The following is edited and adapted from http://sern.ucalgary.ca/courses/seng/693/W98/alang/minor.html
It is intended to supplement personal understanding and enhance critical self-examination of yourself as a communicator.
Styles of Thinking
"How do people think about things?" Harrison and Bramson, through their research detailed in their text The Art of Thinking, found that in Western society there are five distinct styles of thinking. Most people show a marked preference for one or two of the styles. These styles are referred to as "Inquiry Modes.” The five styles of thinking are:
"Synthesists are apt to appear challenging, skeptical, or satirically amused, even when you can see no cause for any of that." They like to speculate and enjoy being the "devils advocate.” You may find them difficult because they tend to enjoy conflict and argument simply for the sake of argument.
A Synthesist can juggle both arguments and counter arguments mentally and recognize the validity of each and form new ideas from that conflict.
The first common strategy of the Synthesist is that of "Open Argument and Confrontation." Synthesists realize that this fires creativity. They will openly confront antagonists and appear aggressive or abrasive.
Their second common strategy is "Asking Dumb-Smart Questions." This means that they will often, ask a question to which they already know the answer in order to get the respondent to open up. What better way to get someone to agree with your argument than to get the other person to think it was his argument and that he is convincing you?
Synthesists like to be observers of conflict. They can learn more by starting a debate and then observing how other people behave than by participating themselves. They will "throw out" the challenging questions that they know will ruffle some feathers just to get a reaction.
The ability to look at opposing viewpoints and not pass judgement is indicative of a Synthesist. "Suspending Opposing Ideas" is the mark of a mature intelligence. This seems to go hand in hand with the idea of being observers and the understanding that people see situations from a personal perspective, and that much can be learned from looking at a situation from another viewpoint.
Synthesists like to speculate. They are the champion of the "What if?" questions. They recognize the fact that these types of questions fuel creativity and cause the thinker to look in different directions for answers. "Brainstorming" sessions are an attempt to formalize this type of strategy and can make the non-synthesist see the value in this way of thinking. Hand in hand with this type of speculation is the proposing of "far out" solutions. Synthesists may speculate in areas where a non-synthesist has a hard time seeing the connection.
Even when Synthesists make recommendations, such thinkers challenge their own ideas. They are masters at "Negative Analysis,” playing the devil’s advocate, which gives them a far clearer picture of what an idea totally entails.
To be a Synthesist is to be someone who strives on conflict and uses it to fuel creativity. The ability to speculate can cause problem when dealing with the mundane processes of everyday existence, however. Synthesists don't like to be bothered by facts or details and sometimes those very details can be the thing that will bring them down to earth. "Don't look to a Synthesist for caution or moderation. They like to do things in a big way or not at all.”
"Idealists look and respond attentively and receptively," giving the impression that they are truly interested in what you are saying and value your opinion. From the standpoint of conflict they are the exact opposite of the Synthesist. They shun conflict and are always trying to be accommodating. As an Idealist, they try to think holistically. Wholesomeness and assimilation are two very strong traits for an idealist.
One of their prime strategies is to "focus on the whole"; in other words, to take the holistic approach. For Idealists, nothing is in isolation. This viewpoint can open up new areas of discussion but can also distract from the specific details of a particular problem.
Idealists also tend to take a much longer view of things. They tend to be greater planners and are convinced that the world can be a better place if only people started thinking about the future and planning more. The fact that the Idealist is more prone to plan may delay important decisions from being made or actions from being taken. Yet, it can also defer impulsive action as well. This will give everyone more time to plan and set goals and standards.
Idealists also tend to be very receptive listeners. They aren't interested in listening to a lot of data or facts, however. They are more interested in "people" and "feelings." Because of this, they can be very good at gathering information. People relate to them and feel that they can trust them. Due to their interest in people and relationships, Idealists will try and humanize an argument.
Unlike the Synthesist, the Idealist will tend to concentrate on the "correct" method of carrying out a task as opposed to utilizing conflict to fuel creativity to find better methods. Idealists have valuable strategies but they must be used in the proper proportions in order to be effective.
"Pragmatists often show a good deal of humor, a quickness to agree with others' ideas." Unlike Idealists, they don't shy away from conflict but neither do they relish it like the Synthesist. They realize it is useful and necessary and they make use of it. They like to experiment and brainstorm and can be very creative.
The Pragmatists’ motto appears to be "Whatever works.” They are not ones for long range plans and tend to be short range, practical thinkers. They tend to employ an incremental or piecemeal approach to life. This may put them in conflict with someone who has long range goals, but the advantage to the Pragmatist approach is that it produces demonstrable results quickly.
In being focused on the short term and the quick payoff, Pragmatists tend to be very creative and innovative. They, more than any other thinking style, realize that even the longest journey begins with a single step.
In keeping with the idea of quick payoff and short term thinking, Pragmatists tend to be good tacticians. If people are not concerned about long range plans but need something accomplished tomorrow or next week, the Pragmatist is usually the person who can find a way to make it happen. The Pragmatists believe in their way of thinking and are good at convincing others of its validity. In this way, they are good marketers of ideas. They understand their audiences and understand how to package their proposals to make them sell.
Pragmatists seldom get caught in the trap of finding themselves stuck with no direction to turn. They are good at contingency planning. If they find one path blocked, they will look for another one. This can often be seen as intimidating by the more conservative elements of society. Their best advantage is their creativity and ability to cope with change. The problem with the Pragmatist is in giving the impression of working "off the cuff" or not working to any plan or in any direction.
"Analysts tend to appear cool, studious, perhaps distant and hard to read.” They look at things logically and are data and fact centered. They believe in reason and rules and "one correct way" of doing things. They can appear very dry and disciplined, without much of a sense of humor. It's not that they don't have a sense of humor, it's just that it's more cerebral. Their basic strategy is one of methodology and the scientific method. If an Analyst has a task to perform, she will write it down and methodically plan how to accomplish it.
Analysts thrive on data. They are "Number Crunchers." If an Analyst doesn't feel comfortable about a decision, she will gather more data.
One of the prime methods used by the Analyst is that of "Conservative Focusing.” This is a type of decomposition such that when an Analyst is presented with a problem, she will try and break it down into its components. The key to solving any problem can be found in isolation. If the thinker can isolate and examine each of the components of a system separately then she can systematically solve any problem.
Analysts make lists. They make lists of lists. They feel that clarity can be gained by looking at something when it's written down. Analysts also thrive on detail and precision. They will proofread documents and tend to be nit-pickers and perfectionists. Their life must be orderly and that is a skill which must be properly utilized.
"Realists tend to have a direct, forceful, frank appearance, not necessarily aggressive, but sometimes that too." They are no-nonsense people. The main strategy employed by a Realist is that of “Empirical Discovery.” They like things concrete and rely very much on their senses to tell them about the world.
The Realist will ask the hard questions and believe that in order to accomplish anything he must first set objectives and come up with an agenda for accomplishing his goals. Realists like to have a clear picture of where they're heading. The Realist relies on fact but not in the same way as the analyst. The analyst is more of a "data" person.
The Realist understands the resources that they have at hand and has a solid grasp of just what can be accomplished with them. He likes to simplify things. The more he breaks down complex problems into simpler problems the easier they are to solve and the clearer they become. Realists also have a much better idea of their limitations. They won't hesitate to bring in outside expert help when it's required.
Harrison and Bramson talk about there being a lot of Realist qualities in mothers and nurses. What they're getting at is the fact that everybody has a Realist component and that there are circumstances where these qualities have to emerge. Certain situations demand a Realist response. Practically any other response will fail. The Realist will take immediate corrective action under these circumstances when any other response could be disastrous.
Realists are people with strong opinions and are "matter of fact" people. They have a low tolerance for ambiguity and prefer immediate facts. Their main strength comes in setting clear, near term objectives.
The key to influencing people as a communicator appears to be in presenting an argument in terms that other types of thinkers from the kind you are can relate to. This means understanding thinking styles and recognizing that everyone has her own style or combination of styles and making adjustments to fit that. Understanding what the other person is looking for and how they are viewing something will go a long ways towards helping any individual get the point across.
Using Your Strengths
Every thinking style has its strengths and its weaknesses. The first step in using your strengths is understanding and accepting them. Stop thinking that you are different or think differently. Everyone is “different” and thinks “differently.”
If your primary thinking style is that of the Synthesist then you are probably someone who enjoys conflict, or being asked to come up with solutions to the "unsolvable” problem. You have a tendency to look at a problem from many different perspectives and can usually come up with some pretty creative solutions.
If you are an Idealist then your strengths lie in setting goals and in a "coaching" style of leadership. As a leader you are a "nurturer" as opposed to a "director." Your leadership style tends to relieve stress rather than cause it. You work better in a more supportive and participatory style rather than in a highly structured, hierarchical organization.
The Pragmatist, like the Synthesist, is a very resourceful and creative individual. You are problem solvers and creators of solutions. Your solutions do tend to be a bit riskier than those of the Synthesist but they are more innovative and have a better payoff.
Analysts are specialist troubleshooters and thrive on detail. You deal best with methodologies and facts. You will do the best job possible with a task that requires a well thought out process and stepwise completion.
The Realist is someone who can provide a practical solution to a problem quickly. You will call a spade a spade and not mince words. You will have a very good grasp of a situation and react accordingly.
Extending and Augmenting your Thinking Strategies
Once you understand about thinking styles and the fact that all people think in a variety of different ways and combinations of ways, then you can take steps to improve the way you communicate. The text, The Art of Thinking, suggests a number of exercises which can be done in order to improve your ability to think with a different style. The more you can adjust your thinking to adapt to different styles the better off you will be in dealing with different people and situations.
The following suggestions for augmenting thinking styles are intended to be done by people who are not of that primary style and are intended to give you a better insight into that thinking style.
If you want to improve your Synthesist skills, practice listening for conflict and disagreement. Become a good listener and try to listen for what is not being said. Try and determine the underlying stress, tension and emotion in a conversation. Try and find relationships between things that have no apparent connection. Take a more holistic viewpoint. Develop a tolerance for eccentricity by taking part of deliberately viewing activities that you would normally think are "not your style."
To improve your Idealist skills try taking a more holistic approach to things. Think more about the whole then the parts. Try and make some long range plans for yourself and think about the future. What will things be like 5, 10 or even 100 years in the future? Look for what goals and values are being represented in other things. Write a personal "mission statement" and talk to others about what their long range goals and values are.
In order to improve your Pragmatist skills practice thinking incrementally. Experiment with an "off the wall" idea and try being a bit more playful with ideas and plans. Think more about "marketing" in order to "sell" your ideas. Think about how you can communicate your ideas and plans in such a way that they will appear more attractive to the listener.
Analyst skills are improved, oddly enough, through analysis. Study statistics if possible. Learn to draw flowcharts and think in terms of cause and effect; how one thing flows from another. Pay greater attention to detail by proofreading everything you write and double checking calculations even though it’s tedious. Deliberately set yourself to a task, such as investigating buying a new car, and begin to gather data. You may normally make a purchase of that sort instinctively but this time do it analytically.
In order to start improving your Realist skills, start focusing on concrete results. Examine what is required in order to complete a project. Start to plan more and look at resources. Learn to be more precise in what you say and write. Paraphrase more. Try to accurately express your thoughts using fewer and fewer words. Use short declarative sentences whenever possible.
This entire paper is based on a lecture given by Dr. Brian Woodward at the University of Calgary on Dec. 1st, 1997 and the following text, Harrision, A.F. and Bramson, R.M., The Art of Thinking, Berkeley Book, New York, 1984.