Frosty the Snowman and the Tasmanian Devil were two fictitious characters that pervaded my childhood like some other characters did. I liked and probably mirrored the Tasmanian Devil’s appetite, energy level and personality. Frosty the Snowman was just a snowman that came to life and then ran around the town with the kids. Frosty, at least in my childhood, was motionless and lifeless until they put a silk hat on him and he came to life. The “Taz” was an outgoing, grunting, growling active animal rumored in part to have been based on Errol Flynn. For purposes of listening, I am going to call Frosty an introvert and Taz an extrovert. If you want to learn how to listen better, you have to know whether you are dealing with Frosty or Taz in your conversation because they require completely different sets of listening skills.
When did you first hear those terms: introvert and extrovert? When and where were you first labeled an introvert or an extrovert? Take your time and try to recall it. It is one of those early on labels that gets applied to each and every one of us. I was a Taz so I got the label of extrovert very early – I want to say it was in Pittsburgh and I was in 2nd grade at Atlantic Avenue Elementary School. It has since been torn down. Mrs. Clauson, my second grade teacher, even washed my mouth out with soap once because at the age of 6 I heard a rhyme from a fellow pupil and I wouldn’t tell her what he said. She finally demanded I tell the whole class and it was a silly rhyme: “Tra La La Boomsiay, I took your pants away; while you were standing there, I took your underwear.” I don’t really know what it means to this day-just a stupid rhyme passed among classmates, but the minute I said “underwear” she hauled me off to the lavatory and made me put soap in my mouth. One easy extrovert test: If you have ever had your mouth washed out with soap, you are an extrovert. On my next report card I got a 3 on a scale of 1-3 on self discipline – the worst you could get – and she wrote, “talks too much” in the comments. My parents had to sign that. Straight A’s and a 3. I became a lawyer, go figure.
In my youth, pretty much all of my friends were extroverts and we avoided introverts. There were plenty of both. We just didn’t understand why those introverts had nothing to say. They just sat there, staring at the blackboard or at us. And to be honest, I think we kind of shunned them and maybe even made fun of them. Some of them were so shy they didn’t even respond when they were called upon by teachers. They had nothing to say, so why bother? Introverts seemed to hang out with each other or just be alone together and that was just fine with us extroverts. So, we didn’t talk to each other and didn’t listen to each other. How could we when they refused to talk?
It wasn’t as if I reflected on this back then as I am now, but I was forced to when I was 28 years old. Fast forward 22 years or so from 2nd grade to 28 years old and I was about to become the General Manager of Union Pacific ExpressAir, a subsidiary of Union Pacific Railroad, which was headquartered in St. Louis. At 28 I was going to be the youngest employee and in charge. And so the Railroad figured they would send me to leadership school. I was sent to The Center for Creative Leadership which had a week long session scheduled for me at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I had to take a battery of tests before I went and then I spent a week in a variety of sessions to teach me to “lead.” At the end of the week, you were analyzed on a comprehensive basis, including peer reviews from attendees from the other companies and a boatload of psychologists and organizational behavior scientists. What do you think my biggest leadership shortfall was? Surprise! All the experts agreed that I discriminated against introverts.
One of the introverted members of my peer group wrote a long essay about me and then confronted me in person in front of the psychologists saying he could tell I didn’t like him and that I never listened to him. I countered, getting animated, almost “Taz like,” and I said, “Mike (of course, I don’t remember his actual name), we were in survival exercises on the moon, we were trying to solve a puzzle, we were trying to decide who to put on a rocket ship to send to Mars to start a new world – all these challenges – and you said NOTHING!” Mike looked at me bewildered and like I was an idiot and said, “You never asked.” Well, that was it. I thought he was crazy and he thought I was nuts. We sat and stared at each other for awhile and I finally said I was sorry. I had no idea. I don’t remember him apologizing, but I would have had to ask for that I guess.
But that lesson, that lesson in listening and in leadership, has stayed with me. And here is one of the most important listening skills you need to develop. You need to know whether you are sitting across from the Taz or Frosty. If you aren’t communicating well with Taz, you aren’t listening. If you aren’t communicating well with Frosty, you aren’t asking. Listening to an introvert doesn’t mean waiting for them to say something. They might not. You need to engage them by asking questions and then more questions. And here is the risk for a leader that fails to ask an introvert. There are studies that show they are more intelligent. I will settle for they are just as intelligent and may see things in different ways. It is a form of diversity in team building to have both introverts and extroverts on a project, team or in a meeting. But you have to ask them to “listen” to them. One other trait of introverts? They tend to be great listeners. They aren’t focusing on what to say next – they are listening.
If you are following along in my listening series, you should have already read, “The Only Resolution You Need for 2015,” “To Listen Well is To Be Like Water,” and “Love Song Lyrics and Listening Skills.” All posts are under my profile on LinkedIn. This essay is the fourth in a planned series of 20 essays on listening.