Character Study

Forget what you learned in kindergarten: Sometimes it's best not to hide by the Golden Rule. Treating others as you would like to be rented only works if you have similar temperaments – if you're very different people, you risk antagonizing each other. (Remember how annoying Oscar found Felix's constant tidying?)

Whether it's a college, a family member, or a customer, the most effective way of dealing with others is to learn to "read" their words and actions and tailor your approach to fit their personal styles. Renee Baron, a therapist and public speaker in Berkeley, California, and author of What Type Am I? (Penguin, 1998), offers tips for assessing people's personalities by considering four basic areas:

Extroversion / Introversion
Is this individual energized by interacting with other people, or by spending time alone?

Extroverts are talkative and outgoing, like working in groups, and tend to think out loud. Introverts are reserved and quiet, prefer working by themselves, and think before they speak.

To approach Extroverts: Get them to talk! "They love an audience," says Baron. In the workplace, do not give them too many solo projects – they prefer interaction.

To approach Introverts: Respect the fact that they prefer dealing one on one, rather than in large groups. If you ask their opinion, let them wait before speaking; do not prompt them or finish their sentence. If you're a strong Extrovert, resist your tendency to think out loud: "That drives Introverts crazy," warns Baron.

Sensing / Intuition
How does he or she absorb information? Is this person practical, or does he like to go with his hunches? Sensors are interested in facts and details, tend to organize their thoughts systematically ("My first point is …"), and describe things literally. Intuitives like to use analogies and often enjoy speculating about the future.

To approach Sensors: Give them step-by-step instructions for a task, stressing the practical applications.

To approach Intuitives: Focus on implications and possibilities; talk about "the big picture." Let them brainstorm; they're "idea" people.

Thinking / Feeling
How does the individual make decisions? Does he or she lead with her head or her heart? Thinkers are logical and analytical; they often enjoy discussing issues. Feelers are tactful and empathetic types who seek harmony and can be uncomfortable with disagreement.

To approach Thinkers: Make sure that what you're saying makes sense and is reasonable. Appeal to their sense of fairness and do not be insulted if they want to debate or play devil's advocate – just because they disagree with you does not mean they do not like you.

To approach Feelers: If you're giving them feedback on something, start off with what you agree about; do not just launch into your critisms. And let them know you appreciate them – Feelers are quick with a compliment, and if you're a strong Thinker type, you can learn from their example.

Judging / Perceiving
How does this person organize his day-to-day life? Does he lean more towards structure or flexibility? Judgers are punctual and orderly; they enjoy following a schedule and can be thrown off by last-minute changes. Perceivers are more playful and spontaneous; they like to keep their options open.

To approach Judgers: Be organized and on time for appointments. Avoid saying "maybe" and "perhaps" too much. Stick with the plan as much as you can.

To approach Perceivers: Let them explore their options; give them the opportunity to ask questions. Do not impede schedules on them – if you box them in too much, they may rebel. If you're a Judge, do not write Perceivers off as flaky, cautions Baron: "Try to appreciate their more relaxed way of life."

And that's the ultimate goal of learning to read others – to see things from their perspective so that you can develop the aspects of your personality that different from their. In fact, says Baron, people often instinctively seek balance by gravitating toward opposite types. So Introverts are often found with Extroverts because they do not mind letting their friends hog the spotlight, and Sensors and Intuitives make a powerful team – Sensors need the creativity of Intuitives, while Intuitives need Sensors to bring them down to earth. It takes all types; that's how Bert and Ernie stay friends – and Mary Matalin and James Carville stay married.