The genius of Jennifer Kahnweiler’s new book, The Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together, is that she doesn’t throw out facile strategies for meeting across the personality divide. Although her book is based on the ABCs of getting past personality differences, the concepts she spells out require us to think like grown-ups.
Kahnweiler, a leadership consultant and global speaker whose previous books are The Introverted Leader: Building on Your Quiet Strength and Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference, is an extrovert herself, but has focused her career on helping introverts reach their leadership potential. She wrote this book, she says, because everywhere she spoke, introverts and extroverts begged for help communicating with each other.
The Genius of Opposites uses stories of introvert-extrovert professional partnerships—the good and the fraught, the famous and the not—to illustrate ways mixed-personality teams can achieve success with her ABCs:
Kahnweiler and I had a little extrovert-introvert confab of our own, when we spoke on the phone the other day about her new book. (And at one point, I thought the call had dropped—Hello? Hello? Are you still there?—but actually, as a thoughtful extrovert, she had just fallen silent in case I needed a turn to talk.) Here are some highlights of our conversation:
Q: Do you think introvert/extrovert problems in business manifest themselves in ways that people might not recognize as being at the root of an issue?
A: Yes, I do think that. People do get very confused and concerned about something not clicking—“Were not reading each other. I’m saying this, you’re not getting it.” But they're not sure why.
This was illuminating to me, early in my career. I share one story about this in the book. I thought I was Miss Self Aware. I knew about communication. But until I was really knocked over the head with it, I didn’t really know that it could be a major source of stress.
Q: One thing I like about this book is that it doesn’t offer easy solutions, and it’s as much about understanding ourselves as other people. Can you talk about that?
A: Many of us think, ‘How do I work with an extrovert or introvert?’ But it starts with you. It starts with turning the flashlight on ourselves, asking ourselves “Where are my hidden biases?” Maybe I had an extroverted mother who was difficult, for example, and I’m reacting to that. Maybe I have expectations and unexamined biases that get in the way. So by just taking a look at ourselves, we can open ourselves up to learning from the other person.
Q: And will that make it easier to “Accept the alien”?
A: Yes. Looking at the gifts the other person has requires putting aside judgment, bracketing it, putting it in parentheses. It’s about reframing, accepting that you can’t change the other person and looking at what gifts they do have. You don’t want to spend your time trying to change someone else. That’s where awareness of how we’re wired is helpful. When you know that, acceptance is easier.
Q: We introverts talk a lot about ways we’re misunderstood. In what ways do you think introverts misunderstand extroverts?
A: Oh, there’s a bunch of things. First of all, introverts think extroverts don’t have any clear thinking, that when they talk, they’re all over the place. But they’re [extroverts] just releasing their energy, they get charged up that way. They are not just downloading, they need to talk.
Introverts also think, “Why do they need so much going on?” They think extroverts don’t have enough self-discipline to just be there and get work done. They have to have all this multitasking going on. Introverts judge that a lot. But extroverts like more stimulation and the juggling makes them energized and engaged. They get their work done, just in spurts.
And I have a story in the book about Dick and his wife and business partner Emily Axelrod. She was always coming in saying ‘we could do this, we could do that.’ Until she suddenly realized this was frustrating for Dick because he thought that meant they had to do all those things. But that wasn’t it—she was just tossing out ideas.
Q: And what do you mean "Bring on the Battles”? That sounds kind of negative. Isn’t the point to not fight about stuff?
A: Bringing on the battles is really key because if you don’t talk about conflict, it doesn’t get better and you don’t produce results. If a team is not disagreeing, they’re not breaking new ground. I’m not saying the sparks have to fly all the time, but it happens. We spend so much time focused on the project and the tasks and what we have to do, we don’t think about how we do it. Suppose you’re sending emails every day with updates and you want to meet all that time and that’s just not working for me. But instead of telling you, I internalize it. Nothing gets better.
And it doesn’t necessarily have to be tense. I had an introverted partner I did trainings with. Once after a break, I came back to the table and he had put a piece of masking tape down the middle of the table because my stuff was all over the place. He was setting a boundary. After that, we could laugh about it. That was so key.
Q: Do you think introvert-extrovert partnerships have more potential for genius than like pairings?
A: I don’t have any research to back that up, but I can tell you that if you stick with it for the long haul, or even in the time frame you have, if you’re committed, the possibilities for genius could be greater because you’re bringing in very diverse viewpoints.
Siskel and Ebert are a great example. When you see the off-camera videos of how they were almost at each other physically...it was such an extreme love-hate relationship. But people tuned in for 13 years because they put on a great show with such polarities.
One really positive development I’m seeing is that the rubric of diversity in the workplace is being used with introversion/extroversion, as one lens to look through. It’s not everything, of course, but it is something to consider.
The other key thing that I tried to get across in the book is the results: It's more than just about working through the differences, it's about results. If you don’t work through these thing, you don’t get the results. Not only do we lose out, but our organization misses out--tremendously.
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