Yesterday was the first day of my Pre-Service Orientation for AmeriCorps VISTA. This training basically takes all the VISTAs from a particular region (whose projects and locations vary widely) and dumps them in a hotel together for 3 days, then asks them to discuss, team-build, and network through their training. Most of us won’t ever see each other again after this week. We’ve all been asked to stay overnight at the hotel, even if we live close enough to drive, and have been assigned a random roommate. As an introvert, this is somewhat like hell for me. Because I’m so uncomfortable, I’m sure I’m not getting as much out of this training as I could be, and in the spirit of wanting to help others around me make trainings and things not only more pleasurable but also more effective, here are some ideas about how to make your large group events effective for both introverts and extroverts.
So first and foremost it’s important to be flexible. This means that you could work in times that an individual can be alone and recharge their introvert batteries, or it means being able to accept multiple styles of listening and learning, or it means accepting that not everyone will participate in every activity. Each of these things is ok. Oftentimes trainings like to pack a lot in, and one of the things they pack in is people. Breaks tend to be short. This means there isn’t enough time for people to disperse, and there isn’t enough space to be alone. You can go a little stir crazy. People who are really introverted cannot handle a full eight hours talking and sitting in close proximity with others, particularly strangers. Trust me: we get cranky and unhappy. Incorporating longer breaks into the day, or even just having more space available for introvert hideaways makes a big difference (note to anyone who happens to design conference centers: nooks and crannies are the best).
In addition to this, having a flexible policy about little things like bathroom and water breaks so that people can bow out briefly is awesome. This means that individuals can manage their own need for space.
Now not all of these things can be done at all times: sometimes you have a lot to get done, or no extra space. What to do then? Well being flexible about how buddy/buddy everyone has to get can be good. Letting people doodle or fidget is a good way to get out that anxiety. And if none of that works? If you absolutely need socializing for what you’re about to do? I can’t speak for all introverts, but I know I’m far more willing to put up with the discomfort and exhaustion of it if I have a reason. Telling us why we’re being asked to socialize and what we’ll get out of it makes a big difference. Asking us to introduce ourselves to a room of people we’ll never meet again sounds to us like a sadist has our name on some sort of horrible list. Telling us we’re practicing a particular skill (like public speaking) or that these people may provide specific kinds of support for us later in our time makes us far more willing to put the effort in and to really want to develop relationships. To this end, forcing socialization, team-building, or group games because you think everybody likes it is uncool. Don’t force people to get to know each other unless they want to. Make the social events optional. It will be ok. Everyone will get by.
Finally, allow for a variety of methods of participation. Talking can be really overrated for some people. One of the best conferences I ever attended, and the one in which I participated the most heavily was one at which I almost never actually spoke aloud to others. Instead, there was a tweetwall, and I actively participated through my phone, asking questions, responding to others, and simply adding my thoughts. I got a great deal of information, felt challenged, and truly felt engaged. Providing alternative options that allow for writing, drawing, tweeting, or whatever else floats your boat gets everyone more content and engagement in the long run.
So please, trainers, Con organizers, businesses, and other people trying to get large groups of people together, keep these suggestions in mind to make people like me feel much better about our experiences.