Workshops and Introverts

First, a disclaimer: This post is going to discuss the concepts of Introversion and Extraversion, as they apply in Sandpits and Ideas Labs. Purely for the purposes of efficiency, we have described people as Extraverts or Introverts, rather than the more accurate statement which would be “demonstrates a preference towards extraversion, or a preference for introversion.” Here endeth the health warning. Our apologies if this seems pedantic, but we don’t want to get on the wrong side of the psychological community as they are known to have awesome Jedi powers.

The question came up after one of our events: Is the Ideas Lab (aka Sandpit) biased toward extraverts?

Probably. Consider its premise: to collect scientists and academics from a range of disciplines and mix them around in different combinations, working in groups to solve a problem or develop ideas for research. It smacks of just what an extravert will love: conversations with strangers, moving chairs a lot, standing in front of a group to make presentations. But just the idea of being in a meeting room with 25 other people for five days in a row can be enough to discourage an introvert from applying to attend, let alone the idea of having to interact with a large group all week long.


Yet it’s not uncommon for us to encounter introverted participants at a Sandpit. David Maddison, Professor of Integrative Biology, Oregon State University, a mentor at a KI-run Ideas Lab about Assembling, Visualizing and Analyzing the Tree of Life (AVAToL) observed that the selection process – writing a very short Expression of Interest – might even have a real advantage for introverts. “In their 2-page proposals, people describe themselves in a unitary sense. They don’t, at the start, have to seek collaborations. The whole social interaction thing happens at the Ideas Lab, in the future, and that is less scary, as the introverts might imagine that they would have other introverts to work with.”

Maddison classifies himself as an introvert, so we found his feedback about the event particularly insightful. He noted that introverts have a hard time being socially “on” for as much time as is required during an Ideas Lab. “Having even more exercises where people are supposed to do something by themselves, not with others, would give introverts some good head-clearing time, and would make the feel that their style was being considered in the program design.”

Not that introverts should only be doing things by themselves. Interaction can increase creativity, even for introverts. “I have the perfect introvert partner,” says Maddison, “in my identical twin brother, and our interactions absolutely increase our creativity.” Maddison notes, though, that the kind of interaction that inspires creativity in introverts might be very different than the sort that inspires and works well for extraverts. One of the challenges of designing an event like a 5-day Ideas Lab is designing exercises that are suited to both introverts and extraverts, and in different combinations.

We don’t mean to paint introverts as shy and retiring. It’s not about personality. Introversion and extraversion have to do with gaining and spending energy in social contexts. And Susan Cain, author of 2012 bestseller Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, points out that introverts often demonstrate what we consider to be more extraverted behavior when they are dealing with something that they are very passionate about.

Most introverts probably wouldn’t apply to attend an Ideas Lab or a Sandpit unless they were truly curious or passionate about the subject matter. That’s what’s likely to draw them out and help them cope with all the interactions that are involved in such an interactive event. “Focusing on our passion allows us to drown out all the social stimuli,” says Maddison. “To the extent that an Ideas Lab allows people to be reminded of their passion and express it, it will enable introverts to be more thorough participants.”


We try to keep this in mind, in our workshop design, knowing that we need to consider the different styles of a range of participants. Here are some of the things we do to accommodate the more introverted participants in the room:

Smaller group from the start. At the beginning we like to put people in pairs and trios or at small tables for their initial conversations, rather than working in larger groups or as a full group. Even the extraverts need to “warm up” and this lowers the risk level and threshold of stimulation.

Everything is opt-in. During our workshop opening, we tell people suffering is optional, and we mean it. If at any point in the program, the conversation and activities prove to be too much, too stimulating, too tiring, or just not productive, people can duck out and do what they need to do: take a walk, a nap, a rest, start a side conversation with one person. We aren’t offended if people don’t participate in every activity we suggest.

Warm-up activities are grounded in content. We know that people want and need to get to know each other; disclosure is important to building the right climate for the intensity of work ahead. But we keep these exercises low-risk, not too personal, and yet revealing enough to help participants identify key people they might want to talk to over the course of the workshop.

Balance of direct and indirect engagement. We alternate asking people to talk to each other, and asking them to focus on objects or putting things up on the wall. This makes sure the questions and ideas are being recorded, but it also gives less-extraverted people a break from the chatter. Sometimes we ask the group to organize clusters of questions or ideas without talking to each other. They balk at first, but then surprise themselves with the efficient and insightful results.

Time out. After several days of discussion and debate, it’s important to let the dust settle. About midweek, we’ll often suggest a non-verbal activity, an hour of quiet time in order to encourage people to incubate on everything they’ve heard and talked about, to quiet their minds and consider what questions or ideas are most interesting to explore and to shake off any groupthink. While some of the more interactive activities we engineer at a Sandpit or an Ideas Lab may be challenging for the introverts, this one is often a stretch for the extraverts. It’s not that easy for them to stop talking – I have an extraverted friend who says he doesn’t know what he’s thinking until he actually tells someone else – and the enforced quiet can be harder for an extravert to handle.


It seems that the methodology of science is moving toward group science. Maddison says the NSF is pushing big collaborative efforts and AVATOL is just one example. “The methods for judging academics are shifting more and more in favor collaboration, and far away from the lone researcher.” Maddison hopes this trend doesn’t go too far. “Institutions need to develop the capacity to accept and promote the lone researcher, as I truly think that there are some important forms of creativity and certain fields in which the lone researcher is (at least currently) necessary.” He’s concerned that the current environment is shifting research away from those disciplines, to the detriment of the broader fields.

Whether introverts like it or not, it seems they’ll need to develop the capacity to work in interactive groups. Maybe not always as intense as an Ideas Lab, but with the same fatigue that comes from the social requirements of collaboration.

While we all tend to lean one way or the other on the introvert/extravert axis, our position may fluctuate based on context. Many of us switch back and forth between introverted and extraverted behavior over the course of the day; everyone has their own preference. What’s different is at the end of the day, some people need to go off on their own to re-cooperate their energy. Others have gained so much energy from the interaction, that they want to keep going.

One thing we know we could do better at our Sandpits and Ideas Labs is to have a more substantial breaks during the day. Introverts are far more sensitive to social stimuli, and their brain CPU cycles can be so occupied with it that they have less processing power available to the topic at hand. Breaks allow introverts chance to create in the quiet world of their brains. Maddison points out that recharging, while important, is a secondary phenomenon. The primary aspect is the use of energy and processing power during the social interactions. “This causes the need for recharging in introverts, but also surely affects patterns of creativity – in both good and bad ways – as it is happening, which I think is the more important consideration for an Ideas Lab.”

We understand all too well – having a few introverts on the KI team – that introverts may expend more energy in situations that require more social interaction. We also know they are equally energized by interesting and exciting science, which will buoy them through the long days of a Sandpit or an Ideas Lab. But could we do more?

“Yes, you could do more,” says Maddison, “but it wasn’t so bad for an introvert.”

Know Further: Watch Susan Cain’s top ranking Ted Talk about the power of introverts. Not everyone agrees with her. How to interact with introverts. 23 signs you’re an introvert. And the big question: is it extrovert or extravert?