Your Preferred Communication Style

Another way to distinguish between whether you are an INFJ or an INFP is to determine your 2 preferred communication styles.

(This is part of another Type model, and it's the most reliable way to sort INFJ from INFP.  If you write me wondering which Type you are, I'm going to push you to sort on this polarity -- so you might as well do it now.  Spend some time on this page -- in fact, read it TWICE!)

Both INFPs and INFJs are "responding" types.  That's another way of saying "introvert."  All introverts prefer the responding communication style.  This is often a simpler yardstick than choosing between "gregarious" and "shy," which is how extraversion and introversion are sometimes defined.  The "responding" communication style simply means that other people are more likely to start up a conversation with you than you are to start up a conversation with them.  It's all about who goes first.  In contrast, extraverts are "initiating" types, which means they tend to initiate dialogue more often than "responding" types do.  That doesn't mean extraverts can only initiate and introverts can only respond -- it simply reflects what each type is more inclined to do.

Many responding Catalysts often wonder whether they are actually extraverts, because they can be downright gregarious in certain situations, especially with their natural interest in teamwork and other people.  It's hard to imagine a Catalyst not wanting to be around people!  The question to ask yourself is whether you have a tendency to initiate conversations, or wait to respond to someone else's overtures.  If the latter, you're probably a "responding" communicator -- which fits for both INFJ and INFP.  

To sort out whether your preferences are for INFJ or INFP, investigate whether you possess the directing or informing style of communication.

"What's that?" you are probably asking.  Well, it's a concept that's nearly impossible to explain via the internet, but I'm going to try.  According to Dr. Linda Berens, the founder of Interstrength Associates (formerly Temperament Research Institute), each of us is hard-wired to utilize one communication style over the other.  That means you're just plain born that way -- it's innate!  And it's not only about the words we use; it's how we communicate our intent (though some of us have been conditioned to soften or amplify our natural style, depending on our environments and how we were nurtured).  

David Keirsey titles these styles of communication "role-informing" and "role-directing" -- which is the same concept with longer labels.  And let me make it clear:  directing and informing are on a continuum, and everyone is capable of doing either one at any given time.

The question is, which style are you more comfortable with?  (And nobody gets to live on the mid-point.)

The directing style of communication is easiest to spot.  The extreme form is the style used by traffic cops, stressed parents, and military commanders.  It includes communications that would be classified as a "direct order."  Examples include:

"Sit down."
"Put it over there."
"Clean your room."

The message is delivered in an authoritative tone of voice.  The reason Keirsey calls this "role-directing" is because the person speaking the words assigns what roles are to be played in the interaction.  In the examples above, the speaker adopts the "in charge" role, while the recipient is automatically subordinated.  The listener is expected to cooperate and play the role the speaker has determined.

The informing style of communication is harder to detect.  Sometimes those with the directing style are simply oblivious to it, not recognizing that a defining interaction just transpired.  Extreme forms of this communication include messages that might be classified as "victim talk."  Examples include:

"I don't have any money."
"That music is so loud."
I'm not feeling good."

These communications are delivered in a non-authoritative tone of voice.  The reason Keirsey calls them "role-informing" is because the person speaking the words is deliberately not defining what roles are assigned in the interaction.  In these examples, the listener gets to choose what roles are to be played -- meaning they have been granted authority whether to ignore the remark or act upon it.  The critical factor is that the recipient of the message gets to determine what part they choose to play.  They can act on the information, or not -- the decision is freely theirs.  

The examples I've posed are those of extremes -- bossy on the one side, victim on the other.  But please don't think I'm painting INFPs as victims and INFJs as persecutors -- I'm using extreme examples and descriptions to make my point!  In real life, most normal communications fall somewhere closer toward the mid-point.  Perhaps the best example is the simplest one:

Informing communication:  The light is green.
Directing communication:  Go.

Chances are you've spoken phrases of both these kinds during various episodes in your life.  Which reinforces the point I made earlier -- everyone is capable of doing both styles of communication.  And one episode of directing does not define you as having the directing style; nor does one episode of informing define you as having the informing style.  The appropriate question to ask yourself is, which style are you more comfortable with?

In this special situation we are investigating -- meaning our attempt to distinguish a preference for INFJ or INFP -- it can be tricky to discern which communication style one prefers (compounded by how this is nearly impossible to explain through the internet).  In a nutshell, INFJs are more comfortable telling other people what to do than INFPs are, despite both being introverts.  INFPs are more comfortable just providing information.  

I'll provide a couple more examples:



"Ask Jerry for specific instructions on balancing the budget."

"Jerry has some information that might help you balance the budget."

"Marion, would you find a restaurant to host fifty people at a banquet in September?"

"Marion, do we have information on any restaurants that could host a banquet in September for fifty people?"

See how both columns request the same outcome, but in entirely different ways?

And here's a domestic example.  Let's imagine we have run out of milk. A spectrum of remarks to a family member might include 

We're out of milk. 
We need milk. 
Would you be able to get us some milk? 
We're out of milk and I was wondering if you could get us some? 
We're out of milk. Would you please get us some? 
Would you please get us some milk? 
Please get us some milk. 
Get some milk. 

Can you find which phrase you're most likely to say?

Asking someone to get milk might seem like a pretty simple thing, and yet, with all the uniqueness in the world, can still cause a communication gap!  Within this small range of possible choices, a whole lot of misunderstandings can still occur. (It doesn't take an extraordinary situation to create extraordinary conflict.)  Depending on one's style and how they ask, one may think the requestor is being rude or even being manipulative, or not asking for what they really want. And the way people cope with these communication mismatches is by labeling behaviors "passive-aggressive" or "bossy."

According to Linda Berens in "Understanding Yourself and Others: An Introduction to Interaction Styles," the directing style of communication has a task/time focus, while the informing style has a process/motivation focus.  The intent of directing is to give structure; direct.  The intent of informing is to evoke, draw forth, inspire, seek input.  

Certain work roles emphasize one style of communication over the other -- for instance, therapists are taught to be informing in their communication.  It is considered undesirable to tell patients what to do.  However, the military emphasizes directing -- giving orders is an expected behavior.  (One of my clients served in the military, and all these years thought she had INFJ preferences.  It was an awakening for her to discover her true preference for Informing!)  

The ticket is to look for the thing you prefer, the thing you do naturally -- not the thing you believe you are supposed to do or have been trained to do.  I have seen plenty of INFPs employ directing, but they have usually ratcheted themselves up and are using extraverted Thinking, and it looks stressed and is not graceful to witness.  (I look for how relaxed and natural the style is in order to uncover the true preference.   Sometimes an INFP will inform and inform and inform, and then they get "triggered" and the directing bursts out.)

The directing/informing dimension is often linked to the J/P dimension on the MBTI.  People believe that "J's" have the directing style, while "P's" have the informing style.  But this is not the rule, although it is true in the case of INFJ vs. INFP.  (Examples where it's not true include how ISFJs prefer the informing style, while ISTPs prefer the directing style.)

According to Dr. Linda Berens, for people with informing preferences (like INFPs), it's as if people are just a leetle bit more important than Task.  And for people with directing preferences (like INFJ), it's as if Task is a leetle bit more important than people.  It's as if one concern is operating in the foreground, and the other is operating in the background.  So NFJs -- who do care very much about people -- sometimes may seem insensitive when Task is looming and they feel pressured to accomplish a goal.  And NFPs may not care enough about Task to suit NFJs.  (It is impossible to have equal concern about both at once -- one must take primacy.)

INFPs feel uncomfortable "intruding" on other people's choices -- they want people to decide for themselves to do things.  INFJs may inform up until things aren't getting done -- and then they direct (and may even take charge).  This may come across as harsh or out-of-character to others, but it really isn't unnatural.  I found my directing style most clearly when piling my nieces and nephews into the car, and it was a big contrast to my brother-in-law's informing style as he gave them information that would make them want to get into the car.  (Unless he gets stressed out, of course, in which case he manifests a mean and ugly directing style.)

I'll never forget the day my sister put her wine glass on the floor and a child went stumbling toward it.  My brother-in-law called out, "The wine glass is in the path of the oncoming child!"  I called out "Move your glass!"  Not that it mattered -- wine was spilled.  But how obvious a contrast between the two communication styles.

A good situation to investigate which style you naturally prefer is seeing how you deal with customer service people.  When you have a complaint to make, do you prefer to direct or inform?  (Unless you are angry, of course, in which case you may be inclined to do directing, regardless of preference.)

The directing types are inclined to "tell, ask, urge."  They are "moving forward" and they sound "definite."  The informing types, on the other hand, tend to "inform, inquire, explain, describe."  They are "flowing, open, eliciting."  INFPs sound patient while INFJs sound impatient.  INFPs tend to perpetuate conversations; INFJs often kill them.  INFJs focus on time and task, while INFPs focus on the emergent process.  INFPs can sometimes be longwinded; INFJs can sometimes be short-winded (both to their own detriments!).

INFJs fool themselves into believing they only use the informing style of communication because they dilute their requests with "please," and "would you mind," and "could we maybe..."  They think this dimension is really about how polite people should be.  (It's not!)  By "softening" their orders this way, INFJs delude themselves into believing they utilize only the informing communication style, because their self-image often prevents them from identifying with a communication style that might be perceived as "bossy" or "harsh."  (I know one INFJ who concedes that she is "refreshingly direct.")   INFJs bristle at being called "directing," especially when they "only want to help" or "offer some advice."  Their directing tends to include other-centered remarks, such as, "You should quit smoking," or, "Why don't you take a vacation?"  The question they must ask themselves is whether or not they make clear what results they want.  If it's clear -- that's directing, no matter who's the focus or how many hesitant "would-you-mind's" and "do-you-suppose's" are slathered onto their remark.  And take a good look at what communication looks like when a task is "at risk"!

Directing types are sometimes shocked to discover that informing communications could even be classified as instruction or contain requests!  To them, it just sounds like unproductive "noise."  I myself provide an excellent example of this.  I would have gone to my death insisting I had the "nicer" informing style of communication until I took a live workshop with Dr. Berens.  During this workshop, I encountered my own directing style -- to the extent that they used my interaction with an INFP as an example of what extreme directing looks like!  Yikes!  But what a wonderful gift of self-discovery -- to identify and own my innate "bossiness."  (You get to witness my directing style in action all throughout these articles -- I make no bones about telling readers what to do!)

INFPs, on the other hand, sometimes believe they have the directing communication style because they can be tyrannical with some others, such as family members or close friends -- but tyranny in itself is not directing!  It's often useful to investigate how an individual operates in the workplace or at school to see whether it's different than how they relate to people they are intimate with.  For instance, if an INFP invites someone to visit their home, do they tend to be directing or informing with that someone...?

Sometimes INFPs are in situations where they are required to give orders, such as to children or students.  These directing episodes are sometimes painfully memorable, so they assume they display the directing style.  In point of fact, they did -- just not gracefully.  Because it isn't natural, it isn't really their preference

Also, some INFPs believe saying, "Shoes don't belong on the bed" is interchangeable with saying, "Don't put shoes on the bed."  But it's not!  Here lies the rub -- that's exactly the sort of difference we're looking for.  Can you determine which style is which in those examples? (I share more examples here.)

Without practice, INFPs don't appear graceful when they adopt the directing style, and INFJs don't appear graceful when they adopt the informing style -- both need lots of practice.

INFJs like to think they communicate in the manner of INFPs -- flowing, open, eliciting.  INFPs like to think they communicate in the manner of INFJs -- assertive and self-confident.  Both types often delude themselves around this point, and it can be a challenge to separate out the truth from idealized self-image.  Dr. Berens also says: "My experience has been that INFJs and ENFJs tend to see themselves as having an informing style, but when you get down to it, they are rather unhappy if the person [they are relating to] isn't taking some kind of responsibility and action toward achieving their potential. In this case, living up to or developing potential is the task! And they often don't realize that there is a one-up kind of quality to this having a vision for someone else."

Ironically, INFJs are wont to label informing communication as "passive-aggressive" (and it can be), while INFPs are wont to label directing communication as "bossy" (and it can be).  Neither completely comprehends why the other communicates the way they do -- but INFPs are perhaps handicapped more, because INFJs (and others) are often downright oblivious to their style of communication.  (Thus many INFPs complain about feeling invisible.)  Sometimes it takes another informer to recognize when a request has been tendered.  It's like a dog whistle -- some people can't even hear it!

In public circumstances (like school and work), one's communication style becomes painfully apparent, and discrepancy between these styles can create serious problems.  INFPs often get overlooked at work and are sometimes not considered "leaders" due to their informing communication style, while INFJs sometimes find themselves in leadership positions they didn't intend, due to speaking up with a directing "voice" and discovering themselves suddenly "in charge."  I've boasted to my husband that I can inadvertently "direct" with my little finger, while my INFP friend can yell "fire!" in a crowded room and be utterly ignored.  That's what Linda means when she talks about the communication style being "hard-wired" -- it's not only the words we use, it's how clearly we telegraph our wishes.  Don't get hung up on specific content -- ask yourself whether you're a person who naturally causes people to jump into action (or cease action instantly), or whether you normally eschew that kind of delivery. 

Below is a 5-minute video that illustrates hard-wired differences between directing and informing via movement.  You might want to view it multiple times in order to discern the differences.

For the record, I aspire to do sheaves, and yet I confess that my body seems better suited to chopping.  I could have been a flight attendant or a traffic cop.  (I was a cheerleader!)  Don't overlook how directing I am with Pete -- I practically pick him up to move him where I want him to be.  Sigh!

And now, a poll:  

* * *

Do not write and tell me which style is better!  If you do, you've missed the point (although you clearly discovered your preference)!  Owners of either communication style have equally elaborate, hard-wired, ingrained logic for why their method is superior.  (INFJs usually ask why people can't "spit it out" and just say what they mean.  INFPs explain that it hurts to boss people around, and they could never *intrude* like that.)

Evolved and mature INFJs may have learned to soften their directing style, while evolved and mature INFPs may have learned to strengthen their informing style until both types nearly meet at the mid-point on the above continuum.  After all, INFJs are not inclined to be shrill harpies, and INFPs require cooperation too.  Modifying one's natural style takes effort, but it makes it more palatable to those who possess the contrasting preference.  But discovering and owning your innate styles of communication preference will help lead you to learn whether you prefer INFJ or INFP, plus offer you a powerful tool for better understanding human interactions. 

It can help to observe whether you prefer receiving directing or informing communication.  INFJs would just as soon be outright told what's wanted of them, while INFPs resent being "bossed around" that way -- they prefer to be given the information instead.  (However, neither type likes being manipulated by Informing with an Agenda -- that's another topic altogether!)

By the way, the ideal communication incorporates both styles -- it simultaneously provides information and lets the listener know what's wanted of them.  Here are two examples: "Please move the chairs because they're coming in to vacuum" OR "They're coming in to vacuum so please move the chairs."  Only saying, "They're coming in to vacuum" imparts insufficient information, while only saying "Please move the chairs" seems rather high-handed without the accompanying explanation.  Using the two styles together is the perfect blend.

Based on an email I just received, I must clarify that this dimension is not about being *direct* so much as it's about being directING.  Everyone naturally appreciates and prefers clear communications -- true directing is role-directing, meaning a comfort level with telling (directing) other people what to do.  

Directing-style people often see informing-style people as disingenuous and manipulative. Directing-style people may be accused of being tyrannical, but informing-style people are sometimes accused of being dishonest. Which is worse? Depends on your point of view, I guess.

This is the single most reliable of all the dimensions for choosing INFJ or INFP, so please take the time to figure yours out.  (<--- note directing style!)

For more information about this topic, I direct (ha!) you to:

Understanding Yourself and Others:
An Introduction to Interaction Styles
by Dr. Linda Berens
Understanding Yourself and Others,
An Introduction to Temperament - 3.0,

also by Dr. Linda Berens
Portraits of Temperament,
by David Keirsey

The following book does a good job of describing and discussing these two communication styles:

You Just Don't Understand:
Women and Men in Conversation
by Deborah Tannen,
but sadly attributes the differences to gender
(men=directing; women=informing).

I must also share a *cultural* caveat.  People from the South (USA) have learned to use an informing communication style, whilst people from New York City are accustomed to using the directing style.  So you may need to bear that influence in mind as you decide which style you *prefer*.

I warn you now that a live workshop is invaluable for learning this information firsthand.  Without experiencing this information interactively, you may delude yourself about which style suits you best -- it requires a level of self-awareness most of us just don't have. 

My last five clients concluded their preference was the *opposite* of their true preference until I did a Self-Discovery experience with them and they found their real best-fit.  And both of them were entirely familiar with this article... So what does that tell you?  

If you were to ask whether I think you're an INFJ or INFP, this is the first thing I would ask you about.  More than any other dimension, this is where the difference between INFJ and INFP can be most readily seen.

valuable bonus links below

An INFJ comments on this topic

An INFP comments on this topic
Together, they discuss some "fine points"