This is how NASA used to hire its astronauts 20 years ago—and it still works today

In 1978, NASA was just beginning its space shuttle program and Dr. Terry McGuire was responsible for assessing the psychological fitness of astronauts in preparation for NASA missions. It was a daunting task. Putting several extremely talented, smart and confident people into space together requires the ultimate in teamwork, physical and mental toughness, and psychological agility. McGuire’s key concern was an astronaut’s ability to manage his emotions, communicate effectively with others and handle stress.

It was during this time that McGuire was introduced to Dr. Taibi Kahler, a psychologist from Hot Springs, Arkansas who had discovered a process to assess human interactions second by second and determine the productivity of the communication. Kahler sat in on several neuropsychological assessment interviews as part of the astronaut selection cycle. About 10 minutes into each one, he would make some notes on a piece of paper and place it on the floor. Several hours later, when McGuire had concluded his testing and interview, he and Kahler would compare notes. Kahler’s assessments after just 10 minutes of observation aligned with McGuire’s with astounding consistency and predicted how the rest of the interview would play out with eerie accuracy.

McGuire and NASA used Kahler’s methodology for nearly 20 years, until McGuire retired (apparently there was lots of drama going on in NASA in 1997 that is confidential). During the six NASA shuttle missions in which there was distress behavior and related communication problems, McGuire accurately predicted which astronauts would escalate and what their distress behaviors would be. Kahler went on to develop a comprehensive behavioral communication training system called the Process Communication Model (PCM), which leaders like Bill Clinton and US army general Wesley Clarke have used to improve their communications and negotiation prowess.

Uniform personalities. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

In the book Creativity, Inc., Katherine Sarafian, the Academy Award-winning producer of Pixar’s Brave, credits Kahler and PCM for giving her a framework for developing characters that meet people where they are. Similar to the way emotions are represented in Pixar’s most recent hit Inside Out, PCM conceptualizes personality as comprising of six types, all of which exist within each of us and are arranged like the floors of a condominium, with our core or “base” type at the bottom, moving up through each floor to the least-accessed trait at the top, or attic. Each floor has unique attributes, including a perceptual frame of reference, character strengths, communication and environmental preferences, motivational needs and highly predictable distress behaviors.

Here are the six PCM personality types. (Population percentages come from representative population sampling research that Kahler did as part of the initial validation of the model.):

Thinkers experience the world through the perception of thoughts, preferring to take in and process information logically. They are logical, responsible and organized, and prefer a democratic communication style with exchange of information. They prefer to be alone or interact one on one. Thinkers are internally motivated by recognition of their efficient work and time structure. In distress, they tend to over think, over control, attack others for being lazy or stupid and become obsessively critical around issues of time, fairness and money. Thinkers comprise 25% of the population (75% being male) and some fictional examples include Spock from “Star Trek” and Adrian Monk of the TV show “Monk.”

Persisters experience the world through the perception of opinions, preferring to take in and process information through their belief system. They are conscientious, dedicated and observant, and prefer a democratic communication style with exchange of values. They prefer to be alone or interact one on one. Persisters are internally motivated by recognition of their dedicated work and convictions. In distress, they tend to become unrealistic in their expectations of others and push their beliefs in a self-righteous and condescending manner. Persisters comprise 10% of the population (75 percent being male) and include the characters Sherlock Holmes and Superman, as well as civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr.

Harmonizers experience the world through the perception of emotions, preferring to take in and process information through their feelings. They are compassionate, sensitive and warm, and prefer a benevolent communication style with exchange of personal affirmation and compassion. They prefer to be with others. Harmonizers are internally motivated by recognition of their person, as well as pleasing sensory experiences. In distress they lose assertiveness, try to please others and can inadvertently make silly mistakes because they lose self-confidence. Harmonizers comprise 30% of the population (75% being women) and include the character Joy from the movie Inside Out.

Rebels experience the world through the perception of reactions, preferring to bounce off the world around them. They are spontaneous, creative and playful, and prefer a playful communication style with exchange of humor and spontaneity. Rebels prefer small group interactions. They are externally motivated by contact with the world around them. In distress, Rebels will not be able to think clearly, become negative and complain, and blame others for anything negative that happens. Rebels comprise 20% of the population (60% being female) and include textbook examples like Merida from the movie Brave and the late Robin Williams.

Imaginers experience the world through the perception of reflections, preferring to simply soak in the world around them. They are imaginative, reflective and calm, and prefer communication that is directive and explicit. Imaginers prefer solitary environments where they can be alone with their reflections. They are externally motivated by solitude. In distress, Imaginers withdraw and isolate, spinning their wheels and avoiding the initiative to get direction. Imaginers comprise 10% of the population (60% being female) and accurately describe Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, and genius Albert Einstein.

Promoters experience the world through actions, preferring to take action as soon as possible. They are adaptable, persuasive and charming, and prefer communication that is directive and action-oriented. Promoters prefer exciting environments where they can move from group to group and are motivated by incidence, which happens when there’s a lot of action in a short period of time. Excitement and competitive challenges fill their tank. In distress, Promoters will withdraw support, leave others hanging and resort to manipulative tactics to create negative drama. Promoters comprise 5% of the population (60% being male) and include adventure-seeking characters like James Bond and Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible.

Arming students with real-world skills needed to navigate the modern workplace.

Nestled in the Calabasa hills north of Malibu, California, MUSE school is a living example of what can happen when educators take the notion of preparing children for an emotion-driven world seriously. Co-founded by Suzi Amis Cameron, wife of filmmaker James Cameron, MUSE has embedded PCM within its culture and curriculum. The organization’s commitment to personality-customized and passion-based learning is evident throughout the school from how the classrooms are set up and how the students are greeted in the morning to the structure of student intervention plans and parent-teacher conferences. MUSE is gaining international recognition for their innovative practices and plans to expand its model worldwide.

Personalizing customer service so customers feel heard and valued.

Mattersight uses PCM in its call center technology to assess a caller’s personality type based on linguistics analysis in order to direct him or her to the most compatible representative. Mattersight believes that providing a caller with a skilled and technically competent representative is just the first step in creating a positive customer experience. Further personalizing every interaction by pairing a caller with a person who can sync with them, connect with their personality and automatically meet their deeper needs while helping solve their immediate problem is the next frontier of customer service. The positive results are phenomenal: more highly satisfied customers, fewer dropped calls and better resolution of problems.

Increasing conflict resolution skills and negotiation power.

This fall at Pepperdine’s elite Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, students in my Psychology of Conflict Communication course will discover PCM and learn how to apply its principles for better outcomes in high-stakes negotiations and legal disputes. Most high-conflict situations are not driven by the facts of the case, but by emotions and personality. PCM helps involved parties get to the heart of a conflict more quickly and resolve it more equitably.

We live in a society that is more sensitive than previous eras, and people are demanding more respect and personalization in daily communications. PCM is not only a tool for developing your own emotional intelligence, but also facilitates communication skills that are becoming core competencies both inside and outside of the workplace. To find out your type, contact a PCM trainer near you.

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