Introversion and extroversion aren’t just personality traits – there’s a fundamental difference in our physiology that leads to these different responses to social interaction. They also influence how we show up in and deal with conflict.
This week we’ll look at the physiology and next week we’ll go over tips for introverts to handle conflict.
Recently, I did a webinar with CharityVillage on how to handle conflict and approach it constructively and a lot of the questions that came up at the end were related to tips for introverts.
Being an extravert myself (although I have many times when I prefer solitude or my own thoughts), I didn’t realize how much the presentation was focused on how someone preferring social interactions would approach conflict. I’m seeing how this shows up a lot in conflict resolution – where there is an expectation of a conversation or a social interaction to facilitate the resolution. So I had some digging to do to learn about how this impacted introverts.
I was really surprised at some of the information I found relating to the physiology of introverts so I thought I would adjust a few of these tips I planned on providing to better incorporate their unique perspective and strengths. While there are a number of suggestions in terms of how to best handle conflict or approach difficult conversations that could apply to any personality trait, in practice, these are going to be implemented differently based on these differences in physiology.
Needless to say, I learned a lot.
The first thing I wanted to know was how prevalent are introverts out there?
The first official random sample by the Myers-Briggs organization showed introverts made up 50.7% and extroverts 49.3% of the United States general population (1972-2002). Marti Olsen Laney in her book The Introvert Advantage estimates that 25% of the world is introverted.
I’m not going to get into the definitions of introversion or extraversion based on personality testing because that’s a whole other conversation as to its relevance and validity, but I do want to mention that being an introvert isn’t about being shy, not liking people, or experiencing social anxiety – common misconceptions about introverts.
People aren’t a combination of traits, they are a mosaic of reactions to and interactions with situations.Maria Konnikova
Introversion and extroversion is about where and how we derive our energy, and whether or not that is internal or external. My understanding is that we all fall somewhere on the continuum of extraversion and introversion, but we certainly may have a preference for one or the other. It’s not just a preference though, there’s actually physiology that plays a role in how these traits are expressed. Let me explain.
More than a personality trait
One of the main characteristics as written about by Hans Eysenck is the difference in baseline arousal level between introverts and extroverts. Extroverts may experience lower levels of cortical arousal (the activation of the reticular formation of the brain) which affects wakefulness, heart rate, and vigilance in monitoring external stimuli – basically our “aliveness”. So extroverts are more likely to look for it externally, such as with social interactions.
Introverts tend to have higher cortical arousal levels, meaning that they’re already operating at a level that will become overstimulated with external stimulus. This could involve loud noises and busy places, or having to engage in small talk. Higher arousal levels in introverts leads them to avoid stimuli which may lead to a further increase in arousal. As introverts may be subject to higher levels of stimulation, this can also increase their cortisol levels, leading to higher levels of experienced stress (Eysenck, 1979).
Jennifer Granneman, founder of the popular Introvert, Dear community, wrote about the differences in the way introverts and extroverts respond to dopamine. It’s not that one group has more dopamine than the other, but for introverts – a rush of dopamine can lead to overstimulation, whereas for extraverts it can be energizing. Dopamine also leads to more reward seeking behaviour, like when we win an argument, dopamine is released so we keep trying to push for our agenda.
Dopamine is also implicated in the processing of emotions, especially the regulation of the emotional response (Salgado-Pineda et. al, 2005), so the emotional component of conflict could also lead to this overstimulation in introverts.
Introverts benefit more from the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, it engages the ability to think deeply, reflect, and focus intensely on just one thing for a long period of time. Acetylcholine is released when the parasympathetic side of the nervous system is activated. This is also known as the “rest-and-digest” system or the PNS. When we engage this system, our body will conserve energy, and we withdraw from our environment. It’s not just about relaxation, it’s like we’re preparing for hibernation or storing away what we need for a later time (like our prehistoric ancestors would have needed to do in order to survive).
Extroverts are more responsive to the sympathetic nervous system (the SNS) – the opposite of the PNS. This is known as the stress response system or the “fight, flight, freeze, or please” responses. This side is about mobilization – not necessarily in terms of a movement response (like fight or flight) but more bringing up energy to respond and make a quick decision. The SNS also helps us to be more adventurous or risk taking, which could work for extraverts in terms of facing a conflict where they don’t know what will happen.
This isn’t to say that extroverts are better at handling conflict because of this physiological difference and introverts only want to hibernate. We all have times where the systems alternate in their activation. Everyone has an SNS and PNS and uses both. It just means that while extroverts seek out social interaction and benefit from the dopamine surge they may get in an argument or other kind of activation, for introverts, this could be way too much for their already overstimulated system.
Under stress, we are going to rely on our dominant system, so for introverts, that is more likely to slow down and analyze the situation, using more thoughts and internal dialogue, and requiring more space for processing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I can certainly think of times I’ve been in conflict where this approach would have been to my benefit.
So what do you do as an introvert dealing with conflict? In next week’s article we’ll look at this using a strengths based approach.
If you need support working through and preparing for a difficult conversation, conflict coaching can help.
Eysenck, M. W. (1979). Anxiety, learning, and memory: A reconceptualization. Journal of Research in Personality, 13(4), 363–385.
Laney, M. O. (2002). The introvert advantage: How to thrive in an extrovert world. New York: Workman Pub.
Salgado-Pineda, P., Delaveau, P., Blin, O., & Nieoullon, A. (2005). Dopaminergic contribution to the regulation of emotional perception. Clinical neuropharmacology, 28(5), 228-237.