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The Personality Traits We Inherit From Our Parents

One of the beautiful aspects of losing someone you love is that people send you their memories of that person. When a friend from high school learned...

tennis racketOne of the beautiful aspects of losing someone you love is that people send you their memories of that person. When a friend from high school learned that my mother had died, she shared that news with her own mother, who played tennis with my mom for years. My friend shared this story via email:

One time our mothers were playing on a way back court. They see your father approaching. He strode past all the courts straight through to the one where our mothers were playing, lifted the latch and came onto the court. He had several ties hanging around his neck and called out, “Daryl! Which one should I wear?” Apparently, he had a big court appearance and wanted to look just right.

The vignette captured my parents’ respective personalities – and the dynamic underlying their 50-year marriage – beautifully. My mother was the brains behind the operation and the one who made sure the trains ran on time. My Dad brought the charm and unpredictability.

Behavioral Styles

This story got me thinking – again – about personality types. One of most popular workshops I deliver to corporate clients focuses on communication styles. The model draws on the  work of two psychologists – Robert and Dorothy Grover Bolton – and their model of “behavioral  styles.”
Bolton & Bolton argue that two main dimensions can explain and predict how people behave: assertiveness and responsiveness.
Assertiveness is the degree to which people‚Äôs behavior is seen as forceful and directive.  Responsiveness is the degree to which people are seen as showing emotions or demonstrating sensitivity.
The two dimensions yield four resultant “people styles”: quick to action but less demonstrative is the Driver type – these are the “Get it done, damn it!” types. Bold and impulsive, but also charismatic are the Expressive types. These folks are the life of the party. Less assertive but deeply empathetic are the Amiable types – your classic “people people.” And finally, thorough and detailed, but emotionally reserved, are the Analytical types.
In a professional context, the model is meant to help you identify your own type, appreciate how others may see you and – crucially – learn how flex your style so that you can get along effectively with different types you encounter at work. From a personal standpoint, what I find interesting about this model is how perfectly I can place my parents into two of those boxes. My mother was your classic Driver:  highly organised, efficient and action-oriented, but at times practical to a fault. My father was a vintage Expressive: an enthusiastic storyteller who connected with people easily, but couldn’t keep track of details.
I’m right on the line between the two types: organized and logical on the one hand, but lively and voluble on the other.  I’ve written before about how my current portfolio career as a communications consultant suits me well for psychological reasons: it combines the pragmatic trouble-shooter of the editor, with the animated cheerleader of the coach. But until my friend sent me the story about the tennis court, I’d never linked this dichotomy back to my parents.

When I shared this insight with another friend of mine, he concurred. He’s worked for nearly two decades in assorted senior roles in a global financial services company. A couple of years ago, he started coaching younger colleagues in the company on the side, and he now leads the company’s talent development division. As he explained it:

“My mother was a school teacher who once told me that she loves nothing more than seeing a child develop. After business school, my father took a job with Yellow Freight in Kansas City where he worked for about 25 years.  He was a company man… very loyal and got a lot of his value through his contribution at work.
While the links to my father were apparent early in my professional career, the links to my mother were a little more subtle.  Over time though, I realize that working with individuals on my team and helping them develop is what provided me the most reward.  In some ways, my most recent role has consummated that professional marriage between my mother and father.”
What our parents leave us 

I wrote recently about the things our parents give us when they die. (In my case, this amounted to a life-long love of writing and a bottle of instant decaffeinated coffee, among other treasures.) But we take other things forward as well: who they were as people and how those traits embed themselves within us.

As I settle into a prolonged stage of reflection – and grief – over the deaths of both of my parents, I take comfort not only in their memories, but in how they live on within me.

Image: Tennis Racket and Balls via Wikimedia Commons

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