The social worker, Barb — who had always struck me as an introvert to begin with — took one look at the book, picked it up, and started reading.

She opened up to page 24, where she was immediately drawn to a piece entitled “Just Because I’m Not Talking Doesn’t Mean I’m Not Engaged.” As she sat there reading, she nodded and said “yes, yes.” Then she shared with me that she had struggled to articulate this very concept to the other people in her life, especially professionally — and that she was even concerned she might be perceived as disengaged for her upcoming election run for the Detroit Lakes City Council.

“I’ll listen for a long time before I say anything,” Barb stressed. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not participating. And it doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.”

I couldn’t have put it any better myself.

And yet, too often, engagement is equated solely with talking. Not talking is seen as not caring. Which is ironic, because I can’t think of a better way to demonstrate caring than to listen to someone else. Quietly.

This same dilemma resurfaced for me when I ran into Bruce Macfarlane’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education (United Kingdom) article entitled “No Place for Introverts in the Academy?” There he wrote, in the context of the college/university classroom:

“[T]here is no place in the new regime of student engagement for shy students who might participate in less obvious ways through active listening, making eye contact, taking good notes and even, dare I say, thinking. … Yet … listening and reflective introspection need to be understood as legitimate forms of class participation. Silence is just as likely as talking to indicate an engagement with the ideas of others.”

You can challenge Bruce on his use of the term “shy” as a synonym for “introverted,” but his argument is solid. In fact, he and Barb might as well change places. For they are thinking the exact same thing about engagement — an ocean apart, in completely different work environments. And they are most certainly not alone in their frustration.

The typical introvert is going to listen more than he/she talks, especially in settings like work meetings or classroom discussions. The typical introvert is going to take in the information, analyze it carefully, synthesize it in silence, and then — then — perhaps make a comment or offer some feedback or new insight.

That’s not disengagement. It’s the ultimate in true engagement. It just looks and feels a little different from the typical extravert’s idea of engagement.

As an introvert, you might not say much during a conversation or a presentation, at least not right away. But it’s not because you don’t care.

It’s because you do.

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