Stephen Woolston
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Personality types can be helpful, but…

Is personality real?

It’s a partly philosophical question.

On the one hand, personality cannot be real, because personality is not a thing. You can’t put personality into a wheel barrow, as they say. Personality a thought construct. Thought constructs aren’t real, they’re only a simulation of reality.

That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a bad simulation of reality, though. You see, on the other hand, we do each exhibit a psychological make up: a set of predictable, recurring ways that we respond to the world. We know some people enjoy public speaking and some people hate it. Some people are the life and soul of the party and others withdraw.

These responses tend to be consistent, not haphazard. It’s proven in practice that it can be useful to recognise those patterns and interact with people according to the implications of those patterns.

There’s a phrase which encapsulates the potential usefulness of personality types:

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933)

Let’s start, then, with that understanding: that “personality” is illusory, yet also to some extent useful. Now I’d like to explore how personality types can both lead us and mislead us.

Representation systems as personality types

A lot of pop-psychology about personality types is a distortion of something that came from the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP brought our attention to how people use their visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (feeling) faculties in their thinking, learning and decision making. We call these faculties the representation systems.

The full list:

We also commonly refer to auditory digital (AD), which is a sub-category of auditory for symbols: words, numbers and dialogue; rather than, say, abstract sounds like the sound of the wind or the sound of burning embers.

In my first introduction to NLP, I was told to listen to the words people used and decide which NLP personality type they were.

If they used a lot of hearing words like, “That sounds like a good idea,” they were an auditory person. If they used a lot of seeing words like, “That looks like a good idea,” they were visual. If they used a lot of feeling words like, “That feels right,” they were kinaesthetic.

Then, I was told, if you spoke to so-called visual people with lots of visual, seeing words, you connected with them on a deep level. Conversely, if you spoke to them with lots of hearing or feeling words, you wouldn’t.

That’s a over-simplistic reduction. Let’s dig deeper.

Good quality NLP certainly talks about tracking and mirroring people’s use of “see-hear-feel” language. It helps us figure out people’s thinking processes and streamline our communication with them. If they make sense of a complex diagram by talking themselves through it, that’s a clue about how we can help them learn a new complex system.

From this comes the idea of Preferred Representation System (PRS).

It’s very unlikely that a person has exercised all their sensory faculties equally. Physically and cognitively, what we stretch most gets stronger and what’s stronger gets used more. People may exhibit a preferred representation system.

We shouldn’t be surprised if an artistic painter as a particularly strong visual faculty and a strong visual-kinaesthetic pairing, because they get exercised a lot in that activity.

We shouldn’t be surprised if a logician has a strong auditory-digital or that a composer has a strong auditory and a strong auditory-kinaesthetic pairing.

That doesn’t mean the preferred representation system the only one they can use or relate with. What good NLP teaches is that peoples’ use of their see-hear-feel resources is dynamic, not static. Everybody uses all their representation systems all the time and it’s how each is used that’s more interesting than what’s preferred.

A car buyer, for example, may first be attracted to shape and colour, but once they’re past the attraction threshold, to cross the buying line, it may be the sound of the engine and the feeling they have driving it they have to like. That tells us a lot about how to personalise our presentation of a car and how to know when to switch between emphasising the visual and emphasising the auditory/kinaesthetic.

Someone might have a preference for, say, the visual representation system and you could loosely call them, “a visual person”, but that’s not as interesting as figuring out how they use all the representation systems together.

To take the label too seriously is limiting, as is to infer any rules from it, because...

Labels can be traps

The book Frogs Into Princes (Bandler, Grinder) says, “Labels are traps”. Personally, I’d refine that just slightly and say, “they can be”. You see, I don’t rule out the possibility that there might be good profiling tools. As a coach, I find the Enneagram a good reference guide for choosing useful meditations, inquiries and tasks.

Anyway, here’s how labels can be traps:

Deciding someone “is” some personality type is to make a generalisation about them. Generalisations distort our perceptions. They make us see what we expect to see and miss what’s really there.

I believe that interpersonal work is at it’s best when we’re as free from expectation as we can be. That way, we can better notice what’s happening. That doesn’t mean not having knowledge about the person. It just means opening our perceptions up to see what’s actually happening and not just what we expect to happen.

Meta Programs as personality types

The phrase ’Meta Programs’ is NLP parlance for the predictable, over-arching patterns in our behaviour. One of the Meta Programs, for example, is called motivation direction. A ‘towards’ direction means you get motivated when attracted to something you like. An ‘away from’ direction means you get motivated when repelled by something you don’t like.

I’ve never been a big fan of using Meta Programs as a Myers-Briggs type of personality profile, though I accept it’s commonly done and probably works reasonably well much of the time. I guess you could say it’s a good heuristic but we can do better than that.

A woman once insisted to me that she was ‘away from’. I asked her how she knew. She told me it was because she’d done a questionnaire asking what typically made her change her job and car. She gave answers which divined her as ‘away from’.

I asked, “So what would you have been if the question was, ‘What made you open your Christmas presents on Christmas morning?’”

You see, it’s not that someone is a ‘towards’ or ‘away from’ person. It’s that you can track predictable patterns of towards-ness and away-from-ness in their behaviour.

As I like to say, it works better to think about Meta Programs in terms of when rather than what: when people respond ‘towards’ and when they respond ‘away from’.

For these reasons I prefer what a number of leading NLP thinkers are saying today: it’s about tracking patterns rather than diagnosing a static personality type. Also, to track what the person actually does rather than how they answer questionnaires. That’s because ...

Questionnaires can be unreliable

What people do unconsciously, when no one is watching and no one is measuring us, may be very different to what they think they do when they answer a questionnaire, even if they think they’re answering honestly.

Someone I knew once profiled herself as ‘towards’, which she felt was better than ‘away from’. Her exact words were, “I’m a towards person, because what motivates me is getting great results, because I don’t want to be like the non-achievers in the team”.

Read that again. She remembered herself as ‘towards’ in line with her preferred self image, even though her language revealed a more fundamental ‘away from’ driver.

We tend to innocently, unconsciously re-frame our experiences to match our preferred self image, as had happened here.

There’s also the problem of Confirmation Bias, which predicts that we sort and filter information in a way that makes the information confirm our existing beliefs. That means if we believe we are a certain type, we’ll frame the evidence to confirm it.

The duality of elicitation and installation

This is a side bar, a philosophical question for you to ponder. When you give someone a questionnaire and tell them it makes them, say, a visual, or a towards person, is that a discovery of what’s really there? Or is it an implanted suggestion?

How it’s possible we could be deluding ourselves when we decide our profile readings are accurate

I once raised these points with someone who really believed not only in Meta Programs based profiling, but on various other profiles, including handwriting profiles and astrological profiles. His objection was, “But every profile got my personality exactly right!”

There’s a well known experiment in Psychology by professor Hans Eysenck in which he tested whether astrology provided accurate predictions of personality. He asked a large group of astrology students to take a personality test and see if the results conformed to Astrological types. Remarkably, they did! However, when he repeated the experiment with people who didn’t believe they had an astrological type, the results showed no correlation whatsoever.

Does this mean the astrology students answered the test dishonestly? Probably not. Does it mean their belief in astrology had actually influenced their personality? Maybe. Maybe it was just Confirmation Bias. Maybe that was determined, maybe it wasn’t.

Another factor to consider is the Pygmalion Effect, which predicts that people tend to achieve the results expected of them. They actually change to match the expectation.

Yet another factor is that some personality readings language so vague that they fit anyone. Perhaps the predictions offered by certain profiling tools are not dissimilar. Anyone who has studied hypnosis and ‘universal pacing statements’ will recognise it’s easy to say something that’s actually really vague but seems really specific to the listener.

“You’re a kind person at heart even if you don’t always show it and you try hard at things you like but you get frustrated with other people sometimes.” Did I read your personality correctly?

In a nutshell ...

Don’t be fooled into thinking that NLP is about diagnosing people with static personality types. That’s an age-old error. Learn to track the dynamics of what people do, not label them with a static type. And I mean what they really do, not what they think they do.

The really short version is this: labels are traps.

Wishing you health and happiness,

Steve.