We learn early to treat others as we want to be treated, but sometimes it pays to do the opposite.
Your spouse might crave positive reinforcement, for instance, though it does nothing for you. You might live and die by the completion of your to-do list, while your boss might prioritize open-ended discussion. Approaching your relationships with a clear-eyed understanding of what motivates you and the people around you can facilitate problem-solving or help avoid problems entirely.
Paul D. Tieger, an internationally recognized personality type expert and co-author of Do What You Are, Just Your Type, and Nurture By Nature, has been helping people get to know themselves and one another for 40 years. As he puts it, “If you know you have a predisposition, you can do something about it.” That includes how individuals behave in relationships.
The popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test—which millions of people around the world take and nearly 90% of Fortune 500 companies use—informs Tieger’s approach to personality type compatibility. The MBTI divides people into 16 possible personality types, using four aspects of personality: I or E (introversion or extroversion), N or S (intuition or sensing), F or T (feeling or thinking) and J or P (judging or perceiving).
But how does personality type compatibility play out in relationships?
Introverts and extroverts can be differentiated “by where you get your energy from,” Tieger says. Sensing types tend to pay attention to details in the here and now, while intuitive types focus on the big picture. Sensing types see what is; intuitives see what could be, he explains.
Simplistically, feeling types go with their hearts, and thinkers go with their heads. Judging types are not necessarily judgmental but driven to make decisions, while perceivers keep their options open.
These scenarios exemplify how conflicts can be opportunities for learning. Tieger likes to quote author and therapist Virginia Satir, who said, “We get together on the basis of our similarities; we grow on the basis of our differences.” Here are some examples of how those relationships and personality types play out in real life.
Over his 40-year career, Tieger has authored four books on personality types and even served as a personality type consultant to lawyers for jury selection.
While pregnant, expectant mother Emma, who has a strong feeling trait, envisioned her child as an affectionate mini-me. But daughter Megan, an independent thinker, was disinclined toward warmth. “It’s easy in that scenario,” says Tieger, “for a parent to give that kid the wrong message, as in, ‘You’re not enough because you’re not giving me enough love.’” For both their sakes, Emma had to give up some of her expectations about motherhood and accept Megan for who she is.
Extrovert dad John dragged introvert son Allan to a game of pick-up football in the park when he was a kid, while Allan just wanted to play outside. This set up a dynamic of mutual disappointment. At a family Thanksgiving one year, when Allan had a family of his own, he put together a football game, allowing his father’s dream of playing together to come true. Giving in a little deflated the power of a long-term conflict.
“Communication issues come down to personality type,” Tieger claims. “You see the world in a different way.”
Opposites do attract, but why? “Because,” Tieger says, “we see something in somebody else that we don’t have, and we think unconsciously, If I were with that person, I’d be more like that.”
Tara and her husband, Roy, shared both intuition and feeling traits. But Tara was a gregarious extrovert, while Roy was a strong introvert who recharged his energy batteries alone. One recurring argument centered around Tara’s constant need for social interaction, so they came to the solution of taking two cars to social events, so that Roy was not compelled to stay—and feel resentful of Tara—if he was ready to go home to his book.
“Extroverts think out loud,” says Tieger. “We don’t know the answer, but we’ve got to talk it through to come up with the answer.” Seventh grader Finn’s constant thinking out loud was at the core of the conflict with his teacher, Ms. Beckwith. His parents were frustrated by how often they received notes about Finn’s excessive talking in class. After some tough conversations, Finn agreed to count to 10 before raising his hand, and Ms. Beckwith agreed to allow him to process his thoughts aloud.
“The key motivator for sensing-judging types is to get things done and follow the rules,” Tieger explains, “while the key motivator for sensing-perceiving types is to have a good time.”
Therein lies the core conflict in the relationship of adult sisters Ann (an SJ, punctual and matter-of-fact) and Julie (an SP, likely to get lost in a project and lose track of the day). Ann cut her sister some slack—and set her up with a reminder system—once she understood that her sister approached life this way and was not simply disrespectful.
A truism in the world of work, says Tieger, is that people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers. Jared—a strong thinking type: logical, analytical, focused on the bottom line—was an effective high-level manager. But this no-nonsense approach led him into conflict with employee Colin, an intuition-feeling type, who is motivated by appreciation. Jared eventually learned to periodically go out of his way to say, “Nice job, Colin,” or “Thank you for X, Colin,” even though he didn’t want or need that sort of affirmation himself.
Photo by kali9/Getty.
Sheela Clary is a freelance reporter and writer based in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. A long-time educator and nonprofit leader, she's interested in education, income inequality, and creativity, and publishes her features and personal essays regularly on The Berkshire Edge.