Have you ever tried to explain something that your conversation partner simply could not understand? Chances are, you were speaking to someone at the opposite end of the Sensing-Intuition spectrum. The two terms describe how a person creates meaning from the information they receive from the world.
How Sensors and Intuitives Communicate
As a quick reminder, let’s take a look at the way Sensors and Intuitives process information.
Sensors pay attention to their direct experiences. They make decisions based on the things they can see, hear, feel, taste and smell, without attributing any deeper meaning to these sensations. As such, they prefer to work with specific data rather than ideas and theories. To understand something, a Sensor (S) will gather all of the facts and work through a problem from the ground up.
Intuitives rely heavily on unconscious perception, what is commonly referred to as gut instinct. While they do not ignore the evidence of their senses, they often take a perceptive leap and link that evidence to other things via feelings or imagination. As such, they are more interested in what might be (ideas and possibilities) than what is (data). To understand something, an Intuitive will link together a complex web of data, and not necessarily in sequence.
Most people are a mix of both Sensing and Intuition, with a strong or slight preference one way or the other. About 30% of the population identify as Intuitive, while the rest are Sensors.
Mind the Communication Gap
You can see how communication might break down if one conversation partner has a clear Sensing preference and the other Intuition.
- The S who thrives on precision and clarity will be wondering when the N will get to the point.
- The N who sees the bigger picture will wonder why the S is sticking to one data point and ignoring other frames of reference.
Both the S and the N may have a clear grasp of the problem but are using different languages (literal versus abstract) to describe their ideas—a recipe for confusion.
Three Exercises to Aid Communication
Individuals become far more effective communicators when they deliver information in a style sensitive to the receiver rather than to the deliverer. These exercises are designed to help Sensors and Intuitives communicate in a way so the other person understands.
Exercise One: Visualize
The first exercise is designed to help Sensors and Intuitives visualize the way in which the other person thinks and communicates. It’s taken from a concept known as the “Ladder of Abstraction” from S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action.
Participants begin the exercise by drawing an actual ladder. The ladder illustrates an individual’s communication preference. The higher up the ladder you go, the more abstract the communication preference. The lower down the ladder you go, the more literal or concrete the communication preference. Hayakawa describes the progression of concepts as it applies to a cow named Bessie:
- Wealth (top of the ladder; most abstract)
- Farm assets—tractors, barns, land
- Farm Animals
- The cow named Bessie (bottom of the ladder; most concrete)
When we communicate, we more naturally gravitate to a certain level of abstraction. A strong Intuitive would sit at the top of the ladder, whereas a strong Sensor would sit at the bottom. Working together, participants should use the ladder to figure out their own communication preference. Here’s a condensed version of how the thinking might go regarding a humble cheese sandwich:
- Cheese sandwich
Communicating at one rung on the ladder is known as “dead level abstracting.” If you communicate only on one level while your conversation partner communicates on a different level, you will not be able to make a compelling argument.
The next two exercises are designed to help you move up or down the ladder, making your message more persuasive for audiences on different rungs.
Exercise Two: Listen
One of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People states that we must first seek to understand, then be understood. For this exercise, a Sensor and an Intuitive are to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears one section at a time, taking turns after every two or three sentences. For example:
Sensor: Once upon a time there was a little girl called Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked in.
Intuitive: Goldilocks was hungry. She noticed three bowls of porridge on the table and, being a greedy girl, headed straight for the largest bowl. She tasted the porridge and yelled, "this porridge is too hot!"
Sensor: She tasted the porridge from the second bowl. "This porridge is too cold," she said.
And so on. Practitioners may find this simple exercise very difficult, as Sensors traditionally will tell the story in a linear fashion whereas Intuitives may jump from section to section, adding their own inference as to how each of the characters should think, act and feel. To follow the story, each personality type must tune into the other’s thought processes. They quickly will discover how important it is to listen and understand before attempting to get their own point across.
Exercise Three: Adapt
The final exercise demonstrates how Sensors and Intuitives can take different paths but ultimately end up at the same destination. It starts by dividing a pairing or a group into Sensors and Intuitives. Each group must write a flyer encouraging people to visit a local event or attraction. The catch is that the advertisement must entice the other group to visit the event.
This exercise is a good way of getting Sensors and Intuitives to adapt their communication preference to the specific needs of their audience. If the Intuitive group has tuned into the Sensors’ communication preference, their advertisement (written for Sensors) should highlight:
- Concrete information—number of attractions and food outlets
- Facts and numbers—opening times, map and location
- Sensory language—what can I see there?
- Photographs, so the Sensor can visualize the event
- A strong call-to-action (call for tickets!) so the Sensor knows how to put the message into practice
Sensors, writing for Intuitives, might focus on:
- Abstract information—thrills, spills and adventure
- Fantasy and imagination
- Abstract language—what can I experience there?
- The bigger picture—how the attraction or event connects to other ideas
- An appeal to shared ideals—how the event connects to the ideals held by the Intuitive, such as freedom, literacy or social justice
Communication in a Nutshell
The key takeaway is that, to communicate effectively, you need to speak with the receiver in mind. These exercises are designed to help you visualize the communication style of others, and move up or down the ladder of abstraction until you are at the same level as your conversation partner. From there it is a short step towards adapting your everyday communication style to get the message across, no matter where your audience sits on the Sensing-Intuition spectrum.