Why introverts aren't participating in your retrospectives

Published February 14, 2017 by David Horowitz

Introverts and extroverts. Both have valid insights to share, but in most retrospectives, extroverts dominate the conversation.

What can you do to increase the participation of the introverts on your team?

First, it's important to understand why introverts aren't engaged. Of course, there are plenty of reasons. But it ultimately comes down to two big problems:

  1. Discomfort with unstructured conversation
  2. The "speak fast / think fast" problem

REASON #1: Discomfort with unstructured conversation

So, you're an introvert. It's break time at a conference, and everyone is having casual conversations outside over coffee. You hate this part of the day. Why?

It's because the conversation is unstructured. What will you talk about with random person #12 that you meet? What will she say? What if it gets awkward? What will happen next?

Introverts like certainty around conversation. They like to know the rules. Over the next ten minutes, we will be discussing this. Structure provides comfort and decreases the stress of maintaining a conversation.

REASON #2: The "speak fast / think fast" problem

In any group conversation, extroverts dominate. They speak first, think later. And it all happens so quickly.

In contrast, introverts need time to think through their response. They only want to speak when they have a fully-formed thought.

If everyone is speaking fast and thinking fast, introverts never have the opportunity to think slow and speak slow.

how to create a introvert-friendly retrospective

So, what can you do, as a retrospective facilitator, to help encourage the participation of your introverts?

It's actually quite simple. You use retrospective facilitation techniques.

To show why, let's use a simple example.

Suppose everyone walks into the retrospective room and sits down. As the facilitator, you say, "Okay everyone, what's the #1 problem you're facing right now? Who wants to go first?" What's going to happen? Inevitably, your extroverts will speak up. They will automatically dominate the conversation, giving no opportunity for your introverts to contribute.

Now imagine, as the facilitator, you say, "Okay everyone, we're going to take the next 10 minutes to think to ourselves. What's the #1 problem you're facing right now? When you think of something, write it down on a sticky note."

See the difference? By taking this approach, you're giving your introverts structure. You're telling them exactly what to expect. That solves problem #1 (unstructured conversation). You're also giving them time to think before speaking with the group. That solves problem #2 (think fast / speak fast).

Of course, facilitation doesn't stop with "write things down on sticky notes." There's much more to it. But active facilitation is critical to creating the safe space your introverts need to participate fully.


Don't forget -- just because someone isn't speaking up doesn't mean they don't have valuable insights to share. More often than not, they do. And it's agile facilitation techniques that can help draw them out.

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