“You’re such a classic extrovert…”
“It’s just that he’s a misunderstood introvert..”
“Here’s the thing about leading creatives…”
“I can’t help it- I’m an ENFP…”
In our quest to make the world more concrete through the increasing swirl of input… we sort. In trying to get to our own best versions and figure one another out, we love finding new classifications, diagnostics and ways to look at self from different angles- like holding a prism up to the light in different ways to illuminate all its facets. From the brilliant synthesis of brain research and human pattern-spotting, we’ve now got some great frameworks to simplify our layers and classify ourselves beyond just what we do (like CEO, designer, trainer). We can now describe our talents with more accuracy and depth than ever before, get the ramifications of our thinking styles, and adjust our words to best reach someone’s primary learning modality. This accelerates understanding and progress in teams, relationships and leadership, plus unlocks the door of self-awareness. I use them all the time as a coach. We all should. If we’re careful.
There’s a danger I watch closely every day- in crossing a fine line from understanding to pigeonholing. Case in point is the currently popular label-du-jour of Introvert/Extrovert. Sparked by Susan Caine’s illuminating book Quiet to help us understand the introverted brain came a wave of articles, animations and comparison guides to introverts vs. extroverts all over our media feeds. These are informative, yet also pretty skewed and polarizing in their attempts to show distinctions of type through contrast. This happens easily, even when it originates from the decent intention of increasing understanding. Why?
It’s all in the nouns.
Introvert and extrovert started as verbs- to turn inward or outward.
Creative is still mostly an adjective (as it should be).
Yet like so many other type-labels, they are now used quite often as definitive tags for people, becoming a whole new class of descriptive nouns… which messes with our thinking. Making something temporary like a behavior (introvert: to turn inward) or fluid like a description (creative: relating to or involving the imagination), into a thing that now is (or has to be) that thing all the time is serious.
Once we slap a label on ourselves or another it gets dicey. A few things happen…
• The good part- Relief. There’s definitely a validating, reassuring little rush we get when a type fits us so well we want to wear it as a badge. Finally, we’re understood. Somebody gets us. There’s a tribe out there for us. We understand ourselves better. We can set ourselves up with the right fit in situations, endeavors and relationships which complement. We have freedom to be how we are, and clear reasoning for how we aren’t. We don’t have to struggle through explanation of what is just our common sense and the way we experience and see things… we can just point to the profile. Ahhhh.
• The bad part- Typecasting. Once we’ve got a label, the expectations everyone has of us are hard-set. We’re now defined- period, the end. We get to BE that way, but now we’re required to be that way… which can be pretty demanding in some cases, or stifling in others where we stop pushing ourselves to challenge our own perceived limits. Either situation can narrow our own identity too much to be either accurate or healthy. In coaching countless personality types and learners, I’ve met very few people who are 100% anything, since most of us are much more multifaceted and complex than that. For the few who are that limited, they often have a hard time adjusting to the diversity of thinkers out there (a topic for another day). While we of course have patterns, we also have more facets than we might ever understand through which that light is constantly adjusting. The most extroverted people I know have patterns that look really introverted. The most creative geniuses I know have some very unimaginative output sometimes, yet don’t have the freedom to go there because it disappoints a world expecting their “type.” Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock for generations of Star Trek… so much so that it inhibited directors and producers’ ability to envision or cast him as any other character, as he wrote in the aptly-titled autobiography I Am Not Spock. Definitely not what we want to do to one another, right?
• The troubling part… I barely want to type it, but we also know that labels gone amuck can lead to judgment or exclusion, and then prejudice and intolerance. As soon as we start narrowing our definition of ourselves or one another down to single types or positioning some as better than others (we see some of those outlines in the introvert-extrovert stuff), we’re setting up all the ingredients for “Sorry- we gave the position to an Introvert” or “Oh- you’re a creative? We don’t serve your kind here.”
So Now what?
This is tricky business, human understanding of self and navigation of personalities. In all my coaching, facilitation and connecting I’ve found that what we all really want is to understand ourselves and be fully understood and accepted by others. So what starts as a way to get quick ahas about personality can turn into characterization, and then we’re defeating our own intentions.
Try these to keep from collapsing how we are into who we are:
1. Embrace the adjective.
We are way more expansive than type-labels as people, so watch how you use the nouns. Describe behaviors as behaviors, patterns as patterns, traits as traits… not as people.
• “he is very creative…” vs. “he is a creative.”
• “she has some strong introverted patterns…” vs. “she is an introvert.”
2. Get a bigger sampling.
Few people are 100% anything. We are a mashup of a lot of traits, talents, themes and tendencies. I love and recommend the Clifton StrengthFinder, because it gives you a spot-on accurate portrait of your top five talent themes rather than just labeling you as one type… so you can accurately see and understand yourselves and others as the nuanced compilation of elements that you really are. Use this with your teams (friends and family, too), and notice how much richer the conversation and understanding of one another becomes.
3. Think of it all in a spectrum.
If you’re going to also use “type” tools, realize that all traits are in a spectrum. Introvert and Extrovert are two ends of a particular scale, and most people are ambiverts who have characteristics of both yet slide a little more to one side than the other. So keep that spectrum in mind as you use those adjectives, imagining someone more to one side or another, yet possibly moving around on it a little all the time.
4. Go for portrait vs. caricature.
We love caricature artists at theme parks because it’s fascinating to see what pieces and parts get exaggerated in how others see us. But it’s a pretty bad way to get an accurate picture of one another as humans, even though we try it when we slap the labels on. To get the real picture, we need all the subtleties, range and cool complexity which create distinction. To get that, keep delving, listening and looking into- then adding layers of unique detail to the portraits we have of ourselves and one another.
…That’s where illumination and connection happens, and we unlock the facets of our brilliance we didn’t even know were there.