Being an introvert – the active listener

Historically, it was reported that only 25% of the population was introvert. Focus has shifted in recent years and it is now believed the proportion of introvert/ extrovert is much closer to 50%.

Many people consciously or subconsciously smother introvert tendencies, particularly in western cultures where extroverts are still seen as the ‘preferred’ personality style.  Learning to be content with your personality, and to accept it is a huge part of becoming the happiest and the greatest version of you.

I feel very fortunate to have a father who is an introvert, and understands exactly what I, as another introvert, needs from a parent-offspring relationship. There is no-one, husband excepted, that I would rather talk to than my father. There are many reasons for this, but an important one would be my father’s natural style of active listening. It’s not just about the listening though, it’s about another person who is fascinated by the same things. We talk via Skype in bursts that can be anything from 5 mins to an hour, and neither of us is offended if we decide on any day to cut it short, and yet we frequently do find ourselves delving into topics that interest us for a considerable length of time.

For my father and I, people are often our focus, their reactions, their inexplicable acts, their emotions or lack of them. People, and every nuance of what makes them tick, fascinate us. We both also feel things very deeply, whether it is harsh words, or an act of kindness, and for this reason too much interaction with others can exhaust us, at which point we retreat into our hermit shell.

The hermit moment is where we shut down the active listing, and usually results in the person with us asking ‘Are you alright? Have I done something wrong? Why are you not talking to me?’,  which is amusing given both myself and my father rarely dominate the conversation. Sometimes we just feel the need to be quiet and to sink back inside our own heads. When we reach overload and switch off, people immediately miss our rapt and unobtrusive attention.

In social situations, I sit back and allow others to speak, interjecting only occasionally with an observation that is usually related to the other person and in particular their thoughts, feeling, or emotions that they often don’t even realise for themselves. I spend long amounts of time analysing conversations after trying to unpick every detail, and understand what it means. I feel a sense of genuine empathy with their struggles or delight in their successes, and feel their happiness or sadness like a reflection in myself. I think about how I would feel if their situation was happening to me, and then multiply this by how much I care about the person I am talking to—like an emotional amplifier. For a moment it is as if I do not exist, and I am pulled completely into their world.

Experiencing this emotional avalanche from interactions with other people is exhausting, which is why I head back to hermit-land, and it is one of the reasons I am fiercely protective of my solitude.

So being an active listener is obviously a great virtue, so what’s the downside?

Well, unfortunately we are very selective, and allow only a few carefully considered individuals to reach the coveted status of capturing our interest. Most people don’t, and we are not very good at pretending to be interested in what someone is saying if it does not interest at all. In fact we would probably come across at best as distant, or aloof. Others may even see out lack of interaction as just plain rude.

To us, false smiles, or worse pretending to be interested in someone, is the hight of hypocrisy, and to attempt it would make us feel a fake and a fraud. Conversely, there is nothing we like less than someone who shows less than genuine interest in us. We can spot such manoeuvres from a mile and instantly try to extract or distance ourselves from person or persons involved.

Being an introvert and a naturally active listener, can be a great asset in life. It is also something that can be transferred to a work situation as long as you are doing something that you love.

Practicing extending the circle, and allowing others into that select inner group is also one of my focuses, and especially important to an introvert who would naturally shy away from new experiences and people. We should always allow ourselves an opportunity to meet new people with new ideas, and I love the thought that there are new people I am yet to meet, who may turn out to be a great and lifelong friend.