It is important to us that people listen to our needs, understand them and adapt to them. We know this about ourselves, but very few of us can naturally empathise with others. One reason for this, I think, is that human beings are almost infinitely complex and yet our brains cannot cope with this variety.
So what do we do? We create archetypes. We categorise. There are even people who classify themselves (and others) according to whether they were a first, second or third child (fourth children fall into the same category as the first-born). I wonder whether this is because in small communities (with close genetic links) such generalisations are likely to be accurate. As our circles of acquaintance become larger, their weaknesses become more obvious, but as we also struggle to do without them we depend more heavily on them.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I read Graham Durant-Law’s recent blog post, and remembered Dave Snowden’s short rant against Myers-Briggs. They both point to the complete absence of scientific evidence for summing people up in a small number of categories. Graham also poses a number of questions:
Why do these modern archetypes have credibility and how do these they help us? Why are they any better than Jung’s original archetypes? Where are they best used and what problems do they solve?
I can’t answer any of these, but I am interested in the way in which we think they might help us. Going back to my starting point, we want to be able to understand people (whether our managers, our team, our clients and customers, or our families) in order to work better with or for them, or to get along with them as well as possible. Doing that well is excessively hard. However, by referring to archetypes or categories we can make a reasonable attempt at empathy (especially for the relationships where a ‘quick fix’ will do).
We are fooling ourselves. If any of these relationships is worth pursuing, it must be worth the real effort that it takes to recognise someone as an individual with unique needs, desires, concerns, preoccupations and quirks. Archetypes and categories only conceal that reality.