The Myers-Briggs theory teaches that we each have preferred ways of communicating. But our preferences may not be the best way of making the message clear to the audience. When writing, we have the luxury of editing what we wrote. Not so in speech. Either way, misunderstanding can ensue when we don’t adequately consider the needs of our audience.
Sensing vs. Intuition
Often, preference isn’t about what we do, but the order in which we do it. For instance, when I’m writing a scene for a novel, I start with the dialogue. Once that’s in place, I’ll add gestures, facial expressions, and movement. Setting and sensory detail come last, because sensing is my inferior function. That part of the scene doesn’t have meaning for me until the rest of the scene is in place.
But the setting elements of the scene must come first for the reader. Readers can’t immerse themselves in the scene until they know when and where it’s taking place, and which characters are there. Is the environment light or dark, quiet or noisy? Are the characters happy, angry, or frightened?
So, too, in spoken communication, we must establish context and create a mood. For the sake of the audience, we may need to present the information in an order that doesn’t come naturally to us. This is true whether we’re speaking at a conference or talking one-on-one with a family member. If sensing types open with the details, intuitive types will be lost—they can’t understand the what until they know the why. Conversely, if intuitive types give too much background or theory, sensing types will zone out. Think about how lawyers make their case to a jury: (1) opening statement, (2) presentation of evidence, (3) closing argument. This is a useful formula for most spoken communication.
Thinking vs. Feeling
The balance is even more delicate for the thinking/feeling dimension. Feeling types tend to start with points of agreement, while thinking types tend to start with goals. It’s important to present both, and to do so early in the conversation. Create a sense of camaraderie, but don’t skirt the issues. Clearly state the desired outcome.
1. Listen: Focus on what the other person is saying. Don’t interrupt. Make eye contact and nod occasionally.
2. Empathize: Show that you’re receptive to the other person’s viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with them, but be respectful of their right to think or feel the way they do.
3. Validate: Verbally affirm your understanding that the subject is important to the other person, and that you’re willing to discuss it.
These three steps show that you’re engaged in the conversation. If you neglect them, Feeling types will likely think you don’t care, and they may withdraw. Once you’ve established that you’re open to the other person’s ideas, you can begin testing those ideas and looking for weaknesses. So to the three steps above, I would add the following:
4. Question: Clarify your concerns.
5. Evaluate: Discuss pros and cons.
6. Critique: Identify areas for improvement
For example, suppose you’re a manager in a marketing communications department. A member of your staff presents an idea for a brochure layout. It shows a good grasp of design principles, but it’s inconsistent with your conservative corporate image. An effective response, following the sequence suggested above, might go like this:
I really like this design, and I appreciate your initiative. But are you aware of our corporate guidelines? I’m not sure this conforms. Maybe you could check the guidelines on our intranet site and revise this design to make sure it complies. I’d love to see what you come up with.
Even though you’ve essentially rejected the idea, the employee walks away feeling valued, respected, and encouraged to approach you with new ideas in the future.
Contrast that with the following:
This doesn’t meet our corporate guidelines. They’re on our intranet site.
The employee walks away feeling berated and unappreciated, and may never share an idea with you again.
Effective communication requires that we use all four cognitive functions: sensing, intuition, thinking, and feeling. Tailoring your message to your audience will help you maintain productive business and personal relationships.