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  • Clare Burlingham

The power of "quiet"

Talking with a client recently about different personalities working together and the challenges this can bring, I was reminded of a book I came across 12 months ago.

Admittedly I’m late to the party as it was published in 2012, but its central theme really resonated with me. I’d even go so far as to say some of the insights I learnt have begun to change my life.

“Quiet” by Susan Cain is subtitled, “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”. Cain began her career as a Harvard trained lawyer. As she rose up the ranks of corporate law, she found that she was increasingly uncomfortable about her abilities to succeed. Quietly spoken, disliking confrontation and surrounded by people nothing like her, she began to think she had chosen the wrong career.

Until that is, when she realised that her personality traits could give her an advantage. She began to see that her softly spoken approach often led to more collaboration which frequently resulted in a better deal for both parties. Today, Cain understands that “her introversion is an essential part of who she is, and she embraces her reflective nature”. Accepting herself has silenced the voice saying she is too quiet to be effective, and given her confidence to achieve things she never thought she would.

Speaking to the millions of us that have introverted elements to our personalities, she shows how we can succeed in a world that often appears dominated by successful extroverts. And it is this epiphany that leads to the central tenet of the book:

Having an understanding of yourself and accepting what it is that makes you “you”, allows you to adopt strategies that will help you to confidently succeed in whatever you choose to do. In other words, you can get there, but you’ll do it your way.

Living with the extrovert ideal

The book sets out its context with a history lesson. It examines how western business has developed a culture which promotes what Cain calls “the extrovert ideal”. She depicts a world which I think many of us would recognise. From children that have just started at school, to adults navigating the world of work, many of the social cues that surround us reinforce the message that speaking up, being gregarious, having confidence, being assertive, are the “correct” ways for successful people to behave. As an old boss of mine used to say, the squeakiest wheel gets the oil.

But for those of us who don’t find this behaviour innate, we can spend a lifetime trying to force ourselves to be someone we’re not. A quest that is at best exhausting, and at worst, health threatening.

So how do you thrive in an environment that doesn’t suit your personality? Cain’s advice is simple and I found it revelatory. By building into your career, your life, your day, the outlets you need to deal with the aspects that challenge you. If you struggle being surrounded by people, then schedule into your diary, times and places that you can be alone to recharge. If you struggle with small talk with new people, arm yourself with planned, open questions, or learn some anecdotes you are comfortable to retell. The principle is that by understanding yourself, by building on your strengths to support your weaknesses, you can not only succeed, but succeed because of who you are, not in spite of it.

As Cain herself writes, if her readers only take away one insight from this book, it should be “a newfound sense of entitlement to be yourself”.

I thoroughly recommend taking yourself off to a quiet place to read this book, undisturbed. But then, I suppose I would, wouldn’t I?


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