I used to be a bit skeptical about the value of personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Then one of my professors in seminary, Dr. Phil Douglass, gave my wife and me a short article on “how INFJs and ENFPs relate to one another.” (I’m an INFJ, and my wife is an ENFP.) I read the article, and was shocked at how accurately it described our relationship: it felt like someone had been studying Esther and me for a while and written the article specifically about us. I began to study more, and the more I read, the more what I read hit home and helped me understand myself. Obviously personality is not our sum total, and the value of labels like “INFJ” is approximate and general. But I have found Myers-Briggs so helpful that its almost impossible for me now to imagine processing life and relationships without reference to it. Here is a brief rundown of how I articulate the four dichotomies that make up the sixteen basic types of MBTI:
I (introversion) vs. E (extraversion). This dichotomy has to do with what energizes us. Introverts are energized by being alone; extraverts, by being with people. Introverts’ natural habitat is the internal world of their thoughts and ideas, extraverts natural habitat is the external world of people and things around them. Note that introversion is not the same as disliking people or being reclusive.
S (sensing) vs. N (intuition). This is, in my opinion, the least intuitive and initially clear of the four dichotomies, but perhaps the most important. It has to do with how we take in information. Sensing types tend to observe details; intuitive types tend to observe the relationships between details. S’s tend to like facts and data; N’s tend to like theories and the “big picture.” If I have learned one thing from MBTI, it is that communication between N’s and S’s can be very challenging.
T (thinking vs. F (feeling). This one concerns how we make decisions. Thinkers tend to make decisions in a more detached, logical way, based upon what is determined as best; feelers tend to empathize with a situation and make a decision based on harmony and feeling. This distinction has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence.
P (perceiving) vs. J (judging). This one refers to our habits and daily modes of operating. J’s tend to be more structured, while P’s are more fluid. J’s are generally more on schedule, P’s are generally more adaptable to changing circumstances. Some people claim that this dichotomy is the sort cumulative net of the previous three: thus, it measures whether we extravert (everyone extraverts some of time) when we are making decisions (T/F) or when we are taking in information (N/S). But I’m not sure I fully understand that.
Here are the main ways MBTI has helped me:
1) It helps us not moralize personality strengths and weaknesses
No personality trait has any moral superiority to any other; God simply makes people differently. And yet it seems to me that we all tend to think that the way we operate is the “normal” one. For example, as a J, structure and discipline in my use of time come a bit more naturally to me. I generally stick to my Google calendar and enjoy crossing things off my to do list. For this reason, I could be tempted to look down on those who struggle with disorganization or procrastination, assuming they are lazy or negligent. On the other hand, many P’s I know find it easy to “go with the flow.” They are laid back, adaptable, open. These people may be tempted to view J’s as uptight or overly rigid or even controlling.
But while the disputes that can occur between a J and a P can touch upon moral issues, they are not necessarily moral issues. The line between “personality” and “wisdom” or “personality” and “right/wrong” is not always crystal clear. When is a P being last minute or lazy, and when are they simply operating as God designed? When is a J being too uptight, and when are they simply following their God-given internal clock? The same issues apply with the other letters: when is a T being unloving, and when are they simply being more direct in their communication? When is an I being reclusive or rude, and when are they simply functioning within their God-given independence?
I don’t always know the answers to these questions. But what personality studies like MBTI do is put the question on the table. They remind us that not all of our differences are moral differences, and thus help us not make unnecessary judgments. They help us leave room for God-given differences, and thus learn from others where we might be tempted merely to criticize, and be cautious to assume our way is always the right way.
2) It helps us understand and relate to people who are different from us.
It can be a disconcerting and even painful experience to just not “click” with someone. I find that when I understand more fully why a person operates differently than I do, it frees me to love and serve them without constantly analyzing what is going on. For example, as an IJ, I am naturally a bit more sensitive to interrupting. Its instinctive for me to approach conversations in a more deliberate, structured kind of way, waiting for someone to finish speaking and thinking in advance what I am going to say. Other personalities, such as EPs, tend to be more fluid and back-and-forth in their conversation style. I’m a mental processor (I think and then speak); EPs are usually verbal processors (they think by speaking).
I’ve discovered a brilliant tactic for relating to EPs in a way that leads to minimal frustration and miscommunication: I adopt their communication style. I step outside of myself and into their world by interrupting them as much they interrupt me, by chasing the conversation down whatever rabbit trails come up, by letting the conversation go wherever it goes. Its fun to be pulled out of the tediously narrow orbit of how I operate and enter into another (equally valid) planet in God’s solar system. And it makes for better and more balanced conversations. For example, if I did not understand MBTI, I would still be spending only 5% of my conversations with EPs talking and 95% listening. I used to rarely interrupt people, because I hate being interrupted (because I think and speak in complete, closed, connected thoughts). Now I know that interrupting rarely annoys EPs, because they think and communicate in open, expansive, fluid thoughts. In fact, it sometimes helps them — it assures them we are still engaged, and helps them process further what they are saying.
Similarly, when communicating with S’s, I try to bombard them with details. I give them way more than I would ever want to hear. If an S asks for a summary of my day, where I would normally compress it down into a two sentence propositional overview, I instead tell a narrative about something that happened (usually with another person) and walk through the specifics of the conversation. Whereas I might be bored by that detailed of an answer, S’s tend to enjoy it and take it all in. Knowing MBTI information draws me out of myself and helps me enter into others’ world. Its freeing.
3) It helps us understand and deal with our limitations and weaknesses.
There are many things in life that are extremely challenging for me that other people tend to find very easy and natural. (Hence the picture of the square peg above.) My intuition and sensitivity (NF) make me acutely aware of the emotional non-verbals others put off. When I’m sitting in a circle, I can read how people how are feeling. But my (strong) introversion and structured habits (IJ) make it difficult for me to fit into groups easily. I am fiercely independent. I think many people have often perceived me as stubborn. I’m sure I can be stubborn, but more often than not I think its an incapacity to blend in rather than a volitional choice to not blend in. So I live in the tension – the at times the seeming contradiction – of this acute sensitivity and fierce independence. I take in emotional information constantly, but sometimes so strongly that I feel overwhelmed by it. I have compassion towards people, but come across as aloof. I long for meaningful connections with others, but find there are precious few people with whom it happens. I feel awkward and anxious in situations others find easy, and comfortable in situations others find daunting. My least favorite scenario: unstructured group conversations with people I don’t know well, about topics I don’t care about. Ugh. Life has too many of these moments. On the other hand, I am very comfortable with public speaking, and get energized by long periods of study. Writing also comes naturally for me.
Until about age 25, I lived under the laborious assumption that this tension occurred because something was wrong with me. It was not until seminary that I began to realize that the way God has wired me is not an accident, but a strategy. My personality is well suited for my vocation: preaching, teaching, writing, discipling. I know why I have the weaknesses I do, so I’m less ashamed of them, and better able to compensate for them.
4) It helps us understand group dynamics.
In ministry, I’m often put in situations where I have to think about how different people will relate to one another. A classic example is leading a small group. I’m always amazed at how widely the group dynamic varies from week to another depending on who is there. Even missing or adding one person in a group of 20 changes the whole “feel” of the room. Knowing MBTI helps me understand why groups operate the way they do. For example, I think leading a small group composed entirely of extraverts is overwhelming, but leading one without any extraverts is almost impossible. They require two very different kinds of leadership! One is like fishing for fish that aren’t hungry, the other like harnessing a group of stampeding horses. Even one extravert helps a ton, because they often are quicker to answer, which helps the introverts talk more. When I started in ministry, I thought primarily in terms of the “content” of a lesson/study/group. Serving as a youth pastor has helped me learn to ask these kinds of “context” questions. Context matters because it affects how much of the content actually gets through to people. It doesn’t matter how great your message is if people don’t hear you. MBTI is a “context” issue when leading a small group.
Two questions about MBTI that fascinate me:
1) To what extent do ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, and family of origin yield similar differences?
2) To what extent can corporate entities like families, churches, businesses, communities, cities, or even nations, be characterized by personality traits? If the backbone presupposition of personality theory is that varied behavior is organized into patterns, couldn’t this apply to groups of people just as naturally as individual people? For example: I think Washington D.C. is an ENTJ city, and my current church is an ESFJ church. I think Great Britain is more introverted as a culture, and America more extraverted. I know these generalizations can be pushed to the point of absurdity – but I find they really do help you understand a culture.