When we were in college, Eleanor, then my girlfriend (now my wife), wanted me to take a Myers-Briggs type test, a personality assessment that would categorize me into one of 16 boxes, each box containing four letters that would explain me.
I didn’t want to do it.
So she made it easy for me. “Come on, it’ll be fun,” she said. “I’ll read the questions. You just lie there and answer. I’ll write down your answers.”
She began asking me questions.
“When with a group of people,” she read, “you enjoy being at the center of attention.”
“No.” I answered. “I’d rather speak to one person.”
“No way!” she replied, “You love being the center of attention. I’m checking a big YES.”
She must have changed at least half my answers. I’m not saying she was wrong. Most of the time, I think we were both right.
By definition, personality assessments simplify complexity. That’s not always a bad thing; putting a label on something helps us recognize it quickly. It’s shorthand. And, given that most of us have more to do than we have time for, shorthand is useful.
But not with people. People are not easy to understand, and—here’s where I disagree with the assessments—they shouldn’t be.
People are too interesting and too complicated to be summed up in a simple assessment. Are there really only 16 basic personality types? Have you met my uncle Ralph*? There are at least 17.
Myers Briggs—and I would argue any personality assessment—is neither valid nor reliable. These tests identify a black and white version of people, a reduction of who they really are. They offer us the illusion of understanding at the cost of truth and freedom. Sure, they may make people more comfortable (“Oh, I understand you now”). But it’s a trick.
Self-assessments, by definition, reinforce a person’s self-image. You tell the assessment what you think you are like and then the assessment tells you what you are like. Which, of course, would incline you to think they’re valid. But they’re just telling you what you told them.
Personality tests reinforce our blind spots. How would you respond to the statement: You put every minute to good use? Personally, I would answer NO. But Eleanor would say that I use my time incredibly productively. What’s the truth? Here’s another way of asking the question: Who knows me better: Eleanor or me? The truth is somewhere in between. She sees things I don’t. I know things she doesn’t.
I want to suggest an alternative. A tool that is far more reliable at understanding the complexity of a human being. A tool that is practically infallible, almost always reliable, and surprisingly practical. A tool that not only helps you understand other people but simultaneously improves your relationships with them and helps you learn, in real time, how to communicate with them, even in—especially in—the face of conflict or disagreement.
That tool? Curiosity.
As soon as we label something, our curiosity about that thing diminishes. Personality assessments are a shortcut to getting to: “I know.” And once we know something, we’re no longer curious.
But that’s not nearly as powerful as living in the mindset of “I don’t know”. True understanding comes from not knowing. Real connection comes from not knowing. Brilliant innovation and problem solving comes from not knowing.
See people. Don’t label them. Allow yourself to be surprised. Notice how someone may be different today than yesterday. How someone’s personality—or point of view—may change when you eat lunch together instead of meeting in their office. Notice how often communication “tactics” actually get in the way of communication.
Recently one of our clients asked us to lead a session in which each person on the team would take a character strength self-assessment. I have often seen teams and organizations use assessments like this (e.g. let’s put everyone’s strengths and weaknesses on the table so we can support each other).
I proposed a different idea. Together, as a team, they should agree on the three to five most important character traits that would help the team achieve its objectives (instead of the 24 character traits assessed by the instrument). Then, in small groups, they should give feedback to each other about those character traits and talk about what they can do to take advantage of their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.
To do this, they would have to learn how to talk about sensitive issues, how to listen without getting defensive, and how to share, courageously, what they perceive in each other.
That’s the point. Not only will they gain the benefit of the information, they will increase their capability to have difficult conversations. It’s those conversations, not the assessments, that will improve relationships and results in an organization.
If you want to understand people, talk to them. Ask questions. Listen to their answers and to the silence between their answers. Watch their body language. Study them. And stay open to what you may find – about them and about yourself.
What you’ll find is that people are constantly changing. If you talk to someone in a meeting and then, a little while later, over a bite to eat, you may notice that his personality completely shifts. Curiosity allows you to see people more clearly and learn about them in all their beautiful and interesting variability. And because of that, it helps you build much stronger, more resilient relationships.
If you’ve based your relationship on curiosity, when you have to communicate about something difficult, you’ll be talking to a person, not an ENTJ. You’ll be more understanding—and a lot more convincing.
But it’s hard to let go of the comfort that comes from thinking you’ve figured someone out.
I was leading a two-day training for senior-level coaches who were interested in working for my firm. Coaches love assessments and many of the coaches in the room were certified to administer a gaggle of them. During the training, I made it very clear that, at Bregman Partners, we don’t use assessments for all the reasons I stated above. I told the coaches that one of our hallmarks is that we remain curious and we encourage our clients to remain curious, which makes them much stronger leaders.
After the training, one of the coaches came up to me.
“You’re an ENFP,” she told me, referring to one of the boxes in the Myers-Briggs.
“Seriously?” I was bewildered. “Have you been listening?”
“I teach Myers-Briggs,” she said, “And I’ve been watching you all day. I’m telling you, you’re an ENFP. I know you don’t like these tests, but I think you don’t understand them.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem,” I answered, “The problem is they think they understand me.”
*Name changed to protect my relationship with Uncle “Ralph.”
Originally published at Harvard Business Review.