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Are you pushy, sensitive or patient? A colour-coded guide to relationships - and how to make them work

Graphic showing the four types
These personality profiles should ring a few bells 

This article has an estimated read time of 15 minutes 

Thomas Erikson’s wife is a Red; quick on the uptake, but with little patience for those who aren’t. His mum was a caring but conflict-averse Green, who responded best to softly spoken tones. Meanwhile, his gasbag sister is Yellow through and through; the life and soul of the party, always asking questions but rarely listening to the answers. And Erikson? Well he’s a mixture of Red, Yellow and Blue; assertive, outgoing, but a stickler for the detail. 

If you’re familiar with the Disc personality test, then you’ll be nodding away safe in the knowledge of your own colour combo. If you aren’t, then by the end of this article you’ll have an inkling of what you are, and an itch to diagnose every one else around you.

Digital platforms, smartphones and emails galore; we’re communicating more than ever, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re connecting. And what happens when we meet in person? How do we communicate face to face? What misunderstandings arise? And can we learn to do it better?

These are questions that behavioural expert Erikson’s book Surrounded By Idiots has sought to answer. Already a smash hit in his native Sweden, translated into 33 languages, it has sold more than 1.3 million copies worldwide from Peru to China and is now being published over here. By explaining the Disc method in a simple and useful way, Erikson has tapped into our desire to understand ourselves and others better.

'You can’t be something you’re not,' says Erikson, pictured at his home in Sweden Credit: Jeff Gilbert

Developed in the Twenties by psychologist William Moulton Marston (also the co-creator of Wonder Woman), Disc centred around four personality traits: dominance (D), influence (I), steadiness (S), and conscientiousness (C). In fact, it had its roots in the writings of Empodocles in 444 B.C, who used the four elements – Fire, Earth, Air and Water – to explain how people acted in four distinct ways.

In 1940, Walter Clark took the theory and developed the first Disc personality profile. The colours red, yellow, green and blue came to be associated with the four traits, respectively. Although not dissimilar to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Erikson says the Disc test is much easier to explain; with no difficult introvert-extrovert combinations to remember. Instead, each person is a colour, or a combination of colours, each with their pros and cons. 

The title of Erikson’s book’s refers ironically to the conflicts that can arise when we interact with other colours. Ever felt like you’re the only one who is “getting” what’s going on? Well, he says, we don’t all perceive the same thing as each other. Place a generalising but effervescent Yellow with a group of meticulous Blues and watch the misunderstandings unfurl. Because, as he says; “People like to deal with people like themselves because they understand that behaviour.”

We’re speaking over the phone, with Erikson at his home outside Stockholm. From his voice, he’s friendly, open, and dynamic. But I’m more worried about how I’m coming across, and somewhat relieved I didn’t fly to Sweden so that he could observe my body language and colour stamp me. It’s a concern he’s used to. While he can do an analysis within a few minutes of meeting someone, he never usually tells people. “They get nervous and change their body language and how they talk.” 

Although, from his experience, those who clamour, “Do me, do me!” tend to be gregarious yellows. How is what he does any different, though, to the first impressions and judgments we make about each other all the time? “The only difference is that I have a language that I can use for doing it,” he says. 

Erikson came across Disc in the Nineties when he took the test in his early 20s. Then a headstrong young sales executive, he found that his forthright behaviour was hampering his progress. 

“When I was younger I had a ‘This is me, take me as I am’ attitude, which got me in a lot of trouble. I thought I was brilliant, but my manager said I couldn’t deal with people.” At his manager’s suggestion, Erikson took the Disc test. It was a light bulb moment. 

“The feedback on my behaviour was what people had told me through the years, but I had never listened. But here, I had it on paper. It was an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment.” The only colour he was lacking was Green. And herein lay the problem. While he thought he was a charismatic leader, those who were predominantly Green found him overbearing.

Could family disagreements come down to colour types? Credit: Tetra images RF

Statistically, only about 5 per cent of the population has just one colour that shows in their behaviour. Around 80 per cent have two, and the rest have three. Entirely Green behaviour, or Green in combination with another colour, is the most common. The least common is entirely Red behaviour, or Red in combination with one other colour. 

Now 53, he’s still all the same colours but the difference is that he has the self awareness to modify his behaviour when needed. For Erikson, it was about realising when he was talking too much and “claiming too much oxygen in the room”. He had a tendency to always think his view was the right one. He still does, but he doesn’t force it on people any more. 

“I would like to do that still,” he jokes. “But I know I can’t because I’ve learnt people don’t agree with me.” But Disc isn’t about changing who you are, something he takes time to explain to the thousands of people who email him asking how they can be more Yellow; more talkative, friendly and open minded. Or often Red: “Because it sounds kind of cool, being a tough guy,” says Erikson. “You can’t be something you’re not. You can try, but you’ll only give yourself some stress-related disease down the line.”

But you can recognise when you’re dealing with a Red person and adjust accordingly. Look them in the eyes, be direct, and succinct. Or perhaps you’re a Red dealing with a Green, and need to couch your message in cuddlier words. 

Recently, Erikson did some consultancy work at a design bureau in Stockholm, with more than 25 different nationalities. He ended up mediating between a Swedish Green and a German Red/Blue.“The Swedish guy said, ‘It’s because he’s German, you know Germans, they’re impossible to deal with!’

"I said; ‘I’m not so sure, can I just step into one of your meetings and observe?’ Immediately it became clear that the Swedish Green was talking emotions and feelings, and the German Red/Blue was just blasting through the agenda. So I said; ‘Look, guys’ and drew something on the whiteboard and 10 minutes later they smiled and said, ‘We get it. You can leave now’.”

It’s not just work relationships that can benefit from an understanding of the Disc method. Some colour combinations are more compatible than others; Yellow and Blue struggle, as do Red and Green. And while he doesn’t advise you go to a bar with a clipboard asking prospective romantic partners to fill in a form so you can ascertain their colours, it can aid a better understanding of the person you’re with. 

“You meet who you meet, and you can’t change them, but you can adapt to them and they can adapt to you. If you don’t, then forget about it,” he says. 

Sometimes people incorrectly put personality down to nationality, Erikson has found Credit:  AP/Michael Sohn

A month ago, Erikson did a lecture about Surrounded by Idiots in Sweden. More than 900 people were in the theatre and afterwards a couple in their early 40s came up to speak to him. “They were standing there twisting their hands and looking at each other. I jumped down from the stage. And they came up and said, ‘Can we talk to you?’ ” 

Having been in a relationship for 10 years, they had gone to counselling several times, and nothing had worked. He felt like a bully while she felt stupid and afraid. Until they read Erikson’s book and realised that he was super Red, while his partner was very Green. 

“They said it was such a relief and now they’re getting married! They just came to say thank you. It gave me goosebumps hearing that,” says Erikson. “They said, ‘We now talk about how we talk’. I want to give people this simple method. It’s not very complicated and advanced, but it helps.”

Colour compromise has also played a role in his own marriage. Erikson’s wife, a recalcitrant Red, “goes from zero to 100 within seconds,” he says. “She is the fastest person I have ever met in my life. She sometimes scares people away because they do not understand her.”

Erikson is mostly Red, he says, but sometimes turns to his Blue side Credit: Jeff Gilbert

Although he’s fairly Red himself, he finds himself turning over to his Blue side in their relationship. Both their Red natures mean that they like to compete, but he tries not to take the bait when the opportunity arises. “It’s a marriage, not a competition,” he says.  

She is a classic case of feeling she is surrounded by idiots all the time, but she’s not without her own self-knowledge. “She does know how to tone it down and smile and nod like everybody else, but she doesn’t want to do that! She’s a force of nature,” he says somewhat proudly. 

It might seem a slightly reductive way to view the myriad elements of our personality, but Erikson says having a method of interpreting our behaviours is better than relying on simple gut feeling. “That is when you will end up in a ditch.”

Would he say that nearly 30 years of knowing his colours and being sensitive to others has made him a happier person? Erikson pauses. For once, his Yellow side doesn’t have the immediate answer. His logical Blue side kicks in and he says: “My Red side means I’m not afraid of conflict. But I don’t need conflict based on misunderstanding. I have no time for that. I’m 53 now, and time is more and more precious. 

“In life we need some conflict, we need different points of view, but conflict based on ‘You didn’t listen, and I didn’t listen to you’, that is useless.”

How to identify your own colour – and other people's

If a person has only one colour, you won’t have much of a problem identifying them. A person who is only Yellow or Red is hard to miss once you’re familiar with their attributes. It’s also fairly easy to recognise people who have two colours, which normally combine colours in these pairs: Blue/Red, Red/Yellow, Yellow/Green, and Green/Blue. 

Some combinations tend to clash or be less compatible, such as Reds vs Greens, and Yellows vs Blues). If you can’t analyse the person you meet, listen carefully. Simply act Green if you are unsure. 

Analytical Blues

The Blues are calm, level-headed, and think before they speak. Their ability to keep a cool head is enviable.

Negative traits: critical; indecisive; narrow-minded; fastidious; moralising.

Positive traits: diligent; thoughtful; serious; persistent; demanding; methodical.

 Body language: Blues  prefer to keep others at a distance; often have closed body language;  use direct eye contact;  speak without gestures.

Famous Blues: Bill Gates and Albert Einstein both used their attention to detail and meticulous nature to build their success. We also have Sandra Day O’Connor and Condoleezza Rice. And of course, from the fictional world, Spock from Star Trek is the perfect Blue – all logic, rationality and intellect.

Logical, cool-headed individuals, such as Bill Gates, fall into the Blue category Credit: AFP/ NICHOLAS KAMM

Stable Greens

Friendly Greens are easy to hang out with because they are so pleasant and genuinely care for others. Unfortunately, they can be wishy-washy and unclear. You don’t know where they really stand, and indecision kills the energy in other people.

Negative traits: stubborn; uncertain; compliant; dependent; awkward.

Positive traits: supportive; respectful; obliging; reliable; pleasant.

Body language: Greens  are relaxed and come close;  tend to lean backwards;  use very friendly eye contact;  prefer small-scale gestures.

Famous Greens: Mahatma Gandhi, Michelle Obama and Jimmy Carter are some well-known people with elements of Green. And, yes, Jesus. There’s a guy who knew how to help others.

'Genuinely caring' people like Michelle Obama can be identified as Green Credit: AFP/SAUL LOEB

Dominant Reds

Reds are more than happy to take command, but when they get going, they become control freaks and can be hopeless to deal with.

Negative traits: pushy; strict; tough; dominant; hard.

Positive traits: strong-willed; independent; ambitious; determined; effective.

Body Language: Reds keep their distance from others; have powerful handshakes; lean forward aggressively; use direct eye contact.

Famous Reds: If you want to get to know some famous Red people, consider Steve Jobs, Franklin D Roosevelt, Venus Williams, or Margaret Thatcher. There’s also Barack Obama and Mother Teresa. 

Oh yes, it’s true. If you consider Mother Teresa’s deeds, the strength she needed and whom she had to deal with – the world’s foremost leaders – to achieve what she did, you’ll realise she was extremely determined and forceful. A typical Red profile.

Reds, whose numbers included Margaret Thatcher, are strong-willed Credit: Getty Images/Dan Kitwood

Inspiring Yellows

Yellows can be amusing, creative, and elevate the mood regardless of whom they’re with. However, when given unlimited space, they won’t allow anyone into a conversation, and their stories will reflect reality less and less.

Negative traits:  manipulative; hot-tempered; undisciplined; counteractive; egotistical.

Positive traits: inspiring; stimulating; enthusiastic; dramatic; outgoing.

Body language: they are tactile;  show friendly eye contact; use expressive gestures; often come close.

Famous Yellows: People who exhibit clear yellow traits include Oprah Winfrey, Robin Williams, Ellen DeGeneres, and, to take some fictional examples, Pippin from The Lord of the Rings and Han Solo from Star Wars.

If you're inspiring, enthusiastic and outgoing, then you might — like Robin Williams – be a Yellow Credit:  Television Stills/ ABC/Photofest
How to get on with every colour at work

In a work context, a group should consist of all colours to create the best possible dynamic. In a perfect world, we would have an equal number of each colour. The Yellow comes up with an idea, the Red makes the decision, the Green has to do all the work, and the Blue evaluates and makes sure the results are excellent. 

But this isn’t the case. We often find Yellows in positions better suited to Reds, or who have been able to talk their way into a job that actually requires Blue behaviour. Indeed, there are many examples of people who are sitting in the wrong chairs, and part of the explanation lies in the fact that they lack the natural prerequisites to manage their jobs. 

Moreover, all this has to do with what driving forces different people have. People are motivated by different things, and it can cause them to move away from their core behaviour in specific situations.

Adapting to Red behaviour

What a Red expects of you

If you ask a Red, he’ll agree that most people are too slow. They speak too slowly, they have trouble coming to the point, and they work ineffectively. In a Red’s world, everything takes way too long. When other people turn things over in their minds from morning to night, it drives a Red crazy. Thought and action are one. If there’s anything Reds dislike, it’s endless discussion. It makes them flip out.

Conclusion

If you want to adapt to a Red’s tempo – hurry up! Speak and act more quickly. Look at the clock often, because that’s what a Red does. If you can conclude a meeting in half the time – do it! If you have a Red with you in the car, he won’t be upset if you’re a bit over the speed limit. 

Reds have short tempers... no matter the time of year Credit:  Getty Images

Adapting to Yellow behaviour

What a Yellow expects of you

Yellows are not afraid of conflict, but where possible they prefer a pleasant and cosy atmosphere. Yellows are at their best when everyone is being friendly and the sun is shining.

A Yellow can be very sensitive to whether people are in good spirits or not. If the people in a group are in bad spirits and aggression is pouring down like from a cloudburst, he won’t be happy at all.

Conclusion

A Yellow functions best when he is happy and content. His creativity is at its zenith and all his positive energy flows. You should strive to create a warm and friendly atmosphere around him. Smile a lot, have fun, and laugh. Listen to his crazy jokes, laugh along at all his childish remarks, and kindle the easy-going and happy-go­-lucky atmosphere. If you do that, he’ll feel better about you and listen to you more. A Yellow in a bad mood is not much fun to be with.

Yellows are very sensitive to other people's emotions Credit: Getty Images

Adapting to Green behaviour

What a Green expects of you

A Green worries about everything (my husband/wife could leave me; my children might think I am an idiot; on the way to work, I could have a car accident; a person can die from a tiny fish bone caught in his throat). 

Many Greens I’ve known have said all these potential dangers paralyse them. They become overwhelmed with thoughts about these risks and dangers. They become completely powerless to act. And since they’re not particularly motivated to get out in the world, it becomes easier to just stay at home. A Green strives for stability and doesn’t even want to think about wild gambles.

It wasn’t Greens who left their homes and emigrated to the US. They would never have got on the boat.

Conclusion

Accept that he is driven as much by fear as by anything else – perhaps even more. Show that you’re prepared to listen to what he is anxious about. Don’t say things like “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” It doesn’t work, because the fear itself is real. We all have things we’re anxious about, but a Green has more of them.

Help your Green friend to face his fear of the unknown. Encourage him to do things that feel scary and still move ahead. Just as we learned to swim as children, despite the fact that the water looked cold and dangerous, you can give support through small, gentle nudges forward. 

A Green strives for stability Credit: Getty Images

Adapting to Blue behaviour

What a Blue expects of you

A Blue prepares meticulously, and expects the same of you. A Blue will have gone through all the material, analysed everything down to the smallest detail, and he’ll be prepared to discuss just about anything on the topic. He will have an alternative plan and a contingency plan for that as well. A Blue will have some critical questions if you say something like: “That’s just the way it is.” The next time you meet him, his confidence in you will be tarnished.

Conclusion

Make sure you can show that you’ve done your homework. When a Blue customer has a question, you should be able to pull out that exact folder from your briefcase. Don’t make a big deal out of knowing the answer. He expected nothing less. And – most important – if you don’t have the answer, just say so. Don’t offer any excuse just to get out of the situation. When the Blue discovers the white lie – and he will – you will fall out of favour. It’s not ideal to have to come back with the answer the next day, but it’s definitely preferable to telling a fib.

A car salesman I know usually says that, when he meets Blue customers, he knows from the outset that the customer is more informed about a particular model of car than he, since as a seller he might have 50 models to keep track of. 

Blue customers don’t ask questions to find things out; they ask to confirm what they already know. So the car salesman doesn’t even try to pretend any more. If he doesn’t know the answer, he acknowledges it and then finds out. It’s the only way to win a Blue customer’s confidence.

Blues don't want to hear from people who are uninformed Credit:  iStockphoto/Khosrork
And finally: a colours quiz

Can you recognise types and understand how the four colour profiles work together? See how many of these questions you can get right…

1. Which combination of profiles would naturally agree on a social level?

a) Two Yellows

b) Two Reds

c) Yellow and Red

d) Blue and Green

e) All of the above

2. Which combination of profiles naturally work well together?

a) Green with anyone else

b) Two Yellows

c) Two Reds

d) Blue and Red

e) All of the above

3. Which profile would delegate a task – but then still do it himself? 

a) Red

b) Yellow

c) Green

d) Blue

4. Which person would be the most willing to try something new to get the job done?

a) Red

b) Yellow

c) Green

d) Blue

5. Which person will remember personal criticism the longest? 

a) Red

b) Yellow

c) Green

d) Blue

6. Which profile wouldn’t miss the last step of the instructions?

a) Red

b) Yellow

c) Green

d) Blue

7. Which combination of profiles would form the best team?

a) Two Greens

b) Two Reds

c) Yellow and Red

d) Blue and Green

e) A mixture of all the colours

Answers

1. Two Yellows

2. Green with anyone else

3. Red

4. Yellow

5. Green

6. Blue

7. Mix of all the colours

 

Surrounded by Idiots, by Thomas Erikson (Vermilion), is available to buy for £9.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or via 0844 871 1514