Exercise – (Dis)agreeable you

Here’s a first exercise for you. In a couple of days I’ll post a little more background on the theories behind this exercise. Enjoy, and let me know how it went in the comments. I’ll be doing this exercise “live” in Barcelona on Sunday: https://www.meetup.com/Barcelona-Write-Together/events/266070141/.

Emotional intensity: medium
Suggested time allocation: 30 minutes


Grab a pen and paper.

This exercise looks at the personality trait “agreeableness/assertiveness” as defined by the “Big Five” personality traits.

Agreeableness is basically the extent to which you are willing to accommodate others. Agreeable people tend to prioritize the well-being of others highly compared to their own well-being. They are “like-able”. Their weakness is that they tend not to stand-up for themselves, avoid conflict even when it is necessary and neglect their own needs. On the other end of the end of the spectrum is “assertiveness”. Assertive people Are good at getting their way, moving forward against objections and have a more skeptical view of human nature. Their downside is that they tend to be less like-able and will tend to have more conflicted relationships. Most people are located somewhere between these extremes and everyone will manifest different behavior depending on the situation. For example, someone may be very agreeable with their romantic partner, but more assertive in their work. However, even if a particular situation influences our behavior temporarily, it does seem that our average behavior remains stable throughout our lives.

This however leaves open an important possibility for self-development: even if you can’t change your personality, or the “average” of your behaviors, you can change your situation-specific behavior, or the “standard deviation”/”range” of behavior. This exercise explores how.

The exercise

First, identify your strengths from this list of positive traits relating to traits on the agreeableness-assertiveness spectrum. Pick 3 that you think particularly apply to you:

  • I trust people
  • I stand up for myself
  • I am interested in people
  • I am not easily swayed by emotions that might be manipulative
  • I am on good terms with nearly everyone
  • I am good at seeing beneath the surface of false good intentions
  • I feel others’ emotions
  • I can see when people are playing games
  • I work well in teams
  • I am not naive
  • I care about others’ well-being
  • I am very rarely taken advantage of
  • I’m a good peacemaker
  • I will confront people if necessary
  • I take time out for others
  • I can be demanding when the circumstances warrant
  • I am a loyal friend

Of the three strengths, pick one that you want to write about.

Think of a specific event or experience where this strength served you particularly well. Write for 3 minutes about that experience.

Now, write for 3 minutes about how that experience could have gone even better. Give specific examples of things you could have done to capitalise on your success.

Now, identify three weaknesses form the following list:

  • I avoid conflict even when it is necessary
  • I have a hot temper
  • I find myself making excuses for other’s inappropriate behavior
  • I can be indifferent to the feelings of others
  • I cannot negotiate for myself very well
  • I am not interested in other people’s problems
  • I will sacrifice my own feelings for the comfort of others
  • I can be manipulative
  • I can bottle up my feelings until I become resentful
  • I am quite critical of others
  • I can be overly sentimental
  • I can be vengeful
  • I find myself too upset after I have a conflict with someone
  • I insult people accidentally or deliberately
  • I should be more competitive
  • I can be aggressive and domineering
  • I am sometimes dominated by other people
  • I tend to always put myself first
  • I trust people too easily
  • I could be better at cooperating

Of the three weaknesses, pick one that you want to write about.

Think of a specific event or experience where this weakness caused you particular problems. Write for 3 minutes about that experience.

Now, write for 3 minutes about what you could have better dealt with the situation. Be as specific as possible.

As a group exercise

A lot of this writing is very personal, but many of the challenges faced around this particular personality trait are likely to be common to several people. As a result, some specific ideas about measures that could be taken may be transferable from one person to the other. Focus on discussing concrete actions.


If you found this exercise useful you may want to go back and repeat it for other strengths and weaknesses (e.g. 3 of each). Thinking about additional experiences will give you a broader and more balanced view on things that you should be working on.

The second half of this exercise dealing with weaknesses can be unnerving and bring up some negative feelings. You may find that you want to stop after the first half and do the second when you are in a better state of mind. You may also find that you simply “get stuck” during the second half as your mind becomes reluctant to think about negative personal traits and propose measures that would seriously challenge you. If so, you might want to put it down and try later – or sleep on it and try it another day.

Beyond words

Understanding where you and others stand on personality traits can help you hugely in your interactions with others. It’s important to realize that every personality type along a continuum has its strengths and weaknesses. Shared personality traits will generally lead to more frictionless relationships. However, differences in personality with close friends and partners can be a huge source of self-improvement, growth and complementarity. If you find yourself in a friendship or relationship with someone where you differ on personality trait like agreeableness, be aware that you will need to make a particular effort to manage that difference, but if you succeed, you will make a stronger team as a result.

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