Updated: Sep 29
Most of us don’t end up in a class on communication and personality types. However, we spend our entire lives communicating with others. Overwhelmingly, we are often guilty of only being able to think from our own filters, and we imagine that others process situations and words the same way we do. One thing I can tell you is that that is almost never the case.
My husband and I are seemingly cut from the same cloth- we finish each other's sentences. I joke that by the time we are old and sitting in our respective recliners holding hands, we won’t even need to speak. But, a few weeks after our love affair began we were sitting on the couch… Let me digress and set the stage for you. I had been completely, unabashedly vulnerable with our start. I had blurted out that not only was I in love with him, but that I wanted to skip dating and just be life partners. After all, he had been my best friend for 20 years. How could I not be completely open and honest?
Back to the couch. We were sitting on the couch that day. He was saying a lot… of words… that were s l o w l y leading me to believe… that I had been alone in this intense, once-in-a-lifetime falling-in-love affair. Was he saying this wasn't working for him? My cheeks grew hot. I was motionless. I stopped listening to focus all my energy on playing it cool while I thought I was dying a death I would never recover from. Hold the tears! Steady my breathing!
After a minute of still silence, I realized I hadn’t actually died. And so, being me, I knew I needed clarity. As I opened my mouth to begin the questions, buckets of tears poured out of my eyes, my voice cracked and I could see the complete confusion all over his face. Somehow his profession of utter commitment and current state of bliss had fallen on me like... a breakup!
20 years of closeness and complete transparent honesty still allowed for this moment of miscommunication to happen.
He did remark on how cool I played it until the tears finally broke through. He had no idea that I was spiraling out and sinking into the earth. (And I am not known for a poker face!)
A book I read many years ago has always stuck with me. It uses the analogy that people are from different plays (think theatre plays)- some are classics, others modern musicals. They each have their rules sets and norms. They are vastly different from play to play. This is how we are raised, in very different environments with rules that are often not just different but even the very opposite of anothers. And then we are sent into the world, most of the time, having never seen the other plays. Not only do we not know who is from which, but we don’t even know how different another play can be.
The funny part about us humans is that while what I just shared was surely not an earth-shattering perspective, we tend to still operate from assuming that others receive words and situations similar to us. Even after we are made very aware of the different plays.
The bottom line is that communication is really, really hard. While we can be curious about learning about the different personality types, and different styles of communication- it takes a long time to get good at it. What we can do, starting right now, is put our approach to others through a few filters to make sure that we are tailoring ourselves to a wider audience.
It can help to remember:
Many people that seem unaffected are actually very sensitive. Many often present the opposite of what they feel to hide and protect themselves.
It can’t hurt to be softer and more uplifting, but it can hurt someone deeply when you are insensitive.
A formula that can be really helpful is “book-ending”. When delivering constructive criticism, consider book-ending it with softeners. Let's use the example of training a new employee. They are already most likely going through the common phase of being insecure in a new environment with new rule sets that they have yet to learn. In this example, you need to let them know that they didn’t do something correctly.
“We don’t do it like that. We do it like _______. Okay?”
That wasn’t particularly harsh, right? Some of us were raised with this kind of straightforwardness and don't see the issue here. But others were raised with a much lighter approach. This straightforward approach may land on them as harsh, leaving them feeling that they did something wrong, and thus embarrassed. Most of us can relate to this example, even if only slightly. We have at least seen the discomfort on our classmates or teammates… You don't have to understand. You don't have to relate. If you want to be well received, you do have to be considerate.
Let's try Bookending:
Bookend opener: “You learn fast!” (a compliment, something positive)
Deliver the message: “The way we approach this task, however, is a bit different. Let me explain…”
Bookend closer: “Don’t hesitate to ask me any question, even if it seems pretty silly. I remember my early days here. But you’ll pick it up quickly. I can tell.” (encouraging, normalizing)
Each of us needs to identify the areas that require tailoring in our communication style so that we don't alienate personality types opposite to our own. Some of us are very direct and that can be scary to other personality types. We need to focus on softening. Others are too indirect and can benefit from tips on how to be more comfortable with directness and making their point clearer or need more confidence with assigning duties.
As you go about your days and interactions, try to identify what your style is. There are tools like DISC that break down personality types into 4 main groups.
And then try to find an area that you could benefit from tweaking. Often this isn’t hard, it just takes being introduced to the possible perspectives of the other communication styles and tweaking your approach slightly. You can also use a more thorough personality test like the Myers Briggs… It is fun!
[Though personality tests can be stamped pseudo-science, I have found them to be incredibly accurate and constructive throughout my career. So have a majority of large corporations and universities! They are widely used.]
We are really only scratching the surface here. Hopefully, this has planted a seed and sparked a curiosity that will inevitably help you in both your personal and professional life. There is a lot of fun reading on the topic of communication and personality types. If you would like a couple of resources, let me know.