Introverts in conflict: what we learned in 2022
Kevin Wood, The Myers-Briggs Company
7 min read
In celebration of World Introvert Day on January 2, we’re sharing information around Introversion, Extraversion, and conflict. The findings draw on recent workplace conflict research and new data to help practitioners, HR professionals, and people managers understand how those who prefer Introversion might typically respond to conflict.
Energy sources for Introversion and Extraversion
You’re probably familiar with the idea that people with an Introversion preference get their energy from their inner world. External stimulation drains them more quickly and their energy is replenished by time spent in their inner world. Perhaps you work with someone with an Introversion preference (they make up over half the population) and recognize this behavior, or you yourself may prefer Introversion.
When it comes to energy, the opposite is true of those preferring Extraversion. They’re more easily drained by quiet time and alone time, and instead gain energy from being around and interacting with other people.
(Note that for those preferring Introversion, ‘quiet time’ doesn’t necessarily mean inactive or switched off. The Introvert’s inner world is constantly active—sometimes too active—because there’s so much processing going on. This is why added input from the outside world can quickly become exhausting for them. Remember this point when we look at how those preferring Introversion approach conflict situations further down this article.)
A framework for conflict
Research by The Myers-Briggs Company into Conflict at Work (2022) used respondents’ TKI® and MBTI® assessment results to explore any relationships between preferred conflict-handling mode and personality type.
The TKI assessment uses assertiveness and cooperation to assess how a person approaches conflict. Think of assertiveness and cooperation as being on the two sides of a graph—assertiveness on the vertical axis and cooperation on the horizontal axis. Within this graph there are five conflict modes in the TKI model: Competing, Collaborating, Compromising, Accommodating, and Avoiding. Each mode differs on assertiveness and cooperativeness.
But here’s the interesting part: no single conflict-handling mode is the best approach for all situations. In fact, any of the five modes might be the most effective, depending on the situation.
The point of the framework isn’t to aim for an ultimate mode every time. It’s to help people move their conflict to a better place by understanding which conflict-handling mode makes sense at the time.
Some of the keys to better conflict management, using the TKI framework, include:
- Knowing that different approaches exist.
- Knowing which approaches are being used in a conflict situation.
- Identifying the most suitable modes and outcome for a given conflict.
- Realizing we do have choice in our approach to conflict.
Now that the basics of Extraversion, Introversion, and conflict-handling modes have been touched on, here’s where all those roads intersect so you can use this knowledge to benefit your people and teams.
TKI® modes and MBTI® personality type
When it comes to Extraversion and Introversion preferences and conflict modes, our research finds:
- Compared to Introversion types, Extraverted types have a higher opinion of their own ability to manage conflict. They saw themselves as significantly better at managing conflict than Introverted types saw themselves at managing conflict.
- Introverted types were more likely to feel demotivated or discouraged by conflict than Extraverted types.
- 18% of Introversion types were discouraged or demotivated by conflict—but only 7% of Extraversion types were.
What about the conflict modes favored by Introverts? Is there a theme or pattern?
Previous studies (cited in our research) have found that people with a preference for Introversion scored significantly higher on the Avoiding conflict-handling mode, or were significantly more likely to use the Avoiding style, than Extraverted types.
This relationship was also found in our 2022 research (though it wasn’t strong enough to be significant).
Given this new study, we looked at the data we had from over 56,000 people around the world who had taken the official MBTI personality assessment and the TKI assessment and knew their most frequently used conflict-handling mode.
How do Introverts handle conflict?
Research from The Myers-Briggs Company’s database revealed a clear pattern about those preferring Introversion and their default conflict-handling mode:
Introverted types prefer Avoiding
- Across the eight Introverted types from the MBTI assessment, Avoiding was the highest scoring mode for five of them: ISTJ, ISFJ, ISTP, ISFP, and INTP.
- For the remaining three Introverted types—INFJ, INTJ, and INFP—Avoiding was the second highest-scoring mode.
This means that all eight Introversion types listed Avoiding as their first or second most-used conflict mode.
How does this compare to those who prefer Extraversion?
According to our data, only three Extraverted types had Avoiding in their top two modes. And none of them had it as their number one mode.
Basically, Introverted types were nearly three times more likely than Extraverted types to have Avoiding as one of their top two conflict modes.
Given the above information, you’re probably wondering why the Avoiding conflict-handling mode is favored so much by those preferring Introversion?
To answer that, let’s look at what we know about Introversion.
The data suggests that the Introverts in your team or workplace often don’t see conflict positively. They’re more likely to feel demotivated and discouraged by it than Extraversion types.
In terms of teamwork, conflict avoidance could have an impact on team morale and performance (see this blog on why healthy conflict is vital for team performance).
And remember that even though conflict often has a negative reputation, it’s really just about two people or parties having different ideas. And diversity of ideas isn’t a bad thing. If your organization and your leadership is inclusive, diversity of thought is incredibly powerful and beneficial.
So, what’s the best way to work with those preferring Introversion when there are disagreements?
If you really want to make conflict management more productive when it Introverts are involved, understanding a little more about what happens to Introverts in those situations should help.
(It’s also worth noting that the Avoiding conflict-handling mode isn’t inherently bad or wrong. Sometimes, Avoiding is the best choice in a situation. But, as a conflict-handling mode, it has less to offer than other modes because the issue or disagreement doesn’t progress.)
The physiology of Introversion
Differences in cortisol levels, cortical arousal, and dopamine in our bodies can present themselves as behaviors associated with Introversion and Extraversion. It’s often about whether or not a person is already stimulated or needs to go seeking it. Read more about how people with preferences for introversion handle conflict in this post by Alex Eggington, Consultant at The Myers-Briggs Company.
The bottom line is those preferring Introversion need time to think. And they don’t need much external input to stimulate them.
Here’s what happens to Introverted types during a conflict: Chances are the person preferring Introversion will quickly become overstimulated. They won’t be able to contribute—not to their satisfaction—because they won’t be able to form their thoughts fully.
Introverted types need time and space. This is a defining quality of Introversion: taking time to process thoughts. Without that time, Introverts can’t be their authentic selves because they can’t express what they really think.
And, in a conflict situation, that sort of time often isn’t available. Conflict can happen there and then, in the moment.
If we add in that, generally, conflict is resolved by using extraverted behaviors—challenging others, interrupting, asserting—then it’s not surprising that many Introverts defer to the Avoiding conflict-handling mode.
The ups and downs of Avoiding
One upside to delaying or deferring conflict is that, with a little space and perspective, the issue has the heat taken out of it. It becomes easier to ‘let it go’—a bit like counting to 10 in an argument. It’s the same idea here.
Also, with more time, there’s a higher likelihood of adopting different perspectives instead of just fighting for your own perspective (which again reduces the intensity of a conflict).
These may well be an Introvert’s strengths when it comes to conflict management which others can learn from. Not everything has to be contested right away.
But this leads us to the downside of Avoiding:
Avoiding doesn’t resolve anything.
It leaves things as they are. This might be OK for the person who’s decided to ‘let it go,’ but what about the other person or party? And what if the issue needs to be resolved?
Unless the issue can be completely ignored with no consequence, it’s better if both parties engage. Even if the outcome is the same (i.e., both sides agree to ‘let it go’), it’s a healthier type of outcome because both have invested time in the issue and acknowledged each other’s interests.
By participating, a person shows that they care what the other person thinks and feels. It shows both parties respect each other’s opinion and perspective.
Conflict tips for Introverted types and people who work with them
Here are a few points to think about when managing conflict that involves those preferring Introversion:
- Extraverted? Don’t scapegoat Introverted types who ‘avoid’ conflict. Instead, try to understand what it feels like for them and help create an environment where they can contribute on their terms. In addition, give them space and time if they need it and make an agreement to come back to the subject later.
- Introverted? Let the other party know where you’re at—saying nothing looks like you don’t care. In addition, it’s OK to ask for time to think about the problem and come back to it.
- Managers and mediators: create the space for Introverted types to express themselves with authenticity. This could mean:
- Allowing for contributions in writing.
- Taking breaks to create time for people to think things through instead of talking it through.
- Finding ways to reduce stress, which might be heightened in these situations for Introverts.
- Creating small groups or one-on-one discussions instead of trying to resolve conflict in large group discussions.