If you’ve ever done a personality test or behavioral styles assessment such as Meyers-Briggs, Birkman, or DiSC, you know they divide people into primary personality categories. But did you know this approach has been around for thousands of years? In the East, Chinese philosophers created a similar system based on five natural elements. In the West, the same principles were described as four elements—Fire, Air, Water, and Earth.
Throughout history, the four elements were instrumental in the development of philosophy, medicine, and science. The four elements model views the world and, in fact, the entire universe as tied together in interdependence. The model describes interrelated characteristics and associations between aspects of nature such as direction, season, color, and shape. The model’s usefulness, however, goes beyond the relationship between things. It can also describe interactions between people.
The four elements model classifies people according to their tendencies, temperaments, emotions, and behaviors. We are all part of nature, the seasons, and life and therefore operate on the same principles. This relationship is like the work being done in the modern fields of Environmental and Evolutionary psychology.
Much like more traditional personality assessments, humans are not a manifestation of only one element or type. What differentiates us from one another is which of the elements are more or less dominant.
Usually, there are one or two elements that dominate a person’s style. Below is a description of the styles for each of the five elements and how they express themselves in business environments.
“Fire” style individuals are usually results-oriented. They thrive on the challenge of solving problems and making quick buying decisions. These individuals are fast-paced and like to be in charge. They can become impatient with people or situations that hinder them from accomplishing their goals. This trait is one reason they’re more task-oriented than people-oriented.
You can recognize these individuals as being fast-paced and direct when speaking—they’re more interested in telling you information than in asking your opinion. They think in terms of the bottom line. These individuals may have more formal, “can’t read” facial expressions than other styles.
Fire styles say things like – “I hate to lose! I sometimes demand what I want. I sometimes ask many questions. I want others to know I’m the boss. I might say things to surprise people. I want to be the best at everything I do.”
Interacting with the Fire Style – When dealing with the “Fire” style, don’t bog them down with excessive socializing or details—get to the point quickly. Directly focus on how your product or service can help them achieve their goals. Emphasize the results you can help them get while always letting them feel they’re in charge. Don’t waste their time. Make your presentation direct and meaningful toward helping them achieve their objectives.
“Air” style individuals are frequently thought of as “people persons.” They’re enthusiastic and upbeat—enjoying the interaction with others in a humorous, lighthearted way. These individuals can appear to be the eternal optimists, usually seeing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. They can be quite persuasive about things they’re passionate about.
You can identify them as being outgoing and direct, very talkative, and interactive. These people speak quickly, use animated expressions and express their feelings freely. They can appear to be casual and friendly in their interactions with others and love to express themselves in a jovial, humorous way. Sometimes you’ll notice trinkets or fun gadgets in their office—it’s their way of adding levity to the work environment.
Air styles say things like – “When I talk, people listen. I know how to express myself and still not hurt anyone’s feelings. I want to be popular. I enjoy being the center of attention. My friends say I can talk my way out of anything. I am rather charming.”
Interacting with the Air style – When dealing with the “Air” style, match your pace and presentation to their energetic approach. Be friendly and sociable—let them know you like them. Where appropriate, take them to lunch. You need to provide testimonials and personal stories on how other people have responded to your company’s product or service. Show enthusiasm for the benefits your product or service can provide. Also, make sure you support the individuals by delivering whatever detailed follow-up work is necessary; don’t ask them to do it. Make it easy for them to buy from you.
“Water” style is also people-oriented—but at a much slower pace than the “Air” style. The “Water” person doesn’t like to be forced into making changes or quick decisions. They’re patient, loyal, and calm, making them excellent listeners and “peacekeepers” when conflict breaks out. Their focus is on cooperating with people.
You can identify these individuals by their reserved, indirect, but people-oriented approach to others. Their speech may appear softer, with an open posture. They will have relaxed, warm facial expressions and prefer a casual approach.
Water styles say things like – “I don’t like confrontations. People will compliment me for how hard I try, whether at work or play. Once I start something, I finish it. I’m a good team player, gentle, and easy to get along with. I take pride in keeping my temper when others often lose theirs.”
Interacting with the Water Style – When dealing with the “Water” style, you must listen to them. They need to feel you understand their needs. Assure the individuals that you and your organization are customer and service-oriented. Just don’t push them into quick buying decisions. Show how you’re interested in a long-term relationship with their company and that they can depend on you whenever necessary. The “Water” style customers are more loyal to you when other vendors knock on their door.
The “Earth” style is quality-focused, slow-paced, methodical, and task-oriented. They focus on the details and are primarily concerned about doing things the “right” or “correct way.” These individuals and frequently set higher standards for themselves than others.
You can recognize them as being reserved and more indirect than other styles. These people are formal, with a closed posture and “can’t read” facial expressions. They don’t like to express their feelings readily.
Earth styles say things like – “Anything worth doing is worth doing right. I like to know the exact answer all the time. I keep my desk and my things organized. I dislike saying things that will upset matters. I find solving problems exciting.”
Interacting with the Earth Style—When dealing with the “Earth” style, make sure you have your facts straight. You’ll need to answer earth questions, showing references where possible. These individuals don’t require you to socialize with them—they don’t want you to. These people want you to provide detailed information to make the correct buying decision. Then they will thoroughly assess your information before concluding. Be slow-paced and formal in your approach with them—don’t become overly enthusiastic or animated. Focus instead on facts, logic, and detailed analysis.
Although individuals can behave within all four styles, they use one or two most often. There is no right or wrong style. Each has its strengths and limitations. However, there are three critical steps when applying the knowledge of elemental styles to a sales situation:
1. Understand your elemental style in your business (and personal) environment(s).
2. Identify your customers’ elemental style.
3. Adapt your interactions to fit the customer’s elemental style needs best.