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How to Work With Different Client Personality Types

3 tips to help practitioners see clients clearly, no matter what they're like (or whether you like them!)


We are all made up of a mixture of personality traits, manifesting at different strengths

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

What kind of person are you? What kind of people are around you?

We never want to label people. But at the same time, understanding the type of person we are helping can give us a feel for what they need in their life. Being a square peg in a round hole never worked for anyone.

Justin, a recent client, was gruff, bellicose and generally disagreeable. He didn’t like people. He told me his responses to me were “nothing personal”. Not a client I could take to immediately, although at least I felt I knew where I stood with him – that is, a few paces away at a safe distance!

But we did manage a level of rapport. I’m happy he had a happy outcome in cutting down excessive drinking. But it does beg the question: How do we relate to clients’ differing personalities?

It takes all sorts

Yes, everyone is unique. But human beings are not so diverse that we can’t recognize repeatable patterns within them.

We sometimes meet clients who are so different to us that it’s hard to relate to them. Occasionally we might be confronted with someone who so sharply conflicts with our own mass of conditionings, innate personality traits, and hidden assumptions that it’s hard to feel any natural connection. We might assume their assumptions will match ours but, shock horror, they don’t.

But extensive and sometimes painful experience has taught me something.

Sometimes we need to get out of our own way.

We as therapists just need to relax and wait and see about someone. I had to relax and wait and see about Justin. How else could I start to see how he saw his life?

The worst thing we can do as practitioners (or human beings!) is to assume that everyone shares the same perceptions we do. Or that if they don’t, they should.

First off, let me share with you a very simple yet very useful way to think about human personality differences.

How our balance of needs shapes us

What’s great and clarifying about really appreciating the role of the primal emotional needs is that it helps us better understand humanity.

Although we all have similar needs (which is what makes us recognizably human), we have differing levels of drive for each need. It’s these differing levels of motivation to meet particular needs that define much of our personality and character differences.

Although we all have similar needs, we have differing levels of drive for each need

For example, a reflective introvert will naturally have less inherent drive to meet the need for human interaction than a gregarious extrovert. The need lives within both, but for one its drive for completion is greater than for the other.

So a simple way to understand innate personality differences is to simply see how driven people are to meet their various emotional needs.

For some people a drive to intimacy is what life is all about, while for others it’s the drive to feel secure and safe or, on the flip side of the coin, for adventure and challenge. Some thrive on chaos while others are driven towards order, neatness, and sharp boundaries and categories.

Which brings us neatly back to personality type.

We certainly shouldn’t overly categorize people. To be diagnostic about it, we live in overly diagnostic times. But having a general sense that people do have differing drives toward differing emotional needs really helps us, not just to understand people better, but to help them more completely.

So what about you? What are you like? What’s important to you? In which kind of environments do you thrive? And what do you want to be?

The difference between personality and character

My granddad used to say about folk in general, “They don’t make ’em like they used to!” I would wonder at this.

He meant that people seemed to him to have less character, perhaps less fortitude, perseverance, determination, or honour than in his day.

The people who ‘make ’em’ were the people themselves. People forge their own characters.

Whatever the veracity of this idea, it raises an interesting point. What is the difference between personality and character?

Psychologists agree that your personality is a bunch of psychological attributes you inherited and which persist over time. For instance, proneness to go inward and access the imagination may manifest as excessive worry. At least for a time.

But if the individual can become the master of, not the slave to, that habit, they may begin to use their natural proneness to create scenarios more productively. They may adapt their natural propensity to go inward to create a template for a better life.

Your personality is your natural collection of attributes. But your character is a selection of moral qualities and attitudes that you have developed. Character is that part of yourself that shows grit, that stands tall (or not) and develops (or not). Character is at the heart of Rudyard Kipling’s iconic poem ‘If—‘.

Personality consists of general fixed traits; character is developable.

Creativity may be a more or less fixed trait of personality. At first, a person may use it to worry or catastrophize, but as they develop they may instead use it to create artistically, or to create goals to work towards.

Changing how a personality trait is applied may take character.

Of course, being highly social creatures, it’s too simplistic to just look at what we are like. We need to examine what we lead others to believe we are like.

Adopting a persona to suit the setting

Most of us learn as we grow to adopt a persona sometimes. We might feel we need to seem concerned or interested or professional, as though we are having a great and wonderful time, when really we’d rather be kicking back in front of the TV.

It’s harder to put on this kind of act if we are depressed or on the autistic spectrum. But regardless of personality or character, by the time we are adults most of us have learned to present (and keep up) a ‘face’ to the world. Of course, some people will be more prone to putting on faces, through a combination of inherent personality traits and learning.

We work out what the people around us seem to expect of us, and we work out how we would like to be perceived, and then we try to match our behaviour and self-presentation to these requirements. We get quite good at it. This mask is known as our ‘persona’ (Latin for ‘mask’).

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This doesn’t mean we are all lying, pretending to be what we are not. It’s just that ‘who you are’ is such a complex, multi-faceted reality that it can’t be easily or fully grasped. So we ‘simplify’ ourselves, so that people feel they know what they’re dealing with.

We present those aspects of ourselves that fit the specific context we are in. This is why we can appear so very different in, say, a work situation to how we appear at home with our family. We have different personas for those different situations. Both are part of who we are; we just leave aside the bits that aren’t relevant (or aren’t wanted) right now.

This is a perfectly healthy behaviour – unless we get so attached to a particular persona that we come to believe that the mask, rather than being a socially useful tool that we can put aside, is who we really are.

Some clients might say things like: “I don’t know who I am supposed to be any more!” Or they may report feeling terrified of what others might think or have imposter syndrome.

So what, according to current science, are the basic personality types?

The Big Five personality traits

From the ancient Greek idea of different temperaments relating to the ‘four humours’ (bodily fluids which gave us the words ‘sanguine’, ‘melancholic’, and ‘phlegmatic’) to Freudian developmental stages, enneagrams, star signs, Myers-Briggs indicators, and hundreds of other models, personality profiling has always been popular.

Currently, the empirically driven ‘Big Five personality trait’ theory (or Five Factor Model [FFM]) is popular within the field of psychology. The Big Five are:

  • Openness (inventive/curious vs consistent/cautious): appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easygoing/careless): tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; to exhibit planned rather than spontaneous behaviour
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs solitary/reserved): energy, positive emotions, surgency, and tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs cold/unkind): tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs secure/confident): tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.

Funnily enough, some of the above looks not entirely dissimilar to the ancient ideas of personality promoted 2,500 years ago. But things do like to go full circle.

Anyway, it’s clear that many clients contain a blend of these characteristics. Many people will have a clearly dominant feature.

Our personalities are inescapable. They are who we are. But our personalities can trip us up. Diagnosing people with ‘personality disorders‘ is popular right now, and certainly some people’s personalities do cause themselves and others problems.

An overly agreeable person may cause themselves problems by letting others walk all over them, or constantly worrying whether they’ve upset others. In turn, the consequences of being tightly focused on being agreeable may increase their degree of neuroticism.

A highly neurotic person may develop an extreme degree of conscientiousness or agreeableness in order to try to minimize the discomfort of neuroticism.

And someone highly open to new experiences may get themselves into all kinds of problematic situations!

So of course, ‘characterization’ should take into account this blending of features. Natural tendencies may need to adapt to the reality of life.

When who you are is wrong

Some people are more self-obsessed (‘narcissistic’?), more timid (‘avoidant’?), more emotionally sensitive or even dramatic (‘histrionic’?).

There are many categories and subcategories of personality disorders in the psychiatric ‘bible’ – the Diagnostic Statistical Manual – but when you get right down to it, people do just have differing personalities, some of which can leave us feeling frazzled.

Categorization is only useful in so far as it helps us develop strategies to:

  • Contain and allow for problematic behaviour and its consequences
  • Devise strategies to help clients adapt and moderate themselves in order to help themselves and others.

The danger of branding someone as having a ‘personality disorder’ is that it may come to feel like an immutable condition that can never alter or be brought to heel by the person with the troublesome personality.

But human beings, as we know, seem to be infinitely adaptable, and all behaviour is mutable over time.

Let me share with you some therapeutic pointers when taking personality types into account.

1. See beyond the snapshot

The client we see before us is a snapshot. We are not seeing them in all contexts. We might be getting them when they are depressed or angry, afraid or exhausted.

However real this snapshot is, it can only be a part of who they are.

This is why it’s so important to ask clients about their wider life – so you can access the resourceful parts that may not be on display when you meet.

We get a sense of someone by seeing them in different contexts – when they are happier as well as when they are sadder or more afraid. So rather than ascertaining just how someone comes across to us during therapy, we can learn more about what they are like by listening to:

  • what they have done in the past,
  • what their interests are or have been,
  • what their social life is like, and
  • statements such as “I used to be so spontaneous” or “Usually I am energetic and outgoing.”

I could have been forgiven for believing that Justin was just misanthropic. But occasionally he’d let slip times he’d helped others, decencies almost obscured by time, but which were nevertheless part of who he really was.

We can also ask our clients what other people seem to think about them. Have others noticed a change in them? And if so, a change from what? What were/will they be like when they are free of the presenting problem?

We do this in order to enact the next principle:

2. Treat the personality

We can tailor our therapy to fit what our client is like by drawing on their past experience and what that tells us about their general personality and character, and also on what they are like right now.

For example, someone who is very driven and ambitious might want us, in the long term, to help them reach certain career goals, but in the short term to help them stop feeling constantly anxious so they can develop or regain the spare capacity to focus on their long-term goals.

We can, and even must, use a person’s character and personality to help them thrive. This links to the central psychotherapeutic principle of utilization. Sometimes clients may try to help you out by telling you what they are like: “I’m basically a coward!” or “I don’t really like people and they don’t really like me!”

If someone has low self-esteem they will, by definition, have an inaccurate take on what they are really like. If you tell me you’re hopeless, I can take your sentiment at face value. But I can also suspect you are only giving me a small portion of what you can and could be.

So what people say about themselves and what they are (or could be) aren’t necessarily the same thing. People can adapt and develop, sometimes to an amazing degree.

For example, Justin clearly wasn’t naturally agreeable. I could see that not just in how he was with me but in his tales of broken marriages and work spats and his rapidity in taking offence and seeing ill intent in others. This had been his way long before he’d started drinking heavily, so it seemed a stable attribute.

But he was also open, adventurous, and curious. And evidently he could be generous and thoughtful when he respected someone enough (which, granted, wasn’t that often).

So I connected to these traits in him in order to propel the therapy. I encouraged him to see adapting his interpersonal style as an adventure.

We focused on externalizing the alcohol so that it could no longer take advantage of him. I helped use his natural defensiveness, talent for cynicism, and assertion with others against the alcohol.

There are certainly central principles or core skills to therapy, but it’s how we apply those principles that needs to fit with who the client is.

It’s vital, I think, to be mindful that the ‘Big Five’ personality types don’t consist of better or worse features – just different. They are only better or worse to the extent they relate to situations and circumstances.

Sometimes it’s best to go inward and be reflective, while at other times being open and outgoing is a major boon. But we can all learn to have more of what we naturally have less of.

The ugly duckling was only ugly in one context. In another, it was beautiful.

3. Evoke the power within

Clients may assume you only want to know about their pathology. Of course, you do need to learn all about their problem. But you also need to learn about their ‘healths’ – their strengths and their resources.

To empower someone, you need to connect to the source of their power. If someone is open they may have a high drive for novelty and adventure and a low threshold for boredom. But they are also likely to have energy and, when they want, real focus.

Someone who is intrinsically conscientious may have problems with spontaneity or be prone to the agonies of maladaptive perfectionism, but conscientiousness can also be a huge and powerful strength.

Conscientious clients are more likely to carry out therapeutic tasks, and once the propensity is controlled it can be used as a consistent wind to carry the sails of the person’s career and life to wonderful horizons.

Strengths can always be drawn and developed from a person’s basic makeup.

Our differences are formed to some extent genetically, but also largely from experience. Life shapes us as surely as the sea shapes a pebble. But unlike the pebble, we have some say in deciding how and to what extent life will shape us. We can also reshape ourselves, and help others do the same.

And inside our online visual learning platform Uncommon Practitioners TV, you can watch a variety of clients with their own unique personality types being treated for a range of issues. Sign up to be notified here when UPTV is open for booking.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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