Opinion

How to make other people less of a mystery

6 min read

27 January 2016

It’s a rare person who doesn’t find others a little weird sometimes, and it’d be a terribly tedious world if we were all the same. But while our uniqueness can sometimes separate us from others, it’s possible to take the mystery out of other people’s behaviour with the right attitude of curious enquiry and a genuine willingness to understand.

The first Monday of February has been called “National Sickie Day,” being the worst day of the year for absenteeism. Last year, 69 per cent of workers said they’d be tempted to take the day off. What can we do this year to understand people a little better and hopefully eliminate some of that £34m that British businesses lost last February.

Here are some key differences to look out for:

“I see” / “I hear you” / “I feel it”

Sure, almost all of us have access to the same senses, but we have differing preferences in how we use them to process, store and communicate information. Some people rely more on visual stimulus, preferring pictures and diagrams to get clarity on a situation and tending to use visual language like “I see what you mean.” Others have a preference for sound; they’re more likely to pay attention to your words and tone, and equally more likely to get distracted by other noises. 

These audio-oriented people prefer to discuss things in person than communicate by email. For some, feelings are more important. They’re likely to do something only when it “feels” right, and tend to be more concerned with getting hands-on with a project, and with comfort. The matter of how people use their senses can affect all areas of their life, having an impact on how they communicate, learn, work and love.

“In the moment” / “All planned out”

Since it’s almost impossible to come up with a definition for what time actually is, it’s not surprising that we have different approaches to it. Some people live in the moment, they’re usually the ones who shine at parties; totally present and engaged with the here and now. Sometimes, these people are so engaged that they can easily let a meeting run over or wind up late for something. 

Other people are more conscious of time, keen to be on time, respect others time and to know exactly when things will be happening. These people are good organisers, and can make the ideal Chair of a meeting. Just as the moment draws a very present-focused person’s attention, so too can the psychological need for planning and scheduling distract very time-conscious people from what they’re actually doing.

It’s easy to see how these two profiles rub up against each other, but by realising that people actually approach time differently, we can be more understanding of each other, and give the right people the most appropriate jobs. It’s possible to develop some flexibility in your approach to time, after all, nobody wants to spend their summer holiday planning what they need to sort out on their return home.

“Devil’s in the detail” / “Give me the gist”

Have you had the experience of listening to someone describe a situation in such detail that you were desperate for them to get to the point? Maybe you’ve had the opposite experience of trying to follow someone as they fly from bulletpoint to bulletpoint without elaboration.

Some people need a lot of detail, while others prefer first to grasp the big picture and maintain an overview; if these people can grasp the overall concept, they have enough to work with. Others need a lot of detail, paying close attention to specifics.

This factor has a big impact on all of our descriptive communication. We naturally want to communicate on our own level, and it can be difficult to learn how to pitch the level of detail we include in descriptions to the needs of the other person. It is, however, something that we can learn.

The better we come to know other people’s personalities, preferences and quirks, the better we can learn to appreciate and use each other’s special skills and attributes, the kinder we can be toward people who’re different from us. Understanding how one person works is the first step in working out how best to work with them. Here I’ve listed just three ways in which people are varied and diverse, but differences are everywhere and the best way to cut through that mystery which can keep us from properly understanding others is to commit to looking deep into that fog with the keen eye of inquiry and an open mind that seeks, above all else, to understand.

It also means that, for example, despite having a great website and selling great products, if you don’t have a compelling visual experience online, you might soon be struggling to keep up with your competitors.

Karen Meager is a training design guru, the founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy, and co author of award winning book “Real Leaders for the Real World”.