We naturally tend to deal with others in the way that best reflects our own personal style, but relationships and projects go more smoothly when you also take the other person’s personality into account. 

We can learn much about how to do this from ancient wisdom found in ­Chinese medicine. Based on universal principles observed over centuries, Chinese medicine holds that we each have a lens through which we view and interpret the world and a dominant way of engaging with our environment and interacting with others. These lenses are described as five archetypes. Though Chinese astrology also uses these five elements, they’re not tied to the astrological chart—they are the five forces through which all life grows, expands and shifts to stay resilient in the face of challenge…

Wood—fast-paced and goal-directed

Fire—animated and fun-loving

Earth—nurturing and attentive

Metal—refined and precise

Water—quiet and contemplative.

We all have traits from each of the five archetypes—we need qualities from each type to function well in daily life—but each of us has a dominant archetype. When we feel safe, we act from the strengths of that style. Under stress, we tend to operate from the other extreme end of our style, which can obstruct progress and lead to conflict.

By understanding the different archetypes, you can communicate more easily and effectively even in the midst of tension, helping everyone to participate and contribute from their strengths.

As you read the following ­descriptions, you may recognize your dominant ­archetype and those of the people close to you. Strengths and stressors for each archetype…


People with Wood as their dominant style are propulsive in their language and behavior. They walk and speak with purpose and drive. When sitting, they lean forward and take up space. They are competitive and action-oriented. Their e-mails are short and to the point.

Wood types move boldly into new territory, pushing through obstacles to get things done. They work efficiently and don’t get bogged down in details. They enjoy being physically active and are good at motivating others to take action and achieve success.

Under stress, Wood types are quick to anger and can be impatient and dismissive of people who are cautious. Their preoccupation with winning can cause them to lose sight of other values, and with their focus on the big picture, they may overlook important details.


People with Fire as their dominant style crave excitement and intimacy. Lively and expressive, they laugh easily and look for the joy in life. They are comfortable with the language of emotions and are physically demonstrative, quick to reach out with a hug or a pat on the arm.

Fire types are creative, flexible and alert to possibilities that others might miss and new ways to solve problems. They are good at lifting the mood and at encouraging others to express themselves and have a good time.

Under stress, Fire types can blow small issues up into big drama. They may be consumed by anxiety, even panic. Highly sensitive, they are easily hurt. They may put off crucial tasks and distract others when something fun beckons.


People with Earth as their dominant style are dedicated to pleasing ­everyone around them. Nurturing and accommodating, they ask you about yourself rather than talk about them-
selves. They notice commonalities between people and love ­introducing them to one another.

The Earth type is the hub of the neighborhood and workplace—hosting gatherings, keeping the fridge stocked for visitors and remembering birthdays. Primary Earths need to be needed and feel uncomfortable when they aren’t being useful. They are reliable team players and devoted long-term friends.

Under stress, Earth types tend to overcommit. Overwhelmed with too much to do, they may neglect sleep and self-care. By ruminating over how to resolve potential conflicts and meet ­everyone’s needs, they may have trouble moving ahead with plans and projects. In close relationships, their fear of abandonment can cause them to make the other person feel crowded.


People with Metal as their dominant style are reserved and refined. They take great care in the way they present themselves and their surroundings. They ­notice and appreciate small details. Others enjoy their impeccable taste.

Organized and conscientious with excellent analytical skills, Metal types can be relied on to follow procedures to get things done right. They are true to their word and able to control their emotions even when others are angry or upset.

Under stress, Metal types tend to get stuck on minutiae. Their respect for rules may harden into rigidity, and they can become so focused on what is wrong that they can’t acknowledge what is right. They can be very critical of others, hurting morale and slowing progress.


People with Water as their dominant style are deep thinkers who like to follow their imagination wherever it leads. Attuned to the natural world, they value solitude and prefer to work alone. They may appear socially awkward because they dislike small talk but will engage in meaningful conversation. They are slow to trust, but once they do, they are deeply loyal and have much wisdom to share.

Water types are skeptical, evaluating options carefully and gathering information rather than being led by emotion or taking promises at face value. Their ability to think about the big picture and its many disparate components allows them to envision sweeping plans that could make a significant difference.

Under stress, Water types may over-isolate and even become pessimistic and depressed. They can become so absorbed in their own ideas that they fail to share them with others who could help bring them to fruition. They can also overthink how to solve problems when only a quick fix is needed.


When you are dealing with someone who is self-aware and feeling secure, use the style of the person’s dominant type to encourage and bring out his strengths. Examples: Write short, bullet-point e-mails to Wood types. Tell funny stories and share more intimately with Fire types.

However, when someone is stressed, interactions that reflect her archetype can reinforce the more maladaptive behavior. Examples: Pushing back forcefully at an upset Wood type will make her more belligerent.

Picture the Five Archetypes as points around a circle—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water (see page six). When someone is under stress, it’s most effective to adopt communication strategies from the person’s next adjacent style moving clockwise. According to ­Chinese medicine, these qualities are calming to the person in distress. You can use this same approach as a self-coaching tool when you notice yourself drifting toward the extreme end of your style.

When a Wood type is under stress: Adopt the optimistic, hopeful and enthusiastic language of the Fire type. Examples: “I see how upset you are, and I believe this will be OK”…“I’m excited about where we’re headed”…“Look how far you’ve come and all that you’ve built!”

When a Fire type is under stress: Use the language of steadiness, connection and belonging from the Earth type. Examples: “What do you need?”…“I know just the person who can help you with this”…“I’ve got your back.”

When an Earth type is under stress: Focus on structural details from the Metal type. Examples: “Let’s make a list”…“It looks like this task needs to be done next”…“This schedule should work well.” 

When a Metal type is under stress: Draw on language from the Water type to impart a sense of time and perspective. Examples: “Take a few days to expand on what we’ve got”…“Use your imagination over the next week to come up with some ideas about this”…“Your contributions are so meaningful and insightful.” 

To communicate with a Water type under stress: Redirect Water’s internal focus by drawing on the Wood style to encourage physical movement and forward thinking. Help Water to articulate concrete plans and to envision implementation. Examples: “Let’s go for a walk”…“Tell me what this will look like when it’s done”…“How do your goals for this week relate to the bigger vision?” Give concrete examples of their positive impact. Let him know you believe in him to carry you to the next level. 

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