Why are collaboration and cooperation sometimes so difficult?
What are the reasons why we struggle so much with calling each other out when we don’t like what’s happening?
So much of this has to do with the ways that we interpret our own behaviors versus how we interpret other people’s.
How you perceive me and my actions vs. how I perceive myself are often not aligned.
In fact, there are a number of factors that conspire against us understanding each other.
The first and perhaps most important is that we are forever trapped in our own perspective.
I will go to my grave having only ever seen the world from Seth’s perspective, and I will never completely understand your experience.
Even so, the role of empathy in our daily work is to help us to imagine what it might be like to see the world from another person’s point of view.
And when we allow enough space for imagination, we are able to allow for the possibility of a connection.
How we perceive behaviors.
In Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book, Thanks for the Feedback, they articulate the various obstacles to connecting and understanding.
So much of the difficulty that we experience with feedback comes down to how we perceive ourselves in this world and our ego.
For example, we believe that our intentions are good (or at least justified) and ought to be understood by others, regardless of how we might impact them.
If I step on your foot, you ought to understand that it was not my intention to hurt you. It was an accident.
When you get angry at me, that feedback can “unjust” to me. Herein lies so many of our problems.
We perceive our own behaviors through our personal lenses, and we perceive other people’s behaviors through the lens of how we experience them.
Situation and character.
Think of a time when you were driving and someone honked at you for what you were doing. It might have been that you were driving too slowly, you didn’t go when the light turned green, you changed lanes without looking, etc…
In each of these situations, we will invariably justify our actions based on the situation we found ourselves in and feel unfairly accused. We understand our own behaviors within the context and are surprised that others do not.
Example: Maybe the light turned green, and you didn’t go because you were thinking about a loved one that you’d recently lost. Perhaps you had just received a call from a friend who was in trouble? Maybe your car is having difficulty working?
Regardless, you have a reason why you did what you did, and it was based on the situation you found yourself in at the time.
Unfortunately, everything that you do looks like character to everyone else.
Didn’t go when the light turned green? That’s because you’re an idiot.
It also works the other way as well.
The person who honked? In their mind, they just did it because you didn’t go.
As far as you’re concerned, they did it because they’re a jerk.
Situation and character.
So often I find that the way to interrupt these patterns of miscommunication is to start from a place of curiosity.
If you’re able to recognize this dynamic and the ways that we perceive each other, the easier it is to stop judging and get curious.
How would I perceive my behaviors if I were in their shoes?
Sometimes that alone can help create a little more empathy and understanding for how we experience each other.
The other question that we can ask ourselves is, I wonder what’s going on for that person?
Whatever you can do to create a little space within your thoughts.
Notice what you’re feeling and thinking.
Pay attention to how people experience you and how you experience them.
Question the assumptions you have about their intentions, and be aware of the expectation that other people will correctly interpret your own intentions.
Try to find each other.
This probably won’t work in traffic situations (not a good idea to stop and talk it through), but I find that in work situations, we get lost in the thousand myriad conflicts that build up over time. We become convinced of bad intent.
Take the time to be curious.
Open your heart a little more and be brave.
(Judging someone else’s behaviors as character feels to me to be an inherently defensive posture.)
The goal is to find each other in this entangled mess of emotions and misunderstandings.
The better you are at doing this, the less time you will waste feeling in conflict with others over basic interactions.
Not everyone has the right intentions. (Example: Maybe don’t assume that a mugger’s behavior is just a misunderstanding.)
The goal is to minimize the ways that we confuse and get confused when we interact in our work life.
We can experience conflict with each other over how we do things, and use that conflict to generate greater appreciation and understanding for who we are and how we experience each other.
In the end of the day, this is what we’re trying to do, isn’t it?
Find a way to work together towards a common goal.
Heal the broken parts within us by learning how to trust and work together as equals.
Build a community and an organization that’s stronger because it knows how to manage conflict and interpersonal challenges without jumping to violence and rejection.
Please check out a new podcast that I’m doing with my good friend, CIO Ken Grady, called “It’s Not Personal.” We’re inviting you into our ongoing conversations around how to make work more human, more engaging, and psychologically safer by taking the ego out of the equation. You can click the link above or look for it on any of your favorite podcasting platforms. There will be a new episode each week. Sign up, leave a comment and share with your friends. You can also check it out at our It’s Not Personal website here. Ken and I did an interview for a CIO publication last week, and it was a lot of fun: