Reflecting on relationships

Last week I wrote about reflection and how it can help you understand more about your own motivations and unconscious behaviours.  Since being more open to my own motivations and behaviour I have certainly found out more about myself and the impact I have on others – I now understand and see a lot of things I didn’t really perceive before. 

But one of the absolutely amazing things about greater self awareness is that it helps you to understand the motivations and behaviours of others.

Working with others and why reflection helps

Much of what we do at work involves working with and through other people.

Over the years I have to admit I had a preference for working with people I liked, who thought like me and were of a similar ilk. Of course – not exactly like me! I needed introverted accountants and highly organised project managers. But I mean in terms of their basic personality. I sought out people who were easy company – straightforward, delivery-focused and open.  Conversely, I avoided people I found "difficult", "oversensitive" or "moany".  This is already telling you something about me and what I have trouble with (I wrote about that last week). But, supported by my reading and learning, I became more curious about how other people tick.

If someone is more sensitive to criticism than I am this is likely to come from a pretty deep place. Instead of saying they are prickly, or making "walking on egg shells" remarks, I now take this into account and modify my behaviour. By building understanding and trust over time they too may be able to modify their behaviour. So by being more accepting and understanding of my own shortcomings I may have also become more understanding of people with characteristics that jar. Now I always think about asking why someone behaves in a certain way rather than labelling their behaviour.

This small change has stood me in very good stead. When I am having a conversation with someone I try to sensitise myself to what else they might be saying. Their words are one thing, but there is also how they relate to me, how and where they sit, what issues they react to, what they notice and comment on. I observe them and listen carefully in an attempt to understand what is important to them and what makes them who they are. After a meeting, good or bad, I often think about what was said and what it might mean.

Of course I am talking about the good management skills of active listening and empathy. But I am also going a little bit further and remaining curious about why someone is especially concerned about something. I like to open myself to the other person and consider how they make me feel as well as what they have to say.

Reflecting on one-to-one discussions

It is easy to come out of an experience and say something like "He never listens to me because he is an arrogant sexist!". Sometimes this may be true. But what else is going on? Do I subconsciously remind him of a hated teacher? Is there some envy or competitiveness here?

When I come out of a meeting or event with someone else I reflect on how they made me feel, as well as what we achieved and what needs actioning. If I feel upset, bad, inadequate, or frustrated I need to understand why. Previously if I felt miserable after a meeting I would just tell myself “forget it!” I tried to avoid the unpleasant feelings. Now I try to understand them.

Conversely I try to work out why someone or an outcome makes me feel excited, happy or satisfied. I try to study and question my own behaviour too, especially when I get a reaction or response that I didn’t expect or welcome.

Here is an example:

I had a difficult discussion coming up with a colleague who was not performing. His direct reports suggested he did not understand our industry and I found his advice superficial. I started off giving him the punchline, e.g. if you don’t pull your finger out we will be talking about dismissal. He became very red in the face and agitated. His cufflinks were banging on the table as he waved his hands around. I realised he probably knew what I was saying was true but he was very uncomfortable in admitting he was anything other than perfect.

I had previously noted he was someone who was excessively eager to please. He had given me this impression through his behaviour and by talking about his previous roles and relationships. I changed tack. Firstly I took the blame. I said I had appointed him as I felt he was very bright and could quickly learn about our industry. I appreciated how hard it was to get familiar enough in a short period of time. I felt it was possible for him to change but it would be very hard. I gave him some suggestions about how to deepen his understanding and commitment. He took this all on board and said he would address it – and he did. He became much more serious, he started to read more deeply and he took the time to listen carefully to his colleagues, cutting the gloss and spin. He turned it around and became a competent manager.

On that occasion by becoming more aware of the underlying needs and motivations of my colleague I was able to get him to change.

I am not an expert at working people out – I have to try quite hard, but it does get easier with practice. Sometimes I just guess based on my own hunch or feelings. Consider for a moment why one colleague is always late for meetings. Try and understand their behaviour rather than just getting annoyed. By the way, this doesn’t mean being late or shouty or rude is acceptable. It is just if you are going to tackle it you are more likely to be effective if you get an insight into why it is happening before you tackle it head on.

When working with others:

  • Acknowledge your own feelings about them
  • Work out why they make you feel as you do – this is about both you and them
  • Try to understand what motivations they have – are they competitive, affiliative, pessimistic, anxious – this is not an online quiz nor is it good to label them. Ask why.
  • Try and understand other people’s behaviour based on your observations and sensitivity – this is where self-knowledge helps you gain greater understanding of others

(Image above: Kate Davies with executive board members, Andrew Muir and Andy Belton.)

What have your experiences been? Have you found that a better understanding of people has led to better working relationships? Comment below or tweet me @KateDaviesNHHT.

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.