The Quiet Power of Introverts

On Matt’s recommendation, i listened through Suzan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. To date, I’ve never read a book in which I felt so understood. If you are an introvert or have one in your life, this is a must read. Here’s an excerpt from the opening chapter:

I have seen firsthand how difficult it is for introverts to take stock of their own talents, and how powerful it is when finally they do. For more than ten years I trained people of all stripes—corporate lawyers and college students, hedge-fund managers and married couples—in negotiation skills. Of course, we covered the basics: how to prepare for a negotiation, when to make the first offer, and what to do when the other person says “take it or leave it.” But I also helped clients figure out their natural personalities and how to make the most of them.

My very first client was a young woman named Laura. She was a Wall Street lawyer, but a quiet and daydreamy one who dreaded the spotlight and disliked aggression. She had managed somehow to make it through the crucible of Harvard Law School—a place where classes are conducted in huge, gladiatorial amphitheaters, and where she once got so nervous that she threw up on the way to class. Now that she was in the real world, she wasn’t sure she could represent her clients as forcefully as they expected.

For the first three years on the job, Laura was so junior that she never had to test this premise. But one day the senior lawyer she’d been working with went on vacation, leaving her in charge of an important negotiation. The client was a South American manufacturing company that was about to default on a bank loan and hoped to renegotiate its terms; a syndicate of bankers that owned the endangered loan sat on the other side of the negotiating table.

Laura would have preferred to hide under said table, but she was accustomed to fighting such impulses. Gamely but nervously, she took her spot in the lead chair, flanked by her clients: general counsel on one side and senior financial officer on the other. These happened to be Laura’s favorite clients: gracious and soft-spoken, very different from the master-of-the-universe types her firm usually represented. In the past, Laura had taken the general counsel to a Yankees game and the financial officer shopping for a handbag for her sister. But now these cozy outings—just the kind of socializing Laura enjoyed—seemed a world away. Across the table sat nine disgruntled investment bankers in tailored suits and expensive shoes, accompanied by their lawyer, a square-jawed woman with a hearty manner. Clearly not the self-doubting type, this woman launched into an impressive speech on how Laura’s clients would be lucky simply to accept the bankers’ terms. It was, she said, a very magnanimous offer.

Everyone waited for Laura to reply, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. So she just sat there. Blinking. All eyes on her. Her clients shifting uneasily in their seats. Her thoughts running in a familiar loop: I’m too quiet for this kind of thing, too unassuming, too cerebral. She imagined the person who would be better equipped to save the day: someone bold, smooth, ready to pound the table. In middle school this person, unlike Laura, would have been called “outgoing,” the highest accolade her seventh-grade classmates knew, higher even than “pretty,” for a girl, or “athletic,” for a guy. Laura promised herself that she only had to make it through the day. Tomorrow she would go look for another career.

Then she remembered what I’d told her again and again: she was an introvert, and as such she had unique powers in negotiation—perhaps less obvious but no less formidable. She’d probably prepared more than everyone else. She had a quiet but firm speaking style. She rarely spoke without thinking. Being mild-mannered, she could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. And she tended to ask questions—lots of them—and actually listen to the answers, which, no matter what your personality, is crucial to strong negotiation.

So Laura finally started doing what came naturally.
“Let’s go back a step. What are your numbers based on?” she asked.
“What if we structured the loan this way, do you think it might work?”
“That way?”
“Some other way?”

At first her questions were tentative. She picked up steam as she went along, posing them more forcefully and making it clear that she’d done her homework and wouldn’t concede the facts. But she also stayed true to her own style, never raising her voice or losing her decorum. Every time the bankers made an assertion that seemed unbudgeable, Laura tried to be constructive. “Are you saying that’s the only way to go? What if we took a different approach?”

Eventually her simple queries shifted the mood in the room, just as the negotiation textbooks say they will. The bankers stopped speechifying and dominance-posing, activities for which Laura felt hopelessly ill-equipped, and they started having an actual conversation.

More discussion. Still no agreement. One of the bankers revved up again, throwing his papers down and storming out of the room. Laura ignored this display, mostly because she didn’t know what else to do. Later on someone told her that at that pivotal moment she’d played a good game of something called “negotiation jujitsu”; but she knew that she was just doing what you learn to do naturally as a quiet person in a loudmouth world.

Finally the two sides struck a deal. The bankers left the building, Laura’s favorite clients headed for the airport, and Laura went home, curled up with a book, and tried to forget the day’s tensions.

But the next morning, the lead lawyer for the bankers—the vigorous woman with the strong jaw—called to offer her a job. “I’ve never seen anyone so nice and so tough at the same time,” she said. And the day after that, the lead banker called Laura, asking if her law firm would represent his company in the future. “We need someone who can help us put deals together without letting ego get in the way,” he said.

By sticking to her own gentle way of doing things, Laura had reeled in new business for her firm and a job offer for herself. Raising her voice and pounding the table was unnecessary.

Today Laura understands that her introversion is an essential part of who she is, and she embraces her reflective nature. The loop inside her head that accused her of being too quiet and unassuming plays much less often. Laura knows that she can hold her own when she needs to.

Cain goes to explain the history of and science of introversion and also how extroversion became an ideal trait to Americans that is very thought provoking. I highly recommended it. You can check out the rest at Amazon and Audible: Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Crown/Archetype.