Learning and Unlearning the Elements of Style

There are more than four kinds of people  in the world, but in order to work effectively with as many of them as possible, it’s helpful to imagine – for a moment – that there might only be four.


The problem is once we’ve learned the frameworks that help identify the different “elements of style” of people, we must just as soon unlearn those frameworks.  This is a problem that even we instructors of those “four types of people” frameworks struggle with.

(SIDE NOTE: If you clicked through to this post thinking that this would be about the classic text on good writing form, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style,” you’re not entirely out of luck: The concepts in this post do apply, albeit through analogy, to the topic of “Learning and Unlearning the Rules of Grammar, Punctuation, Sentence Form, etc.”  and more generally in the category of “Don’t let learning and mastering the basics of a subject get in the way of being effective in real life when dealing with that subject .”) 


Learning the Basics

Teaching and learning about “styles” of people  is a basic element of almost every interpersonal development (aka “soft skills”) curriculum. The “styles” discussion can come up in almost any soft skills lesson, whether the lesson is on communicating, leading, collaborating, selling, negotiating, learning, teaching , or practically any other gerund related to social interaction. four-humours-temperaments-personal-blend  Tell me the name of an activity that people do with each other on a regular basis, and I’ll name you four (sometimes 2, 3, 5 or 16) ways of doing it.  It’s usually 4 ways because I’m a consultant… and I have a knack of coming up with useful distinctions that form 2×2 matrices.

Here’s what the typical lesson looks like:

  1. First, have the learners perform a self-assessement (e.g. answer some questions)
  2. Next, show them how they “scored” and proceed to describe the different styles represented by your framework
  3. Proceed with instructional activities whereby participants discuss and explore the framework, connecting with their prior experiences of situations that were “easier” and “harder” for them based on their “style”
  4. Rub your hands with glee as the Forer Effect kicks in and the learners have all kinds of “aha moments”
  5. Wag your finger and make the point about the importance of respecting diverse “styles,” the importance of collaboration, the importance of adaptation, and so forth.
  6. Hopefully, end off the lesson with some sort of application exercise and/or personal next steps

Again, the topic here can be anything — presenting, negotiating, learning — but the pattern of the lesson is more or less the same.

From an instructional design point of view, there are some obvious advantages – and less-obvious pitfalls — to using a people-styles framework on these sorts of topics.  Two of these are as follows:

Advantage #1: LENS

FHow many lenses can you count, between me and you? (minimum=6)rameworks act as a lens, making it easier to see patterns in the chaos of everyday reality. In learning the framework (e.g. “Four Communication Styles”), the learner has a diagnostic mental model: they can more easily identify sets of correlated observable behaviors, in order to read and predict the underlying dynamics of a given situation.

Although I openly mocked it (in “steps 4 & 5,” above), this is actually an incredibly useful thing to have.  Life is a confusing, blurry, dirty mess… we need goggles and vision correction if we’re going to navigate it successfully.  In any event, even if you decide not to learn an “official model,” chances are you’ve probably created your own lenses… consciously or unconsciously you’ve create your own mental categories of “types of people,” so you might as well learn a more effective, generally applicable model from someone like me. 🙂

Advantage #2: SCAFFOLD

Rockefeller Tree Scaffolding 11-16-11Frameworks act as a scaffold, helping the learner gradually work their way up to mastery of the lesson. They provide some intermediate steps that help the learner achieve the end goal. For example, on the path to learning how to adapt (collaborate, lead, etc.) with different “types” of people,  the learner may have a better chance of reaching that goal if they first focus on learning their own “type.”

Once again, very useful stuff, even if it is not exactly… exact… or scientifically precise.  While human beings are infinitely diverse, a few good statistically sound shortcuts can go a long way towards building positive, healthy, and prosperous relationships. Start by understanding yourself, and you’ll be in a better position of understanding others and how you interact with them.

So far so good? Okay, let’s look at the downside.

The “Lens” and “Scaffold” advantages open up a couple of hidden pitfalls that can ultimately subvert the instructional goal, and these are “Blinders” and “Binders.”

Disadvantage #1: BLINDERS:

The risk of having a really good lens is that it becomes permanently attached to our eyeballs. When a situation arises where we need to use a completely different lens in order to successfully adapt, we’re stuck. The tool which enabled us a greater choice of responses is now causing us to act in predictable and unhelpful ways.  A common example is where the goal of a lesson is to increase the respect for others and the ability to adapt to differences, and so teaches a framework for identify some major categories of differences… but then an anti-lesson emerges instead:  The learner improves their ability of pigeonholing others and decreases the refinement of their attempts to adapt to differences that are not captured by the ‘lens.’

Disadvantage #2: BINDERS

The risk of a really good scaffold is that we get stuck in it. We pause along the way for too long and stop building… we stay perched up in the air, flailing in the wind, entranced by the beauty of the scaffolding, but we forget it’s a temporary structure… in time, it will start crumbling down and make a big mess of things. Thus is our example, if  the goal of a lesson was to increase the respect for others and the ability to adapt to differences, and the scaffold is to first learn one’s own “style”  as a way to make it easier to achieve that end goal, then the potential anti-lesson is as follows: The learner improves their self-awareness to the point of complete self-focus ( “hey, I know you said this lesson is about external focus, empathy and walking in the metaphorical shoes of others, but let’s talk some more about me…” ), and decreases their willingness to identify with differences (also known as the “Us vs. Them” or “What is Wrong with You People” Effect).

I have facilitated lessons about “communication styles” to hundreds, nay, thousands of people – and I will continue to facilitate those lessons to thousands more – and I’ve watched the process unfold where people talk themselves into a corner… their newfound levels of self-awareness morph into self-scripting. This can happen within minutes, and it only increases the longer the person stays with the framework.  I’ve observed colleagues and clients who, having mastered their knowledge of a communication styles framework, have increasingly become “more like themselves” over the years, i.e., less adaptable, with a narrower range of responses to a given stimulus.

For this reason I believe that part of the lesson of learning a framework on “style of people”– without patronizing or scolding the learner – and without undermining the lesson or confusing the point – is to how to “unlearn” the frameworks being learned.


How to Apply “Unlearning” to the Lesson?

Two final thoughts:

1) Teach how to put in the contact lenses, and also how to safely remove them.  If you’re going to build a lesson that includes a framework, include some points around where that framework might not apply…. or include more than one framework in the lesson… but make sure not to have them so close that they are confusing.   (Some additional thoughts on this in my next post.)

2)  Erect the scaffolding only if there is enough time to finish the building and clean up the construction site afterwards. This means that if you’re going to use self-awareness as a pathway to adaptation, make sure that you give enough time for the learner to stare into the mirror for a bit and then move on.  Also, structure the lesson so that they don’t stare into the mirror too long… the longer they stay in that step of the lesson, the greater the risk that they tune-out the rest of the lesson.  The “clean up” part is about how you have the learner demonstrate they’ve learned the lesson:  As your final application exercise, don’t have the learner give a presentation about their own style – that’s means you’ve left them out on the scaffolding. Rather, have them give a presentation about how they’ll adapt to other  people styles.  Now you’ve got a cleaned up construction site.

Remember, the map is not the territory… the framework’s job is to help navigate certain elements of reality, but it’s your job to fully live in reality.



About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on February 18, 2013, in Coaching, Collaboration, Communication Skills, Instructional Design, Learning, Metaphors, Negotiation, photography, Psychology, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. there’s a cool concept in greek mythology: The river Lethe.

    those who bathed in it, forgot. forgot their suffering. but also forgot what they knew. the symbolism being to learn something new you have to forget what you know.

    another cute imagery ive come accross is “when you open a book, you necessarily cover something”…

    we have (in health sciences) the concept of “don’t mistake your models for reality”… i like your overall enphasis of model v/s reality. models help us navigate thru the world, but they also limit our experience of it, blinding us to anything that doesn’t fit into them…

    my angle with models is to deal with them as what they are: models. making sure the language used acts as a constant reminder that it’s just a model, not reality. “there are 4 types of people” v/s “we have 4 models of people” etc…

    • Nice.

      ..and when you open an ebook, you have to close your browser window.

      ..or something.

      re: use of language during the lesson: yes… and while I try to avoid saying things like, e.g. “this person is very much an Amiable type of person,” I also try to not get too equivocal about it… e.g. “this person was behaving in a manner very consistent with the model’s Amiable quadrant.”

      You’re gonna love the next post, Nareg. Thanks for reading & commenting.

  1. Pingback: The Higher Dimensions of Style | Meme Menagerie

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