Shall we Aim for 'Personality Balanced' Learning Events?

October 27, 2020 by Janez Šušteršič

When I started working with CEF my teaching experience was limited to the traditional ex-cathedra university setting (which, as I realized much later, may be one of the reasons why I got bored with it). So, naturally, I was blown away and challenged by the 'CEF approach', which is based on collaborative and social learning, interaction and engagement of participants. In my head I had to make the same transformation that CEF has achieved in practice over the last few years. I appreciate the merits of the 'CEF approach' today and I could write another blog praising it, but that would add little value. So, this blog is about what I find to be an important limitation of such a learning approach.

Here is the problem, in a nutshell – if we agree that people learn better when they feel good, and when they exchange and interact with others, what happens if the methods and teasers we use to make people open up, communicate and interact, make some of them feel uncomfortable? Or even annoyed? Of course, such people will learn less and not more – at least until they've 'warmed up' in their own way.

To give a graphic example, with no pun intended: there are people (like me, obviously) who don't like to be forced into direct interaction with strangers first thing in the morning and about something not even connected to the topic of the workshop. If they knew the day would start by sharing their favourite food or holiday destination with strangers, they would have been intentionally late. But they didn't, so their day started on the wrong foot.

The common denominator of people who feel like this is that they most probably share the personality trait of introversion. Here is the same problem, albeit phrased differently – with most modern teaching and learning methods, including 'social learning' being better suited for extroverts, how do we make sure that introverts too enjoy our events and learn as much?

In the remainder of the blog I will share some tips and links which you may consult if interested in making this problem into a challenge for yourself as a learning event facilitator, designer or instructor. But first I feel some clarifications about introverts are needed.

@ Unsplash


What you need to understand about introverts

Not as much as the recent hype in blogs would lead you to believe, whereby it is suggested that introverts are 'oh so very special and somehow better'. But here's one that explains the essence in six cute and unpretentious pictures.

So, basically, it is about how one's brain reacts to stimulus, how quickly it gets tired from even a good thing, and what it needs to restore it back to the functioning mode. It is not about disliking interaction with other people or not being able to do it in a good way, and not even about understanding why it is important (for the purpose of learning, in this case).

With this in mind, my message here is not that introverts need different types of learning events or that collaborative and social learning will not work for them. It is merely about how to make learning events easier and more beneficial to them as well.

So now, let's move to the tips. I am aware that most tips were written with face-to-face events in mind, but with a measure of creativity, at least some of them may also be used for online events. For the rest, make a mental note to revisit them once the pandemic is over.

Making learning interaction easier

This group of tips tries to address the 'think before you speak' pattern of introverts. This is not to suggest that other people don't think – but introverts take longer to think, because, before they 'make an intervention' to a group of largely unfamiliar people, they need to make sure that they have something clever and relevant to say, and also think about how best to say it. (And it doesn't help to tell them there are no stupid questions or comments; introverts tend to judge themselves harsher than other people judge them, including on the level of stupidity of what they just meant to say.)

Of course, this means that by the time they have made up their minds, the discussion will likely have already turned to something else, or have been captured by some other more talkative people, or the time for discussion will already be over. So, the introverts will leave the session with a bad feeling that they did after all have something to say, but couldn't.

Here are some tips copied from internet [with comments based on my own experience]:

  • Preparation: When possible, provide participants with materials prior to the class for people to review. When introverts have time to prepare before a training session, they are more likely to feel comfortable participating. This pre-course prep has the added advantage of enabling topics to be covered more in-depth because learners all have at least a basic understanding at the outset. [In the CEF context, this could mean providing slides and materials for participants in the OLC before rather than after or during an event. ]
  • Offer notice prior to group participation, introductions, and Q&A sessions so introverts can consider their questions or statements. [For example, explain at the end of Day 1 – or Webinar 1 – that on Day 2 participants will be asked to share their experience and about what exactly, or explain what they will be working on in groups.]
  • Group work: Create smaller groups of two or three rather than five or more (quiet learners are more likely to contribute when groups are smaller). Allow attendees to play an observer role, if they choose, in group environments. One option is to allow participants to choose whether to work in groups or individually. Give the introverts privacy by letting them keep the results of their work private. [In the CEF context, not all of these may be applicable, but random group size could, as well as scheduling enough time for group work, so that those who do not engage immediately have enough time to 'warm up'.]
  • Feedback/discussion: Allow written dialogue and interaction, which now work well with computers, cell phones, the internet and social media. Also, allowing for one-on-one sessions with instructors during breaks or before or after class allows more quiet learners to ask questions privately. [In the CEF context, the practice of writing questions on 'post-its' and then being read by a facilitator is apt. Another option is to look out for people who seem like they want to say something but don't, and encourage them – of course not as first speakers – or approach them during the break. Another possibility is to start the next session by asking whether anyone would still like to add something 'really important' to the discussion from the previous session.]
  • Classroom setup: Create a low boundary on the perimeter of an experience (e.g., demo areas, theater presentations) where attendees can observe and listen without feeling obliged to fully participate. [In the CEF context, think about how sitting at a table with four unknown people creates some social pressure. This setup is best for group work and interactive sessions, but not necessary for sessions that are based on lectures/presentations.]
  • Evaluation: Instead of asking for session feedback forms at the end of the seminar, allow attendees the option to fill out their survey at a later time. Extroverts will often submit their feedback right away, but introverts prefer to have time to process their response. [In the CEF context, you can of course do both, i.e. handout the survey immediately at the end of the event and also leave the link open for a few days. If it is true that extroverts are quicker with their responses, and that they like events based on social learning better than introverts, the feedback you get immediately after the event may be biased upwards.]
  • Balancing: Create a balanced flow between social and reflective activities for classroom training. Activities that move learners in and out of their comfort zones – from the more social activities to contemplative solo reflection – are ideal. This combination helps individual learners get the rewards from each, as well as offering all personalities a chance to ‘energize' in the style that helps them learn best. [I know this tip is a bit general, but combining more traditional lectures with interactive activities throughout the workshop agenda would be a case in point.]

Making social interaction and networking easier

The previous set of tips was about what happens in sessions, whilst this one is about coffee breaks, lunches, dinners and social events. A large part of the trick is to allow introverts opportunites for downtime (i.e. short periods to relax on their own during the event) to preserve their social energy for when it really matters, either for them or for the learning objectives of the event.  

  • Plan for safe spaces where participants can decompress and relax. Offer places to unwind, and clear opportunities to take advantage of them. Regular breaks provide time to reflect and recharge. Spaces with dim lights and comfortable seating are ideal for quiet contemplation or one-on-one conversations. [The CEF lobby is a great example of a comfortable space. There is enough distance between chairs to be able to pretend you are actually not sitting together with anyone else if you don't feel like doing so. But having the public computers positioned so that every passer-by can see the screen is not such a good idea.]
  • Set out puzzles, board games, trivia games, etc. in communal areas for attendees to work on between activities and sessions. People can interact at their own speed, and don’t have to converse if they don’t want to. Small talk and icebreaker games are valuable but can be challenging for introverts; consider also creating opportunities for shared experiences. [I particularly like this one. Many times I have started good conversations by speaking about something in the room, e.g. a painting, or the funky decor. This kind of interaction happens more often at social events – for example going for a walk around town – rather than at pure networking events where people are supposed to just sit or stand together and talk. So, having some puzzles in the common space, which you can try and at the same use as an 'excuse' to start a conversation, seems like a great idea. It is so much easier to start talking about 'something' rather than 'someone' and especially so if this someone is supposed to be yourself.]
  • Provide white space in the agenda, or unscheduled evenings, that give attendees personal time to use as they please. [Or, for example, buffet lunches/dinners are great, because they give you a chance to eat quickly – or be late – and so make up some time for yourself and 'disappear' before the next session starts. Or, explicitly allowing participants to bring coffee into the session room hints that you can 'disappear' during the coffee break because you will still get to drink it. Two hour breaks before evening events are also helpful. And of course, indicate in the agenda or otherwise that some scheduled 'socializing' or 'networking' is not obligatory. ]



The tips offered here were compiled from the following sites:

There are many other sites, of course, but not all that glitters there is golden. Many offer tips for introverts on how to survive and even enjoy networking, but these are not so relevant for event organizers. One story which could help facilitators who are introverts themselves (and I could name a few) is this.

Good luck with all these ideas and tips, and in making the CEF even better!

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