Children and Families

You Really Didn't Mean That, Did You ?!?!?!

by Charles W. Ginn, Ph.D.

Kim and Mark met during a planning meeting of a local charity. Kim was fascinated by Mark's ability to suggest a variety of alternatives for a fund-raiser. She was also intrigued as he quietly sat back while others discussed his ideas. However, it wasn't long before Kim reached a point where she encouraged the committee to make a decision so that they could begin filling in the details.

Several months later, Mark joined Kim at a family picnic. Kim's father liked Mark but later expressed concerns about Mark's hesitation when responding to questions. Kim's mother was impressed with Mark's sensitivity to others but couldn't understand why he wouldn't be more specific on his career plans. Kim reassured her parents Mark would change as he became more familiar with family members.

As they approached their first wedding anniversary, Kim and Mark were disappointed that things weren't changing as expected. Mark resented Kim's persistent requests for objective analysis of his plans for the future. He couldn't understand why she needed a logical explanation when things could just work out if she would let it happen. Kim resented Mark's insistence on spending more evenings at home and less time socializing with their broad circle of friends. Kim was also becoming more and more frustrated with Mark's unwillingness to focus on the present. His visions for the future were exciting when they were planning their wedding, but now she wanted him to focus on the here and now.

The frustrations expressed by Mark and Kim, and the concerns shared by Kim's family, are common among couples and extended families. Behavior patterns that at first seem quaint, even intriguing, can become major sources of irritation, as can the disappointment that often accompanies the discovery that our loved ones don't change as we anticipated.

When differences are normal

"Different" and "normal" seem to be two words that just don't fit together. Our idea of what is normal is based on a combination of our unique personal history, culture, personality preferences, and family norms. Sometimes "our way" can become the definition of what we consider to be "normal."

Life experiences serve to broaden the scope of what we consider normal. As we develop, we encounter others who perceive things, make decisions, and interact in ways we don't fully understand. We may even begin to celebrate the diversity we find in others.

Understanding personality type differences within family settings

Living with personality differences among friends and co-workers is one thing, while accepting such differences within our marriage or extended family is quite another. Personality differences often wear thin when we are trying to cope with the daily struggles of everyday life. Learning to better understand and accept others can be less difficult with the help of tools that explain our interpersonal differences. One such tool is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) instrument.

The MBTI instrument was developed to help us better comprehend and explain much of our own, and others', everyday behavior. The Indicator uses word pairs and phrases to identify different ways people prefer to interact with each other and the world around them.

A very important aspect of the MBTI instrument is its non-judgmental nature. There simply are no "right" or "wrong" responses. Those who complete the MBTI instrument are never asked to alter their behavior to meet another's concept of acceptable behavior. The non-judgmental nature of the MBTI instrument often results in enthusiastic participation by many individuals who refuse to complete other psychological questionnaires. Indeed, over 2,000,000 people complete the MBTI instrument each year.

The MBTI instrument includes four dichotomous (either/or) scales that cover much of our daily behavior. It is very important to understand that each of us can function very effectively in all of the MBTI dimensions. The key is what we prefer to do and what comes naturally, not what we can or cannot do.

Extraversion (E) & Introversion (I)

The Extraversion (E) and Introversion (I) dichotomy focuses on our source of revitalizing energy. In what settings are we energized and in what settings are we less comfortable?

To better understand the idea of revitalizing energy, let's consider an automobile battery. When a car is running, the battery is charging. When a car is turned off, the battery will still power the radio but will slowly be draining its energy resources.

Much like a car battery, those who favor Extraversion tend to recharge their internal batteries in the presence of others and tend to drain their batteries in the absence of others. It is important to stress that those who favor Extraversion have no need to be the center of attention, they just seek to be with others much of the time.

In contrast, those who favor Introversion tend to recharge their internal batteries in places of solitude and drain their batteries over a period of uninterrupted interaction with others. Differentiating between solitude and loneliness can help us understand Introversion. Solitude involves quiet settings that allow us to reflect without being disturbed, while loneliness involves the absence of loved ones. While Introverts often seek places of solitude, no one, Introvert or Extravert, seeks loneliness.

Extraverts and Introverts often differ in their approach to decision making. Introverts normally want time to reflect on issues before announcing their decisions, while Extraverts frequently bounce ideas around with others before reflecting.

Mark's desire to spend more time at home is probably a function of his preference for Introversion, not an attempt to possess or control Kim. Kim's father's comments about Mark hesitating before responding to questions may also reflect Mark's preference for Introversion. Kim's desire to spend relatively more time with their friends may reflect a preference for Extraversion.

Kim and Mark may enhance their relationship by developing a reasonable compromise. For example, they may select and concentrate their energy on one or two social organizations and then free up several nights a week to be home together.

Sensing (S) & Intuition (N)

The second dichotomy addresses where we prefer to focus our attention. Those who favor Sensing (S) tend to concentrate on the present, while those who favor Intuition (N) often focus on what might develop in the future. Those who favor Sensing are often able to process an amazing number of facts and details, while those who favor Intuition frequently envision numerous alternatives for a given situation.

Mark's suggesting numerous alternatives for the fund raising event indicates he probably favors Intuition, while Kim's desire to work out the details for the event suggests she may favor Sensing.

Kim and Mark may improve the effectiveness of their communication by clarifying when their conversations are focusing on the present and when they are focusing on the future. For example, Kim may insist they pay month-end bills prior to discussing next summer's vacation plans.

Thinking (T) & Feeling (F)

The third MBTI dichotomy addresses the ways we like to make decisions. Those who favor Thinking (T) tend to focus on objective aspects of decisions, work through problems in a logical manner, and strive to ensure they are being fair to everyone when reaching conclusions.

Those who favor Feeling (F) tend to concentrate on the subjective aspects of their decisions. The impact of their decisions on those involved is of paramount importance.

The MBTI functions of Thinking and Feeling are often misunderstood. The Thinking function addresses how we make decisions, not the degree of our intellectual development. The Feeling function addresses the relative importance we give to subjective factors in decisions, not our degree of caring.

Kim's comments regarding the need to logically work out the fund raising event suggests she favors the Thinking function. Kim cares very much that the group succeeds and expresses that caring through her emphasis on being logical and objective during the planning process.

Comments by Kim's mother regarding Mark's sensitivity to others suggest he may favor the Feeling function. Those who favor Feeling are often perceived as being very much in tune with others' emotional states.

Effective communication between those who favor the Thinking and Feeling functions requires mutual respect for each person's contribution. For example, those who favor Feeling sometimes forget that those who favor Thinking care as much as they do about the impact of a decision. On the other hand, those who favor Thinking sometimes need to be reminded that those who favor Feeling find it difficult to present their ideas in a logical and sequential manner. Accepting each other's limitations is as important as celebrating each other's strengths.

Judging (J) & Perceiving (P)

The Judging (J) and Perceiving (P) dichotomy addresses our need for closure. Those who favor Judging tend to seek rapid closure on issues, whereas those who favor Perceiving often seek to postpone decisions in case new information becomes available.

Kim's desire to finalize a decision on which fund-raising event they will pursue suggests she favors Judging while Mark's comfort with continuing the discussion of alternatives suggests he favors Perceiving. This example also reflects the richness and complexity of type dynamics, in that those who favor focusing on the facts (Sensing) often prefer to seek closure (Judging), while those who favor focusing on future possibilities (Intuition) often, but not always, prefer to postpone decisions until all information becomes available (Perceiving).

Kim and Mark may enhance their relationship by agreeing on which needs to be settled in the near future and which issues can be given more time for reflection.

Putting it all together

When you consider an individual's preferences on all four of the MBTI® scales you have that individual's personality type. It appears that Mark favors Introversion (I) + Intuition (N) + Feeling (F) + Perceiving (P). Kim appears to favor Extraversion (E), Sensing (S), Thinking (T), and Judging (J). However, type dynamics is far more complex than just adding together one's preferences on the four MBTI scales. Important personality factors, such as the impact on our behavior of our dominant or favorite function, are beyond the scope of this summary. Such factors are often reviewed in MBTI training sessions.

Intentional versus misinterpreted messages

One of the greatest benefits that comes with understanding personality type differences is an improved ability to differentiate between intentional and misunderstood messages. For example, if someone says, does or fails to do something that hurts our feelings, we tend to automatically assume that they did so on purpose. We are just certain the other person knew how we would respond and thus they obviously meant to hurt us. When we believe a slight or comment was done intentionally, it is much harder to forgive and move on than if we perceive the slight as unintentional.

Many misunderstandings among newlyweds and extended families are based on differences in personality types, not the result of intended confrontations or slights. Yet rather than clarify what happened when a negative incident occurs, we are much more likely to bury the hurt inside where it then slowly grows into alienation or hostility. The end result is often loved ones and family members slowly growing apart from each other.

Applying our understanding of personality type differences

Once we gain an understanding of our own, and our spouse's or other loved ones' personality preferences, there are a number of things we can do to prevent the misunderstanding that often leads to couple and/or family alienation.

First, to benefit from an understanding of type differences, we must make a firm commitment to better understand each other. The effective use of personality type can produce marvelous results, but it requires hard work and a sustained effort. There are no short cuts or magic cures to improve mutual understanding. Like all other things of lasting value, the rewards are there for those willing to apply themselves to truly accept each other as they are.

Second, always "check it out" when you first experience a hurtful communication or situation. Checking it out is very, very important to sustaining a relationship.

Check It OUT!

Check it out simply means to ask someone what they meant when they said, did or failed to do something. As soon as a hurtful event is experienced, ask, "When you said (or,did) ____________, I interpreted that to mean _____________. Did I get it right?"

When asked in a polite and sincere manner, checking it out is neither offensive nor confrontational. Indeed, the vast majority of the time the other person will be surprised and make a sincere effort to clarify what they meant. In those instances where your original interpretations were inaccurate, you can then address the root problems.