Saturday, 16 January 2016

Know thyself

The 16 types of the Myers Briggs (personality) Type Indicator (MBTI).

The first time I encountered the Myers Briggs personality test (MBTI) was during ordination training for the Anglican Church. I think it was in vogue then, in certain types of training that heavily emphasised the pastoral (colleagues in other training colleges were too busy having three years of intense preaching experience and leading missions to spend time wondering which personality they had). I found it quite stimulating and helpful as a tool to understand my motivations, but let's just say once is probably enough. 

From time to time various shortened versions of the MBTI come up on social media and people fill them in in five minutes and arrive with some result. It's meant to be a lot more nuanced than that. A proper full length MBTI questionnaire takes time to fill in, is expensive, and only recognised practitioners can give you an accurate 'result'; i.e. your combination of 4 letters, from a possible set of 16 combinations. Each letter also has its 'opposite'; the pairs being  E-I (Extraversion-Introversion); N-S (iNtuition-Sensing); T-F (Thinking-Feeling) and J-P (Judging-Perceiving). 

Each pair represents the 2 ends of a spectrum, and in deciding if you're one letter or the other, what you're really doing is indicating how strong a preference you have for one over the other. Not only does the test give you the letters, but it gives them in differing numerical relationship to each other. It's like right handedness and left handedness: if you're right handed you prefer to do certain things with your right hand, because it feels normal; but if necessary you can do stuff with your left - it just feels less obvious.

There's a bit of technical language to understand, so for instance, the Extraversion/Introversion questions try to ascertain to what extent external things (other people, places, events) energise or drain you; and perhaps whether solitude is a habitual and sought out refreshment or a boring state to be endured until something more stimulating comes along, for example.

The classic scenario in our house is those who have 28 tabs open on the laptop while watching TV, texting and singing their latest favourite song (having left the radio on loud in the room they just walked out of) vs. those who are doing one thing at a time in silence in a corner, in the three hour break they need to rejuvenate themselves between one external/social stimulation and the next.

iNuition and sensing are about how you take in information from the outside world. iNuitives (N) add meaning and infer abstract things from what they see, hear, feel, taste or smell; while Sensers (S) are more likely to take the information coming at them at face value, i.e. they use their 5 senses and leave it at that (a slight confusion: the iNtuition is given N as its letter, to distinguish it from the I for Introversion).

I didn't grasp the iN-S distinction at all till the aforementioned C of E training weekend. After some preamble in our assigned conference room, we were told to go outside to the grounds of the place where we were staying and spend 20 minutes there before coming back to report on what took place. It was a pleasant sunny day but I remember being frustrated at this unnecessary interruption, feeing bored, half noticing a pond, which made me think of depth as an abstract concept; feeling generally impatient and then returning to the room hoping the programme would proceed without further ado. 

Once inside I was amazed to discover that some of my colleagues came back and reported on the intricate pattern of tiles on the roof, cited the names of six different trees and grasses, the shade of blue in the afternoon sky and the exact sound a certain bird had made whilst flying overhead. It won't surprise anyone that I'm not very far down the Sensing end at all.

Thinking and Feeling seem more self explanatory, but a preference is not always easy to discern in my case. The scenario we were given on this: you have to address a group of people who were all hoping to go on a foreign trip you had organised, but there was a mistake and only half of them will now be able to go. How do you react when telling them some will be disappointed? I figured only really hard line Thinkers would not feel upset that some people would not be going on the long hoped for holiday, and I felt I would worry about telling people, and so in that discussion I came out as a F. However in the pre-prepared questionnaire result, which was less emotive, I had scored as a T. 

With some people, of course, it's easy to guess a preference in either direction. How do you normally decide on a course of action? Do you weigh options up cooly and logically, mastering feelings and taking the reasonable path (T) or do you decide with the heart, feeling strong empathy for those affected by the consequences of your actions (F)? I'm still unsure whether I'm an "F" or a "T". I tend to vacillate, and some scores give me 'no preference for F over T' (which presumably also means 'no preference for T over F'). I think it could be that during ordination training I had to be pretty T-oriented, with all the new concepts, but in pastoral ministry I find my "F" more to the fore. I've also noticed that with those who are strong on "F" I feel very "T"; and vice versa.

Perhaps the oddest pairing is the final one: J-P. Judging-Perceiving refers to how you make sense of and order the world about you. Do you like to impose a structure and a plan, which you then stick firmly to (J) or do you simply observe the world as it comes your way, and respond accordingly with whatever option seems appropriate at the time (P, because you simply perceive the word and do not try and control it). Along with iNtuition, this is my more obvious result - I consistently act J in most things, and am not at all good at leaving certainty and exploring down the P end. Decisions that are last minute; people who seem passive and people who are flaky about time keeping I find personally challenging. No, definitely a J.

What practical use does it all have, and what was a Myers Briggs Training weekend doing on an ordination course? I think it all depends where you're coming from. On our course, many poo-pooed it (but they were mainly the scientists and the more P-oriented, who can't bear being categorised anyway). Interestingly, some research file:///Users/clairealcock/Downloads/religions-02-00389.pdf
has suggested that the 'typical' MBTI combination for Anglican Clerics is INFJ; that is, we are often introverts who are happy conceptualising, who feel strongly about things and who have a pre-thought out structure for the world, in which case, I fit in 50% of the time, or in 2 out of 4 of the typical letters associated with priests. Thankfully, this is only a trend, not a rule, but it might account for some suggested bias in the C of E selection process - I wonder if selectors generally are nervous of people who appear to be spontaneous and unpredictable....(a classic P).

In some settings the typical INFJ makes sense in the C of E, all that empathy you're supposed to show as a minister; plus believing certain things makes you (possibly) less likely to be open ended and spontaneous about life, so you end up J. 

*All our seats are in rows, for a start...
I felt certain echoes of this when I first began attending events with large groups of clergy. Putting it very bluntly, as an ENTJ, there seemed to me to be a surfeit of niceness (all those Feelers) and a reluctance to look outwards (all those Introverts). I seem to remember that after collating the MBTIs of all the ordinands on the weekend mentioned above, there were not many spontaneous 'living in the moment' types (P) so although I'm not one myself, in terms of ordained priests who are strongly P, I feel quite sorry for them, trying to function inside our particular institution. It must be maddening*.

How does all this personality stuff sit with growing in holiness? As far as I understand it, the MBTI is a good starting point but I never could get beyond that, to see how it accounts for growth. Presumably the idea is that whilst you remain more or less true to your type through life, you become more adept at exploring down the other ends of the spectra. I think this is noticeable when you meet people who are really mature - they pick the appropriate way to respond in any given human situation and don't get stuck in a habitual series of reactions which are extreme, unfortunate or difficult for everyone else. 

In pastoral ministry I often find myself trying to identify the MBTI of other people, to try and understand them better, and to understand how we are reacting to each other. There's some danger in this because it isn't necessarily appropriate to identify something as nuanced as another's personality and you can be wrong. At the best however, the MBTI is a useful tool, among others, for knowing yourself better. And 'know thyself' and knowing God are two things that are much closer together than you might think.

No comments:

Post a Comment