Saturday, January 17, 2009

MBTI: Thinkers and Feelers

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is a psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.

But it's so much more than that. It's a relationship emancipator. It's the knife that slices the Gordian knot that keeps partners entwined in endless, repeating patterns of point and counterpoint, argument and escalation of argument. It can take a world of communication trouble, and if you let it, pare it down to its benign and manageable essence.

What do I mean? Here's a light example.

One of the dimensions the MBTI assesses is the way people make decisions. In general, people either have a preference for what MBTI calls Thinking or Feeling. Thinkers like facts, practicalities, data, and analysis. They decide based on what is logical. Feelers like intuition, gut sense, fairness, and harmony. They decide based on what feels right.

I was having a very good, pain-free day and Richard and I decided to do one of the things we love best - go for a hike. The weather was California perfect. One part of the trail took us through a large redwood forest. For miles, we were encircled by these ancient mother trees. One tree in particular had had its lower trunk hollowed out by fire. What remained was the outer trunk and a cavity that was about 4 feet wide and 8 feet high. The space could easily fit three adults.

I entered into this sanctuary and stood silently for a few minutes, feeling part of something primordial and dignified. When I emerged I said to Richard, "Well that was a little bit of the sacred."

Richard entered in to the chamber, turned around a few times, came back out into the sunlight and said, "That place would be a good shelter from the rain if you needed one."

I am a Feeler. Richard is a Thinker.


Before we had this language, it was easy for me to experience his responses to my needs as insensitive. It was easy for him to just not understand what I was asking for and to try harder to parse the situation rationally.

"I'm so miserable," I would moan. "I hate taking pills. And I hate having pain if I don't take them."

"What if you tried cutting back on one of the pills and see what happens," he would offer.

"You just don't understand. I hate all this!" I would moan with a little more volume.

"Well," he would suggest a bit more tentatively not sure of what he wasn't understanding, "what if you sliced one pill in half and tried tapering in smaller increments."

You can see where this conversation would be headed.

What MBTI gives us is a decryption key for this kind of interaction. I can now say to Richard, "You're doing that T-thing. I'd like you to try to be more of an F right now."

He can then filter that through his rational mind and say,"Ahh. You need me to say something like, 'Oh sweetie, I know this is so hard for you. You hate everything about having a pain condition. How can I help?'"

I say in a very succinct, practical, data laden way "Yup. That's what I'm looking for." (we Feelers can be logical when we need to).

He searches inside to find his empathy (Thinkers have feelings - it's just not what they lead with). He repeats what he just practiced, but lets it float on that empathy. "'Oh sweetie, I know this is so hard for you. You hate everything about having a pain condition. How can I help?"

It works. I feel soothed. I feel like we are now both inside the redwood together, sheltering each other.

(more to come on this topic...............)


Jo Franz said...


What a great post and oh so true! And you are an adventurer like me--oh how I love to hike and the redwoods are wonderful.

To living abundantly in sickness and health together . . .

Jo Franz

Merelyme said...

wow..that is so very interesting. it would help so much to understand where that person is coming from based upon their personality. i am a feeler too. sometimes i joke that my husband is like mister spock because he is a thinker.

i do apologize for not coming to visit as often as i would like. you have a great blog much to read and think about.

Anonymous said...

You are so right about this! I learned about the helpfulness of MBTI several years ago when my husband and I wanted to buy a car. I did a little research, drove a couple cars, and I was ready to buy. Weeks later, after test driving nearly every new car in town, some twice, my husband husband was still uneasy about making a decision. I didn't think we'd be able to purchase a car before he drove me utterly insane.

Then I learned about the differences between 'judgers' and 'perceivers,' which is a major source of conflict among couples and in the workplace. I'm a 'judger,' able to quickly focus in on my criteria, evaluate options, and make a decision. He is a 'perceiver' who needs to consider a wide range of options, always mindful of the opportunity cost inherent in any decision. Once I understood this, I was able to relax and give my husband the space he needed to explore multiple options. We eventually bought the car, and I learned a great lesson about this fundamental difference in how people approach decisions--and how we would live out the rest of our married life!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this. My husband and I crossed this bridge many many years ago (we've been married 32 years and dated for five years before that. We can reach a common ground most of the time. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara K. said...

Thanks Jo, Merelyme, Anonymous, and Prof Sherlock for sharing your stories. I have found that if I can name it, I'm less likely to blame it.

Rosalind Joffe said...

I sent this post to my husband. We've been together 31 years and only recently did we manage to bridge this "gap". But I love the words you use and he'd get it, too. Thanks!

Maureen Hayes said...

This was an interesting take on the subject,which I have struggled with in relationships with friends as well as an ex-husband. Thank you for the insight, it will give me a better way of handling it in the future.

Congrats on the post in Grand Grounds!!

Anonymous said...

I am a thinker enjoying life with a feeler husband and 2 children that too are feelers. I was reading the post about the woman that jokes that her husband is Spock...well in my relationship...that is sooooooo me! As much as I love my family, sometimes I have to admit, it is challenging trying to love my family they way they appreciate feeling loved :) Thanks for all your posts everyone! Encouraging...