If you’re not a quiet or reserved person (maybe you’ve been called forthcoming, or even chatty), you likely interact often with someone who is quieter — a coworker, student, fellow church member, or friend. Our different personalities can complement each other and help us all stretch in constructive ways. They can also be challenging to navigate.
This is my advice for working with quieter people in workplaces, classrooms, or ministry settings. It is drawn from my own experience as someone who’s on the quiet side and from insights of people I know. It’s in no way definitive, but I hope it is thought-provoking, especially if you’re teaching or supervising others.
My primary recommendation is to respect and get to know individuals instead of making assumptions about them. People are quiet for many different reasons: personality, culture, past experience, and current environment. And everyone is on a spectrum of extroverted to introverted and behaves differently in different situations. (Some introverts can be quite loud!) That said, here are some general principles to consider as you work with quiet people.
Build a Relationship
If possible, make time to meet one-on-one with the quiet person. Find out what forms of communication they prefer and what the work or class environment is like for them. Ask questions about their life and what they think. And listen. Opening up and forming relationships can be tiring and slow for quiet people, and they might not make the effort unless they know you are trustworthy and truly care about them. Even if you don’t have much chance to talk individually and the other person is not very vocal, pay attention to what they’re communicating in other ways, especially through the work they do. Intentionally affirm their efforts and ideas.
Create a Welcoming Environment
Try to think about how comfortable different people will be in the setting you’re using. Some of us naturally quiet people are also highly sensitive (Susan Cain’s book Quiet was revelatory for me on this topic). This means we get easily overwhelmed by stimulation and may need more personal space and alone time than most people. An environment with lots of background noise, clutter, and a feeling of being rushed can cause sensitive people to pull back. If you can’t change the environment, at least be sympathetic to extra challenges it may create for certain people.
Don’t Be Afraid of Silence
I lead a small group in my church, and I’ve told the members several times that I’m not afraid of silence. If I ask a question and no one responds immediately, I’ll wait to let them process. Educational studies have shown that people often take at least three to six seconds to generate an answer to a question. Introverts tend to be methodical processors, and they often want to formulate a thoughtful response before speaking. Silence is uncomfortable for many people (after my small group discussion ends, the host immediately turns on music to escape the quiet), but it gets easier with practice.
After all that processing and working up the courage to speak, nothing shuts me down faster than being interrupted. Some people were raised in environments where you have to talk over others to be heard, but for others interrupting seems rude and even hurtful. Especially if you’re a leader, you need to be aware that a climate of interruption will close out a lot of people. If someone starts speaking and it inspires you with a bright idea that you want to verbally process, great — but hang on. You’ll get your chance. Hear the person out and honor their contribution. You may be surprised by what you hear.
Allow Time for Preparation
Opening space within a discussion is good, but it’s often even better to let people formulate their thoughts ahead of time. Consider giving all participants a list of discussion items or questions days in advance. If you’re discussing a book, it might already include lists of questions, so you can direct participants to the ones you think are helpful. One method to ensure that all members of a group verbally participate is to ask them to come with a written response and then go around the room giving each a chance to share. You can also take time in a class or meeting for people to reflect and write individually before discussing. I don’t recommend putting quiet people on the spot, but letting them know what to expect and offering the time they need can help them feel like they’re on more equal footing with the talkative people.
Break into Smaller Groups
Generally the more people there are, the less likely I am to speak up. If you’re leading a class, a meeting, or any group of at least ten people, try to create time for discussion in groups of two to four. Give specific topics or objectives and a time limit, though don’t make it rushed. You can then ask for one member from each group to volunteer to share with the whole room, which may open space for quieter people. But again, be careful about forcing individuals to talk. The goal is to remove obstacles and help people feel welcome so they can take the risk to speak up when they have something to contribute.
I hope these recommendations are useful in your work and ministry contexts. Even more, I encourage you to appreciate the quiet people in your life and to ask them about their own experiences and advice. We quiet people need those of you who are extroverted, talkative, outgoing, and loud. We need you to lead, advocate for, befriend, and challenge us. And you need us to do the same for you. It just might be at a lower volume.