The Psychology of Feelers in a Virtual World

Because I’ve been interacting with my Crenshaw Associates colleagues and my clients via video meetings instead of face-to-face these days, I’ve come to realize that people who rely on non-verbal cues are at a real disadvantage. If you’re a “Feeler” who makes decisions based not so much on what you hear but on what you sense, I have some tips that may help you better navigate virtual meetings.

As a Crenshaw psychologist, I provide feedback using a carefully selected, standardized battery of questionnaires with every coaching and in-transition client. I prefer to do this face-to-face but, during this current crisis, I’m doing it virtually. This has led me to think about differences in personal style and the impact of communicating over the internet.

I started with two questions:

  • In what ways does communicating with others in virtual space differ from communicating face-to-face?
  • If there are differences, are there some personality types that are impacted more than others?

Here are my thoughts:

I would expect that having to participate in a virtual meeting, especially on a small screen (say, on a phone or iPad) likely reduces one’s ability to pick up non-verbal and verbal cues that are so important in interpreting communications. We know, for example, that animals, having no significant level of verbal language, pick up messages through body language (including facial expressions) and tone of voice (or, in the case of other animals, variations in growling, barking, chirping, etc.).

So it is quite plausible (and, in fact, demonstrable) that humans also pick up these communication cues in addition to the actual words being used to send a message. There are times, in fact, that we humans pick up more information just on the basis of a facial expression or the tone of voice than by the words themselves. It is important, then, to be aware that, in a virtual meeting, we may be getting fewer (or distorted) cues.

If this is so, then the next question is: Do some people rely more on verbal and visual cues than others? This got me to question why some people pick up things better than others. What is the mechanism they rely on to “feel” about others?

I refer to the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which outlines different psychological profiles, because it helps me understand how people perceive the world and make decisions.

For example, my wife is a high Feeler, and as you probably can pick up from this article, I am a high Thinker. We can meet someone at a gathering, and as we walk away, she may say, “I don’t like that person, I don’t trust him.” I am oblivious to the things she sensed. He seemed like a nice person. I had no reason not to trust him. Later on, we find out that person is someone to completely stay away from – a liar and a backstabber. How did I miss that while my wife picked that up right away?

I believe that Feelers are more naturally able to pick up and interpret non-verbal and verbal cues much better than Thinkers. Feelers make decisions with a lot more subtle information and often they are right, particularly when it comes to interpreting information about people.

And so, I am proposing that MBTI Feelers are put at a disadvantage in video discussions when the cues are less readable. This is, of course, testable. But even without proof, I recommend to Feelers that they acknowledge this disadvantage and to try and overcome this by being even more focused while in virtual meetings. They can also ask a lot of questions to draw out more input from others to provide themselves more opportunities to obtain cues. In addition, I propose that meeting leaders spend more time drawing out people at meetings, especially to support those who rely heavily on verbal and non-verbal cues to interpret messages.

Lastly, the option of enlarging the speaker’s image, rather than leaving everyone in the meeting equal in size, will provide a closer visual of facial cues. In large meetings, if I don’t use the speaker option, I find myself searching around to see who’s speaking or I don’t look at the speaker at all.