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Connecting Personality Type to Communication: S/N Differences

Connecting Personality Type to Communication: S/N Differences

By Donna Dunning

There is a classic joke in personality type theory where the person with (S) Sensing preferences asks “What time is it?” to the person with preferences for (N) Intuition and the reply is, “It’s still early”. The person with Sensing preferences repeats, “No, what time is it?” and the reply is, “Oh, we have lots of time.” The question is not being answered in the way that suits a person with Sensing preferences; they want to hear a concrete response, such as 8:24 AM.


This interaction shows how communication between Sensing and Intuitive types can, at times, be challenging. The person favoring Intuition was making a leap when answering the question, interpreting why someone might have been asking about the time and responding with what the time meant, rather than concentrating on the time itself. The person favoring Sensing just wanted their question answered; what is the time? These S/N differences, about where an individual first centers their attention when taking in and processing information, can create communication challenges.


Sensing types prefer to trust what they know to be true from experience and tend to focus on the past or present. They pay most attention to practical data that is concrete and realistic. When dealing with a situation, Sensing types are likely to emphasize short-term efforts and consequences and be most interested in immediate actions and results. For those who use Sensing to collect and accumulate information internally, especially ISTJs, ISFJs, ESTJs, and ESFJs, past experience and factual knowledge is important. People sharing these preferences tend to center their communications on what worked (or didn’t work) in the past. Those who use Sensing outwardly to observe and react to their immediate environment, an approach preferred by ESTPs, ESFPs, ISTPs, and ISFPs, tend to focus on the here-and-now and are most interested in talking about or trying something that is practical.


In contrast, Intuitive types think about what could be and are not as bound by realities and experiences. They are likely to imagine possibilities and direct their creative attention to long-term changes. For Intuitive types, new ideas and new ways of doing things hold more interest than what has already been tried. They often enjoy and initiate change. Outwardly, Intuition can be used to brainstorm ideas or options, an approach often used by ENTPs, ENFPs, INTPs, and INFPs. Or Intuition can be used internally to link ideas together and integrate information, a preferred activity for INTJs, INFJs, ENTJs, and ENFJs.


As you have likely experienced, there can be communication disconnects when some people are interested in preserving what worked in the past and sticking to the tried-and-true, while others are interested in taking immediate practical action, and still others are imagining and creating completely new ways of doing things. The Intuitive types may alienate the Sensing types by having a vision that doesn’t include practical steps to getting there or evidence that the new way has been tried with successful results. The Sensing types may annoy the Intuitive types by expressing the need for more practical and concrete information. Many Intuitive types interpret this need for information as resistance to change, a label that doesn’t respect the information processing style of the Sensing type.

What Comes First?

Another communication challenge is whether or not a person first communicates details or provides an overview of information. Intuitive types often prefer to understand and process information by hearing or creating an overview, framework, or “big picture”. Without a general idea about what is coming they find it more difficult to take in facts and details. In contrast, Sensing types usually prefer to learn the facts and details first. Then, by organizing and categorizing the data, they can build a bigger-picture understanding of the topic. As a result, Intuitive types may find it difficult to listen to someone who is sharing details without providing an overview and the Sensing types may find it difficult to hear about abstract ideas not grounded sufficiently in facts and realities.

I remember my son (ISTJ preferences) struggling in English when he was expected to create a story from a picture. There was nothing concrete for him to start from. We worked together to find ways to link abstract and metaphorical images to something relevant to his life. My daughter (ENFP preferences) just loved these story starters, but struggled to remember facts and details in other courses. In a similar way, as we communicate and learn from each other at work, we are often focused on different aspects of the same information.

Expressing Ourselves

Our use of language sometimes demonstrates these diverse communication styles. Intuitive types like to use metaphors and Sensing types may prefer direct language. I remember one participant in a change management workshop, who had Sensing preferences, commenting: “If one more person tells me we are in a boat going through rapids and we have to pull together, I think I’ll be sick.”

Lost in Conversation

Communication may go astray when Intuitive types leap around between ideas whereas Sensing types prefer to hear and present information sequentially. The Intuitive type, when leaping from idea to idea, may end up talking about a topic that is quite different from the one currently under discussion, a lateral leap that can be confusing to others. On several occasions, I (ENFP preferences) have had to stop a conversation and go back to explain where my last thought came from.

Appreciating Differences

The differences in communication style sometimes compliment, rather than conflict with, each other. I have found a composed certainty in conversations with my son (ISTJ). He grounds me, keeping my visions within the bounds of reality. Although I may not like the barriers to my intuitive leaps, they are necessary and I am learning from him as much as he has learned from me.

Communicating about the past, present, and future are all essential for building relationships, learning, and working effectively. Sensing and Intuition are both valuable ways of taking in and processing information that we all use to find out more about our world. Hopefully, by understanding our communication differences we can appreciate and accommodate dissimilar communication approaches and learn to interact and work with all personality types more effectively.

Have you experienced S/N communication differences? What strategies worked for you to communicate more effectively?

There’s more information on this topic in Introduction to Type® and Communication.

If you live in the USA, Introduction to Type and Communication is now available on Kindle.

Looking for a practical resource to help you plan your ideal career? Check out my book, What’s Your Type of Career?: Find Your Perfect Career By Using Your Personality Type

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 5th, 2010 at 8:39 am and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Connecting Personality Type to Communication: S/N Differences”

  1. Tina says:

    As a first grader, I had trouble reading. In fact, the teacher told my Mom that I would never learn to read (this was in the early 70’s). My Mom spent months teaching me to read. What neither one of us knew at the time, was that I am a huge N. I was adding to the story as I read or skipping words all together. With much aggrevation on both our parts, my Mom stumbled on the simple thing of using her finger to guide me with each word. I started reading correctly and by the end of the year received the, “Most Improved” in reading. Many years later in college, I tested my reading ability and it was off the charts.

    When I finally came across the MBTI, I understood why I had trouble. I didn’t have a learning disability, just needed to learn a different way. I wish all teachers were required to learn about MBTI and learning difficulties.

  2. Jaymie says:

    I used to work in a non-profit where we used MBTI with our leadership staff. One time we saw the N/S difference was during a meeting where our INTP CEO and ENFJ Development officer were talking about all the things we COULD do in the future while our ISTJ Finance officer started hyperventilating, thinking “How are we going to pay for all that?!” She heard absolutes while they were just dreaming out loud. Recognizing our differences helped – we realized what was happening and talked it through. Since my role with the company required me to be more SJ-ish (even though I am an ENFJ), I was able to do some “translating” and that seemed to help. We tried to be especially clear when we were just brainstorming and when we were talking about concrete things/absolutes.

  3. Cathleen Ferose says:

    Being an ENFJ high school teacher has required me to think like an S when grading a subject like Speech or Debate. I have had to learn to be specific in writing critiques and in giving directions to my S students. My N students always seemed to be tuned to my dial, requiring less of the concrete details to understand what I mean. Overall, I think it has improved my communication skills when being very aware of the differences.

  4. Donna Dunning says:

    Hi Jaymie, What a great story. Thanks for sharing it. Not only does it show the S/N differences, it also highlights how you used your Extraverted Feeling to accommodate everyone’s preferences and bridge the communication gap.

  5. Donna Dunning says:

    Hi Tina, I share your wish that all teachers could understand and accommodate learning differences. Hats off to your Mom for taking the time to figure out a strategy that worked for you. Many kids aren’t that fortunate. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Donna Dunning says:

    Thanks for your input Cathleen. It is great to see there are wonderful teachers like you out there making the effort to step outside of your preferences to help all students learn.

  7. Lindsay says:

    My ISTP boyfriend and I have noticed other interesting S/N differences. We discovered that I tend to value word choice and intricate meaning behind specific language when communicating (I am an ENFP) and he tends to value body language and tone when interpreting meanings. So, I try to work on my tone and body language and he tries to be conscientious of word choice. Even just knowing these differences already makes a huge difference in quality of communication.

  8. Donna Dunning says:

    Hi Lindsay, I have heard other people with a preference for S describe how they “read” people by observing body language. I think it is great that you and your boyfriend are taking the time to communicate how you interpret situations. This makes type differences interesting and human rather than negative. Thanks for adding this insight. I think it will be very useful for others.

  9. […] Connecting Personality Type to Communication: S/N Difference …Oct 5, 2010 … Outwardly, Intuition can be used to brainstorm ideas or options, an approach often used by ENTPs, ENFPs, INTPs, and INFPs. Or Intuition can … […]

  10. Bette says:

    I have a very close friend who is isfj (I’m enfp- enfps seem to be drawn to this thread).
    The relationship is at it’s best when I’m giving her lots of listening and insight as isfjs look to friends for emotional support and help with decisions. Enfps are mostly kind and don’t like to control people so usually we can have (and love to have) these long supportive conversations without isfj being over-influenced or taken advantage of (they are prone to that). When she is very low she says she likes to be with me due to my tangential, idea jumping rambling. It distracts her from concrete worries and there is some infectious enthusiasm, this seems to be temporary and she can get a bit dependent, plunging back into anxiety soon as she’s left.
    Occasionally she catches me unaware because she has really remembered and taken in some detail I’ve come out with (and longsince forgotten) and I’m reminded that people with sensing and introvert preferences actually know what they’re saying. It is something real and specific and they can assume that what I’ve said was too, when in fact often it was just an idealistic journey, not spoken to be documented.
    All in all, positives are I inspire and distract her (occ to point of dependence), she grounds and appreciates me (she is very kind).
    Negatives; I become an overbearing conversational force and she mistakenly believes that what I’m saying is insightful and takes it all in 😛
    What an ego boost for me, oh dear!

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