Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bigger Life - the sequel

In recent blog posts, we have been discussing personality types and communication styles. It has been an area of tremendous interest for me, for reasons I’ll explain soon, but I’ve also had conflicting thoughts about it, which is why I have been wanting to write a post about it for over a month but managed to tie myself in knots before even starting. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, I’ve decided to communicate my remaining thoughts on the matter, even if it takes us on a wild ramble.

I first came across personality type classifications in a training course I took at work many years ago. The model they used was the Myers-Briggs system, a rather elegant classification that used four ‘dichotomies’, each with two possible values, yielding a total of 16 personality types, represented by four letters, like ESTP, INTP, etc. (see HERE for details). I think I came out as an INTP at first, and the resulting profile described me fairly well. But after getting deeper into it, I decided to take the test again, and answering a couple questions differently made me come out an ESTP, and that profile didn’t seem too far off either. So that kinda diluted my enthusiasm for it. Also sixteen was way too many types to be able to remember and use in day-to-day life. But it had certainly aroused in me an interest in and desire to understand other people and how to work better with all kinds of people. Because back then – this is almost 20 years ago now – I used to find myself completely at sea when working with people, compared to which working with machinery and computers (as an engineer) was so much more predictable and comfortable. There were just so many people in my family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and so many instances, where their behavior would be completely mystifying.

Next I read an immensely entertaining but eye-opening book called “Personality Plus”, by Florence Littauer, recommended by a business book club I joined. This model consisted of just four types – Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic and Melancholy (the concept of ‘humors’ dating back to the ancient Greeks) but allowed the possibility of a primary and a secondary type. For the first time, I found a model that would explain the actions of most everybody I knew. For instance, (as I mentioned in recent comments), I typically like to filter & organize my thoughts and use as few words as possible to communicate them. So the aunt who talks first and thinks later used to drive me nuts. When I learnt that I was a Phlegmatic, and that Sanguines actually talk to organize their thoughts, I could finally allow her to be the way she was, without making her wrong. That overbearing cousin was a Choleric, with a strong bias for action and results, and little tolerance for feelings. And the brother-in-law’s chronic paralysis of analysis was merely the Melancholy’s desire for being precise and right taken to an extreme.

I can’t tell you the calm that came over me when such a big part of the world clicked into place like that. Moreover, I gained a great deal of validation in my own feelings and tendencies. I swelled with pride when Littauer listed the Phlegmatic’s assets: "the gift of mediation, uniting opposite forces; the ability to listen, while others have their say; the patience to put up with provokers; the determination to keep your head , while all around are losing theirs; the will to live in such a way that even enemies can’t find anything bad to say about you". Finally, someone gets me!

Over time, though, a creeping sense of stagnation overcame this calm, as I put myself into the prison of the static personality type. I convinced myself that, being a Phlegmatic, I was not cut out for leadership or bold actions, that I was condemned to being a loyal follower or supportive presence. It took a lot more reading and ongoing personal examination to understand that any limits I perceived were those I put on myself. So, even though I still recommend this book heartily (and study of this area in general), I am careful to add a caution that it should not be seen as a static label. So the concept of ‘color energies’ that I've recently learnt accomplishes that in an easy way.

There are doubtless many more models out there, but the proof of the pudding is in how easy they are to assimilate, remember and use. In my opinion, 16 (Meyers-Briggs) and 8 (Insights Discovery) are too many. I found 4 (DISC, humors) to be perfect – large enough to be comprehensive, small enough to remember and apply on the go. But I also found another model that goes one further and breaks it down into just two dimensions: Pace & Priority. That is, one can be Fast or Slow paced, and one can prioritize either People or Task. The combinations still yield four types, same as the DISC or humors system, but using just those two counts to get a read on a person is a snap. You could meet a complete stranger, and within a minute or two be able to assess how best to connect with him or her.

Now, over the years, I’ve invested a ton of my energy and time using these methods to tune up all my relationships, and I’ve been mystified (and occasionally frustrated) by people who have access to this same information but fail to use it. Again, this same model came to my aid. The overriding goal for Phlegmatics (or Steadys) is harmony; they want peace at any price – which explains why this is a big deal for me. However, each of the other three types has a different priority – action, fun or the truth.

I think the holy grail of personal growth (or at least one of the top few grails) is to be equally comfortable with all four communication styles, and to be able to effortlessly switch to the one most appropriate for the situation. For instance, as a Phlegmatic (“I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure”), I have worked hard on decision-making, and now I’m routinely in situations where I’m the most decisive person in the room. However, I know I still overpay for peace and prefer to lurk on the lower rungs of the assertiveness scale. So if all you Driver- and Influencer-types (like Faith) can share what makes you tick, I’d love to hear.




  1. Sree,
    I loved reading this post (though I must say, I missed the "wild ramble" part.) You really got me thinking.

    I first took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator when I was seventeen. My dad had been using it with his employees and he brought home copies for each of us to take. I can still remember my type which was ENPF. It came as no surprise that my brother and dad were polar opposites, ISTJ.

    Where I was Extraverted (E), they were Introverted (I), where I was Intuitive (N), they were real-world Sensing (S), where I was Feeling-oriented (F), they were Thinking-oriented (T), where I was Perceptive (P) and liked things undefined and open, they were Judgmental (J) and liked defined and buttoned up.

    What did come as a surprise was the degree to which I was an EFNP. Changing one or two answers had no effect on the final score. In all areas but one (Extraversion) I had maxed out.

    I'm not sure that we got the point of the exercise as it evolved to a discussion of how I should become more moderate, rather than a discussion of how we might better understand one-another.

    For years, I treated the test as definitional: it's just who I am. I was destined to be an emotional creative-type, but not a particularly clear thinker. I would be able rally people, but would have no idea as to where to go.

    Over the years I learned to be the opposite in each of the four dimensions. I learned how to be introverted allowing others to take the spotlight. I figured out how to look at the data and facts (sensory-oriented) rather than running with my intuition. I became a clear and precise thinker always moving towards closure. There are some people who know me only as a ISTJ (though the "I" would be questionable).

    Nowadays, I'm pretty much multimodal, bouncing into what ever mode is most useful at the time. However, it wasn't easy at first. Seemed downright impossible. I just couldn't figure out or fully-understand the other side. So, I gave up on trying to understand and instead, simply emulated.

    Rather than trying to "be" introverted, I just behaved as I saw introverted people behave. In meetings, rather than letting whatever came to mind pop out of my mouth, I would just not say what I was thinking. (This was the hardest one.) Even when I could intuit an answer, I would go through all the steps that a Sensing person would go through.

    What I couldn't figure out by observing and guessing, I could figure out by doing. It's pretty remarkable.

    So, I guess my answer to your question about becoming more driver/influencer-like would be to find some driver/influencer types to emulate. When the opportunity arises, do what they would do, even if everything inside you is screaming, "Hey, what the heck do you think you're doing? Who do you think you are?"

  2. Hi Sree,

    One of my bosses a while back thought I needed an 'internal consulting' course which was really a course on how to develop rapport. This has helped me a lot with Jay. Even when a beahvior pattern doesn't come naturally, I can decide to just step into a role. It's like pretending, but authentically. I realized that was what I did back in high school when I wanted to change how I interacted with people.

    About my motivations: I have this idea that of all the millions of ideas and thoughts that come my way, if I pursue x number of them, I will probably complete x-y (where y is hopefully much less than x). I feel like I'm on stage, it's show time and everything is in full swing and if I hesitate unnecessarily, it's just a waste of time. If I think it now, and feel clear, why not try to do it now? I temper myself by constantly clarifying what I want to be about so that I can eliminate 'deviant' projects and ideas since I can have trouble letting go if I've already started something, and can take on more than is really wise at the time. But sometimes wise is over-rated. I analyse the cost of engagement, and once I think I can pay the price, I get moving. Deep down, I believe that even when the price is more than I had anticipated, the value that I get from the experience is more than even the expensive price I may pay.

    This is generally how I sound when I'm in the 'D' mode. Sometimes it sounds excessive to even me. The 'I' mode tempers that when I'm around people, so I think only my inner, inner circle get to see me being really self indulgent and excessive.


Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...