How those with Introversion preferences manage conflict

Written by Alex Eggington, Consultant at The Myers-Briggs Company. 8 min read

It’s widely established that those with preferences for Introversion and Extraversion will differ in their typical behaviour, and these differences can extend to each preference’s approach to conflict. 

Research looking at links between the TKI conflict assessment and MBTI preferences has shown that the most common preferred mode for Introversion types is “Avoiding”. This mode occurs when we try not to engage in a conflict issue with the other person. It sees conflict as an interruption or a disruption, diverting energy from the task and causing unnecessary stress or in other words “not now, I’ll come back to you tomorrow”. 

Before we dive into Introversion and conflict specifically, it’s worth exploring some of the physiological differences that have been established between those with Introversion vs Extraversion preferences, to help understand these differences in approach to conflict more intricately. 

Physiological differences between Introverted and Extraverted people

Eysenck (1979) established the link between personality and cortisol arousal which effects heartrate and vigilance in monitoring external stimuli; specifically that Extraverts experience lower levels of this arousal causing them to seek out stimuli, and that Introverts experience higher arousal levels putting them at risk of being overstimulated with external stimulus, thus seeking to avoid any further increase which may also contribute to higher levels of experienced stress. 

These physiological differences also extend to the way in which neurotransmitters are experienced by those with the different preferences. 

Namely, an increase in Dopamine can lead to overstimulation in Introverts, but is energising for Extraverts. As dopamine leads to more reward seeking behaviour, like winning an argument – we may have a tendency to keep pushing for our agenda if we find this energising. 

Another consideration is the role Dopamine plays in the regulation of our emotional response (Salgado Pineda et al, 2005), suggesting that the emotional component of conflict could contribute to overstimulation for those with Introversion preference. 

Finally, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which engages deep thinking, reflection and focus is found to be more beneficial for Introverts. It’s released when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system which extraverts are more responsive to. The evidence suggests that Extraverts tend to be more likely to respond to conflict by bringing up energy to respond and make a quick decision much like the “fight or flight response”; whereas Introverts may be more likely to withdraw.

In short, when it comes to conflict, Extraverts may tend to seek out interaction and even benefit from engaging in an argument; whereas for Introverts this could lead to overstimulation. 

Under stress, we will all rely on our dominant preferences and systems, meaning that for Introverts they may be more likely to slow down and analyse the situation – in that sense it is unsurprising that we may find those with introversion preferences report higher use of the “Avoiding” approach to conflict.

It’s important to emphasise however, that there is no single best way to handle conflict

When considering MBTI types as a whole, there are unique strengths and blind spots. And as such when it comes to typical conflict approaches of those preferring Introversion and Extraversion, there are costs and benefits to each. For those with preferences for Introversion, their effectiveness in handling conflict will come down to two factors: 

  1. knowing when it’s helpful to lean into their preferred mode of avoiding, and 
  2. to understand the skills involved in order to engage with it and other approaches effectively.

What are the potential risks of the Introverted approach to conflict? Where might “Avoiding” present issues?

In organisations, being professional means putting up with some irritations to accomplish tasks. 

It also means putting effort into building and maintaining relationships rather than letting them deteriorate. Avoiding as an approach to conflict, if overused, used in the wrong contexts, or managed badly can present issues such as:

When issues are unaddressed, they can cause work to be delayed, they may recur taking up more time and causing more frustration than if addressed earlier.

Degraded communication and decision making
People may walk on eggshells rather than speaking candidly and learning from one another. They may miss opportunities to provide input into issues, especially important ones. 

Others my feel you are neglecting their concerns and resent you avoiding by seeing it as evasive. Unresolved issues may build, and relationships deteriorate over time. Hostile stereotypes are allowed to develop and fester.

Reduced political influence
People may perceive you as unresponsive and not know what you stand for. You risk not getting enough of your own agenda out of situations, as others will default to making decisions without you or for you. 

In some situations, conflict is better approached by leaning into other, more active conflict-handling modes. Those with Introversion preferences would benefit from increasing their awareness around this tendency and when “Avoiding” is best avoided. The benefits include:

Establishing better work boundaries
For example, when appropriate engaging in more direct and assertive approaches to conflict to communicate workload negotiation or your opinion in important decisions.

Improving and growing their relationships at work
Engaging in healthy conflict aids in deepening trust and effective communication within pre-existing relationships. It provided opportunities for those around us to understand our thoughts and feelings more and serves to reduce unnecessary recurring conflict on the same issues in the future.

Avoiding the build up of stress and resentment to others
See above.

What are the benefits of the “Avoiding” approach to conflict?

Avoiding as a conflict approach can be incredibly effective in certain contexts. 

For example, when it comes to managing energy and stress effectively or where negative effects of escalating conflict can be avoided, the avoiding conflict-handling mode should be used. 

As many of you can recall, there will have been moments in your working lives where you engaged in conflict that was simply pointless and left you depleted afterwards. 

Contexts where the avoiding approach is appropriate and effective include:

  • Trivial issues
  • As a temporary step when tensions are high
  • To buy more time when information is needed
  • When you know you have no power/control
  • When there is someone else who can resolve this more effectively/politically
  • When the issue is a symptom of an underlying larger issue
  • When the issue is no longer important

Engaging in the avoiding approach to conflict in these above examples can have the benefits of reducing unnecessary stress, saving time, and allowing to for space to set up more favourable conditions. 

As such, when avoiding is underused, or where other approaches to the conflict are used instead, other risks are presented, all of which have adverse impact on our effectiveness when it comes to leadership and team behaviours. Some examples of this include:

  • You may be seen as opinionated or looking for a fight
  • Seen as overly involved in issues, increasing your own and others workload
  • Stop others from taking on opportunities for responsibility
  • Perceived by others as meddling

How can those with Introverted preference adapt to manage conflict more effectively?

1. Decide what’s important
Avoiding unimportant issues is an inevitable part of focussing energy and attention. If you can decide that is important, you will have a logical basis for deciding which issues to avoid. Be clear about your goals for a meeting, set joint goals if possible, which will reduce the number of irrelevant issues that come up, try to stick to those goals and be on the look our for signs that avoided issues have become important enough to address. 

2. Avoid without being evasive
Because avoiding neglects other peoples concerns, it can look like evading when the reason for it isn’t clear. It can lead to suspicions about your motives, such as you not feeling the other colleague is important. Ensure that you give your reason for avoiding, set a time to return to the issue, and use language that invites the other person to postpone the issue, reducing the impression that your avoiding is arbitrary.

3. Breaking the anger cycle – Avoid emotional conflicts and break the destructive anger cycle they create by managing your behaviour at key points:

  • Use your psychological boundaries by realising that you are responsible for your own emotions and find ways to control those automatic reactions to perceived insults.
  • Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, try not to draw conclusions that the other person is deliberately trying to hurt you or have another unflattering motive. You will be less likely to become angry in a conflict situation.
  • Discharge your anger safely with a trusted third party and discuss the issue with the other person only after you have regained a clearer perspective on the conflict issue.
  • Watch your connotations when discussing with the other person in a conflict and use more neutral language to avoid hurting them. 
  • Use humour to defuse tension, introduce a sense of comradeship and say things in an indirect manner without raising people’s defences

How can leaders ensure that conflict within their team is more inclusive of those with preferences for Introversion?

When we think about inclusive behaviours in the context of personality, the key is to increase our awareness and understanding of our own preferences and those of others we work alongside. 

Armed with this knowledge we can be more deliberate and effective in engaging in various exchanges, such as communication, team decision making and indeed how we manage and approach conflict.

Here are some hints and tips when it comes to including those with Introverted preference in conflict situations:

Consider the energy being projected into the discussion and who is doing it
Those with preferences for Extraversion may have a tendency to dominate the discussion by engaging in more direct and active conflict approaches. This may mean that those with an Introverted preference are less likely to have their perspectives heard – particularly if this argument or conflict is happening with all parties present in one room. 

With that in mind, try not to assume they don’t care
There can be a tendency for those avoiding conflict to appear as if they do not care about the outcome or the issue being discussed. This is not always the case, and for those with introversion preference it might be beneficial to ensure you ask them what they think/what their experience or perspective is. Especially in more intense and heated conflict scenarios where they may simply be preserving their own wellbeing by avoiding the external stimulation the conflict brings.

Be patient and allow yourself to postpone the discussion
For those with extraversion preferences, there can be a tendency to want to engage in the discussion of the issue or conflict quickly in order to come to a solution fast. This can feel somewhat stressful for those with introversion preferences who may become overstimulated by this and need space to think and reflect on how they would like to approach and position their argument. Here it can be helpful to support them by allowing time and postponing the discussion, especially ones that feel particularly heated and raise emotions within the relationships and the team.

Want to learn more? Download the World Introvert Day infographic