The Four Tendencies

“The fact is, if we want to communicate, we must speak the right language-not the message that would work most effectively with us but the message that will persuade the listener.”

- The Four Tendencies, page 16

If there’s one thing we all have in common, that is that we all need to influence, persuade, cajole, teach, sell, or inform those around us. Whatever you call it, you need to move yourself and others. Some people are harder for you to move than others. Why is that? And what should you do differently? We have a sense that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to influence strategies. But what works best with whom?

Gretchen Rubin, one of the most influential writers on human nature, uncovered a ‘Muggle Sorting Hat,’ or law of human nature. She realized that we can categorize ourselves and others by looking at one’s tendencies in response to expectations. Her enlightening framework of four tendencies explains what inspires us to be more likely to act and what does not.

When you understand your own tendency, learn to figure out the tendency of others and make subtle shifts in your approach, you will reduce your frustration and increase your success at influencing yourself and others. It is already helping millions of people make lasting change. Maybe it can help you. Below are my top three gems from the book.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Which are you?

"The simple, decisive question was: ‘How do you respond to expectations?"
- The Four Tendencies, page 5

We all face two kinds of expectations. Outer expectations that others place on us and inner expectations we place on ourselves. Gretchen’s crucial insight is that depending on a person’s response to outer and inner expectations, that person falls into one of four distinct types.

I bet I know what you’re thinking? “Am I in the best Tendency?” Contrary to what Upholders might think, there is no best or worst Tendency. The happiest, healthiest, most productive people are not those from a particular Tendency. Rather, they are those who have figured out how to harness the strengths of their Tendency, counteract the weaknesses and build lives that work for them.

Upholders: 19% of people—respond readily to both outer and inner expectations

Questioners: 24% of people—question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect respond only to inner expectations

Obligers: 41% of people—respond readily to outer but struggle to meet inner expectations

Rebels: 17% of people—resist all expectations, outer and inner alike


Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Identifying Tendencies

"With wisdom, experience, and self-knowledge from the Four Tendencies, we can use our time more productively, make better decisions, suffer less stress, get healthier and engage more effectively with other people."
- The Four Tendencies, page 13

What is the tendency of your spouse? Your colleague? Your customer? Yourself? Join over a million people who have taken the quiz to find out at

Wouldn’t it be lovely if everyone in our lives would just take the quiz and report the result to us? In the absence of this, you are left to listen and observe. There is one key question that opens the door to explosive knowledge. Acting on this knowledge can transform your outcomes.

“How does this person respond to expectations?”

Think about someone you need to influence. How does that person respond to expectations (inner and outer)? In short, Upholders want to know what should be done. Questioners want justifications. Obligers need accountability. Rebels want freedom to do something their own way.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Applying your Knowledge

"One of the big daily challenges of life is: ‘How do I get people - including myself – to do what I want?’ The Four Tendencies makes this task much, much easier."
- The Four Tendencies, page 18

For me, learning about these tendencies brought incredible new insights. Why do certain influential strategies work for some people and not for others? Now I see it! We need to first identify the person’s Tendency, then make subtle shifts in vocabulary such that our requests are more engaging.  

Let’s apply that thinking to why people might exercise. An Upholder does it because it’s on the to-do list, a Questioner rattles off the health benefits, an Obliger has an exercise partner waiting for him, and the Rebel does it because she feels like it.

I teach pharma professionals how to better engage Health Care Professionals to create better patient outcomes. Often, pharma professionals think, if I just share this incredible evidence, in a sufficiently logical way, then the doctor will change her habits and create better patient outcomes! Rubin suggests we reach them through their Tendency, not ours.  

Take the example of influencing doctors to ask patients if they smoke (which is proven to result in more people quitting). If I want a doctor to do this, I should first consider what tendency she has and then alter my style. For example:

Upholders – remember, they will do what’s right.

Eg. “Evidence now shows that the right, best thing to do for every patient is to ask them if they smoke. This results in X percent increase in quit rates. Do you ask each patient?”

Questioners – remember they love efficiency and customizing, credentials, proof and data are key, but they don’t like to be questioned.

Eg. “I have some evidence that might help you be more efficient. In the space of one minute, asking one question can significantly increase the likelihood of patients quitting smoking. Of course, you know your patients best, whether you want to do it at the beginning or end of their visit will be up to you and your flow.”

Obligers – remember they respond to outer accountability.

Eg. “One of the best ways you can serve your patient is by asking this one simple question. When you show you care and you are watching them, they will respond. If you don’t ask this question, you are losing a very simple, easy opportunity to make a huge difference in your patient and in the lives of their family members. If this is important to you, how could I help remind you?”

Rebels – remember that they want to be on the forefront, doing their own thing. Share information, consequences, and choices—but do not tell them what to do.

Eg. “I know you love to be on the forefront. We’ve seen some really interesting research. What it shows is that doctors who ask patients if they smoke, see ‘this outcome’, doctors who don’t, get ‘these outcomes’. I can leave the study with you – it’s totally up to you.

In closing, how would you influence each Tendency to change a lightbulb?

Upholder – He’s already changed it
Questioner – Why do we need that lightbulb anyway?
Obliger – Ask him to change it
Rebel – Do it yourself.

While reading The Four Tendencies is really something you should do (Upholder) and there are many great reasons to do so (Questioner), I am asking you to please give it a try for the sake of those around you (Obliger) but really, it’s totally up to you. Do it if you feel like it (Rebel).

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Jill Donahue

ABOUT Jill Donahue

Everything I do is focused on improving patient outcomes. I do that by being a student and teacher of ethical, effective influence. I teach pharma people and health care professionals how to improve their ability to influence others...
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