How can we understand other people? 

 

In our busy modern lives, we may find it is not always easy to take the time to understand another’s state of mind or their motivations. For example, when we are angry with someone, how often do we default to a subjective point of view and our own self-justifying inner voice instead of trying to see things from the other side? 

Can we break this cycle and let another voice in, no matter how uncomfortable this may seem to us? In other words: can we come to know other people? Well, the starting point may be developing our awareness that there are different types of people in the world, and therefore more than one point of view in any given situation.  

 

The introvert-extravert dichotomy  

 

This year marks the centenary of the publication of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s book Psychological Types which laid the foundations for mapping different types of people through, for example, the Myers Briggs Type indicator – one of the most widely used personality profiles in history. This was the book which brought the terms ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’ to the world. These words are now so pervasive in our lives that they have become everyday language in how we describe other people.  

But how can we really tell whether someone is an introvert or an extravert? Well, to put it very simply, an introvert’s main interests are in the inner world of concepts and ideas, while an extravert is more involved in the outer world of people and things. So, an introverted person will tend to prioritise their inner lives, whereas an extravert will tend to prioritise the outside environment. It’s not that simple: there are other factors involved, for example childhood experience. But it’s a very good starting point.  

 

An appreciation of the other’s take on things 

 

But where personality type really comes into its own beyond an academic exercise is to help us with real-life situations. Can we take these labels and make them work for us in a practical sense? Let’s take a typical situation from recent times: two people with contrasting natures living together during lockdown. Now, it may seem completely natural to someone with an introverted nature that ‘me time’ and regular time out from social interaction was necessary during lockdown to recharge and maintain their mental wellbeing. But perhaps not everyone. Because to someone with a more extraverted nature, focusing on getting things done in the outer world may have taken precedence, because they are the type of person recharged more by engaging with the outside environment. Two people, two types, two points of view.  

A typical unfolding of a lockdown scenario such as this may have been for each person to claim they “do not understand” the other. But just letting the other person know we do not understand them is not getting us very far. We could instead question ourselves as to why we do not understand the other person, and this may shine some light on the perceived chasm between us. An appreciation of the other’s take on things, and the practical will to find a middle path can lead to a more harmonious outcome. Conflict need not erupt from different natures, but it is far much more likely to come from the belief that one nature is right and one is wrong. In fact, neither is right or wrong – we just have two opposite perspectives on the world.  

 

Type is just a tool – we are complex human beings  

 

Ultimately, we are all complex human beings; and type is just a tool and not the be-all and end-all of the story. Nobody likes being reduced to a ‘type’, and within us all there is a natural resistance to something which seeks to reduce us to a label. However, most of us will concede that different types of people do exist. We can see this in our social lives and working lives; using personality typing just gives us a framework for understanding this.  

Different personality types exist in nature as a way of creating balance in the world. If everyone was one type – either all extraverts or all introverts – this balance would be lost and humankind would not have made the progress it has over the years we’ve been around. Just an appreciation of this and the fact we need all types, all points of view, already puts us in a good place. And while we experiment with thinking about how people are different than us, we might remember the common (and true) axiom that what we have in common far outweighs our differences. 

Beyond introversion and extraversion, there are many ways that personality typing can help us to understand ourselves and other people. If you are interested in finding out more, a good place to start is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. You can find details of this here: https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/