Coping with COVID-19: How My “Four Tendencies” Personality Framework Shows Up in the Context of Social Distancing.

Gretchen explaining the Four Tendencies

Right now, I see everything in the world through the lens of COVID-19, and I already saw the world through the lens of the Four Tendencies—so I’ve been thinking a lot about the interaction of COVID-19, and the massive changes it has brought, and the responses by the Four Tendencies.

(No idea what I’m talking about? Take the short, free quiz here—more than 2.5 million people have taken it, to learn if they’re Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, or Rebels.)

With the Four Tendencies, the strengths of each Tendency are also its weaknesses. And in some contexts, an aspect of a Tendency can be an advantage, but in other contexts, it might be a limitation.

Here are some examples and questions offered by readers, listeners, and viewers. Any of these ring a bell?

Many people I know are taking social distancing and voluntary quarantine seriously, but are having trouble getting our elderly parents to do the same. “I’ve lived through worse. I’m not scared by this.” Can you suggest some language that would help those not familiar with the Four Tendencies to convince their parents of the value and the need to self-isolate right now?

Any tips on dealing with a Rebel who isn’t super concerned about self-isolation? I went to my parents’ house when I started working from home, because they live in a more remote town and it’s healthier mentally for all of us to have me here. My youngest (Rebel) brother lives at home, still goes in to work (factory packaging food) and doesn’t see the issue in stopping at the gas station for a snack or running to the grocery store for every little whim, despite the fact that the house has tons of food. We can’t make him understand that every contact puts all of us at risk. Any thoughts on helping get him to change his behavior?

Can you PLEASE let the Upholders know it’s OK to break minor rules in a pandemic to ensure personal and community safety? A lot of people I’m talking to aren’t pulling their kids out of school until forced to, because they might miss out on homework, or get a zero on a test. And Obligers feel socially pressured to attend events they committed to.

I’m concerned that a lot of the current messaging that I’ve seen is about “Doing what needs to be done” (works for Upholders) and “Protecting others by distancing ourselves” (works for Obligers). Questioners have been presented with a lot of data, graphs about flattening the curve, etc. But how do we get Rebels to practice social distancing? I suspect a lot of the shaming and judging I’ve been seeing on social media the last few days isn’t working, and may in fact be fueling the Rebel spirit.

These questions demonstrate why it’s so helpful to know a person’s Tendency. When you know the Tendency, you can tailor your argument to be most effective. In a nutshell:

  • Upholders value self-command and execution. Their motto: Discipline is my freedom.
  • Questioners value justification, efficiency, and purpose. Their motto: I’ll comply if you convince me why.
  • Obligers value teamwork and duty. Their motto: You can count on me, and I’m counting on you to count on me.
  • Rebels value freedom, choice, self-identity. Their motto: You can’t make me, and neither can I.

So how do the Four Tendencies play out in the current situation? How can you persuade people of the Four Tendencies?


Emphasize the most important aim. It can be hard for Upholders to disrupt their usual routines or to break a rule. For instance, recently an Upholder friend really, really wanted to go to the gym. She has a huge streak going and has only missed a handful of times over the past few years. Part of her was saying, “Stay home, it’s a bad idea;” part of her wanted to stick to the usual plan.

Upholders can always ask themselves to articulate their values: “Both aims are important to me; in this situation, what’s most important?” That can help.

When the rules officially change, Upholders will uphold them. Once the gyms in New York City were officially closed, my friend wouldn’t go, even if she could’ve managed to find a gym that was letting people in.

Note: Often, Upholders (like me) find comfort and energy in plans, schedules, and to-do lists. They don’t feel better when you say, “Come on, things are crazy, you should let that go.” Not meeting an expectation makes them feel worse. So they generally won’t use this time to indulge, and they may be very uneasy about all the disruption to their usual routines.

Also note: Because they think others will also be comforted and energized by routine, Upholders (this is very true for me) will therefore try to impose plans, schedules, and to-do lists on other people. If you’re being badgered by an Upholder with a clipboard, remind the Upholder that other people don’t necessarily share this attitude.


Stay focused on data and justifications. Find compelling, comprehensive data. One Questioner reported that this Washington Post article was what persuaded her: “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve.‘”

Remember, Questioners only listen to those whose judgment they trust. I’m lucky because my Questioner father was persuaded to stay home after he heard a presentation from a doctor who conveyed expertise, good judgment, and solid facts. Don’t try to persuade Questioners by pointing to an authority that they don’t respect.

Also, Questioners can sometimes seem—to those who don’t share their views—like crackpots. They look at whatever data they look at, and they form their own conclusions, and their own views are what guide their actions. If they don’t think that something makes sense, or they question the agenda or knowledge of the person telling them to do it, they won’t comply.


Emphasize the expectations of others and the duty to others. “You need to stay home and cut off contact. What if you got sick? You’d put others at risk of getting COVID-19, when they were treating you. Plus you need to be a role model for others. “

An Obliger said, “I keep thinking about what the Governor of Washington said when asked what the penalty would be for not self-quarantining: ‘You might end up killing Grandpa.'”

Also, remind Obligers that sometimes, to say “yes” to one person, you  have to say “no” to someone else. “I know you’re worried about hurting his feelings if you don’t go to the birthday party, but you’ll be putting others, including me, at risk.” (Earlier, this kind of issue was a big conflict for Obligers, but now no one’s going to any birthday party.)

Obligers respond to accountability, so for instance, every time you talk to that older Obliger parent, ask, “Are you staying home? Did you run any errands?” Let Obligers know that you’re checking on them. “Please don’t do that again! You know how much I worry when you do.”


Rebels value choice, freedom, and identity. Boy, I feel sorry for the Rebels right now. So many rules! So many constraints! Rebels hate to feel controlled, so they might say, “Sure, we’re all staying home, but you’ll make an exception to come to my fortieth birthday party, of course, right?”

Remember, the more you demand, insist, bribe, guilt, or nudge a Rebel to do something, the more likely you are to ignite the spirit of resistance. Your request may be the reason that the Rebel is acting in a certain way. This is hard to grasp and act on.

We cannot make a Rebel (or anyone) do something. We must point out why this is what they want for themselves. Sure, you could lie and say you’re an essential worker. Sure, you could stop off at a convenience store for a snack every time you take the dog for a walk. Sure, you could skip hand-washing. But you don’t want to do those things, because that’s not the kind of person you are.

There are two ways of approaching Rebels—whether you’re the Rebel yourself, or you’re dealing with a Rebel:

Information, consequences, choice: You tell Rebels the information they need to make a decision, inform them of the consequences of their actions or inactions, and let them choose.

“The experiences of countries like China and Italy show that people who are older than 70 years, like Mom and Dad, are far more likely to die from COVID-19. We’re staying home to self-isolate. Every time you stop at a store, there’s the possibility that you’ll bring home the virus that could kill them.” Then stop talking.

“The experiences of other countries show that younger people are more at risk than we all initially believed. A scary number of people in your age bracket are being hospitalized and even needing the ICU. We all know that the hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, so if you get sick and need the ICU, you might not be able to get treated.” Then stop talking.

Every day at 4 pm ET, my sister Elizabeth and I hold Instagram Live “Coping with COVID-19 Conversations.” The other day, one viewer commented that because her Rebel husband refused to take any COVID-19-related precautions, she has moved to an Airbnb for three months. Now that’s a consequence.


Remind the Rebel (or yourself) of an identity that’s important to that Rebel. “I’m a responsible co-worker.” “I’m a loving family member.” “I respect science.” “I’m a thoughtful citizen.” “How do I want to look back on this time?” The question is: Given the situation, what kind of person do you want to be?

Remember, too, that Rebels can do anything they want to do, anything they choose to do. And they will often choose to do something out of love for you. “I know it drives you crazy that we keep telling you to stop picking up snacks on your way home, but it really worries me. I’m worried about you, about me, and most of all, about our parents. I can’t sleep at night.”

And sometimes Rebels respond to a challenge. “My son thinks I can’t self-quarantine for two weeks? Watch me.”

Tap into the spirit of resistance. One Rebel explained, “I’ve been personifying the virus in my head, and I’ll be damned if this virus will use me or my kids to survive and strengthen and pass on to others.”

An article like New York Magazine’s terrifying “The Story of a Coronavirus” makes it clear: this virus is taking over your body; it’s trying to control you, exploit you, and decide your fate; don’t let it. This article might also be useful for an Obliger (you can unwittingly put others at risk) and Questioners (lots of science and justifications).

Strengths and Weaknesses:

At the best of times—and certainly now—the Four Tendencies can puzzle and frustrate each other.

Remember, each Tendency has strengths and weaknesses—and the strengths and the weaknesses are the same. And an aspect of a Tendency that annoyed you in another time might be a wonderful quality now. We all need each other.

Take Rebels. In ordinary times, the Rebel’s refusal to stick to a schedule might be annoying. But these days, you might be very grateful for that Rebel’s adaptability and ability to stay cheerful while usual routines are disrupted.

Or an Obliger.  At other times, you might have been annoyed that your Obliger spouse spent so much time and energy giving excellent service to clients, but now that the Obliger is wiping down every non-porous surface in your house twice a day, you appreciate it.

Or a Questioner. Your Questioner sweetheart may annoy you by interrogating every decision you make, but now your Questioner’s command of the facts is helping you convince other family members to be safe.

Or an Upholder. Your Upholder’s commitment to the to-do list and calendar might annoy you at times when you wish for a lighter mood, but now that the Upholder is maintaining a school schedule for your kids who are home, you appreciate it.

Dive deeper into the Four Tendencies:

If you want to learn more about the Four Tendencies, and how to harness their power to achieve your aims, you can read my book The Four Tendencies.

If you’re interested in using this time to learn more about yourself through my Four Tendencies video course.

The course helps you harness self-knowledge so you can take steps to create the life you want—in the way that’s right for you. In this course, you’ll learn to identify your own Tendency and use that knowledge to gain self-insight so you can make practical changes to create the life you want. You’ll learn how to appreciate other people’s Tendencies and support them effectively, with your family, your friends, your patients, or your co-workers.

How are you seeing the Four Tendencies in action during the COVID-19 crisis? How have you harnessed the power of your own Tendency to cope with this situation? I’m endlessly fascinated by this aspect of human nature.



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