Understanding others is the third pillar of emotional intelligence or EI.
Recall that emotional intelligence comprises four pillars: self-awareness, self-regulation, understanding others and managing relationships.
You could check out my “Emotional Intelligence is vital” post for more insight.
But everyone else is just like me, aren’t they?
We’re generally drawn to people who seem to be like us. We generally get on well with them. We’re used to communicating with people who “get” us and get our style. It comforts us to believe everyone is essentially a copy of us. If we stick to our style, we generally do okay.
We like our comfort zones.
If you’re thinking this way, then you are way off base. Because, by only concentrating on similarities, you’re missing so many opportunities to connect with others and grow. The differences are where the treasure lies.
So then, your challenge, at this stage of your emotional intelligence enlightenment journey, lies in discovering exactly how different people really are and why it matters.
Understanding others and fully connecting with other people starts with understanding the differences.
Once you embrace the differences, you can look at bridging the gaps. You can look at successfully building and effectively managing your relationships with other people.
Everyone else is not like you
Commit this to memory:
“Everyone else is not like you”
Remember it because it’s important.
Everyone else is not like you.
As we’ve noted, some of them may seem similar in many ways, but they are not you and therefore are not like you.
Going about the business of understanding others using this specific statement as a foundation will help you get a genuine handle on what makes other people tick. It will also open the doorway to far greater benefits.
I’ll say it again for extra emphasis. Everyone else is not like you.
How does that help my understanding of others?
Because of this, you will no doubt have some questions. How exactly do they think, behave, and feel differently? In what specific ways are they different from you and me? Come to that, how are you and I different? Are there any similarities at all?
When you get down to it, other people can be confusing and strange. It’s hard enough to try and figure out what makes us tick. Once other people get involved in any part of our lives and work, it can get very messy and complicated.
Life would be technically easier without other people, but it would be a lonely and essentially pointless existence. We need other people and generally we like other people, so it makes sense to try and understand as much as possible.
Above all, remember that everyone is as unique in their way as you are in yours.
Treat them as unique and you will do well.
How exactly do people differ?
How long is a piece of string?
I’m afraid I can’t offer a better answer than this.
A quick thought experiment will assist here.
Think of any one attribute you may possess. For instance, do you believe you have a well-developed sense of humour? Likewise, consider the humour level of all the people you know. Place them on a scale running from “no sense of humour at all” to “funniest person on Earth.” Where are they placed? Where are you?
Now, imagine all the people on Earth placed on this line. Make the imaginary line long enough everyone would find a place to stand. Because we cannot realistically do this, we tend to lump people together into sub-categories of our own design.
It’s all about your perspective
You might see yourself in the “very funny” category and see someone else you know as being in the “totally unfunny” category. However, someone else might place you in a category of their choosing such as “idiotic clown” or “buffoon” perhaps. It’s all very subjective and we all create these categories even if we’re not aware of doing so.
Consequently, psychologists, sociologists and many other “ologists” try to make more scientifically rigorous objective categories and classifications. They do this to improve everyone’s understanding. However, whilst these systems are very useful to create a scientific lingua franca, or common language, for differentiating people, they are not always easy or intuitive.
To sum up, the frameworks used are often highly subjective and confusion reigns.
So, how can you get the knowledge you need to begin understanding others?
So, do you really have to know everything about everyone to make sense of the world?
There is good news. Although each one of us is truly unique, we can still be usefully categorised and bundled in quite general ways. Don’t think of this as “pigeonholing” people. Think of it rather as purposefully generalising.
For example, here is one classic and well-used distinction. Psychologically introverted people versus psychologically extroverted people. People can be usefully placed at some point on the spectrum between introvert and extrovert. Such information can be used to inform the style and even content of your interactions with them, as well as their interaction styles with others. Why not look these two terms up on the net – there’s a ton of information out there.
Broad-brush is useful
These broad-brush definitions, classifications and spectra are not truly accurate, but they are incredibly useful ways to inform our own thoughts about and behaviour toward the other person.
They represent a good starting point for quickly developing a mutually beneficial relationship.
What about creating your own broad criteria? Go for it. You can classify people in ways which suit you best. Don’t tell anyone what they are of course, as they might get upset, but go ahead and use them to help you on your way.
Practice and study
With a little study and practice you can become very adept at recognising where other people lie on these broad category spectra. At this point you can adapt your communication and behaviour styles to get the best from any social or business encounter. You can also begin to analyse interactions they have with others.
Achieving this level of skill and adaptability puts you in a great position as a connector with, and influencer of, other people.
I recommend the book “Gifts Differing” by Isabel Briggs Myers. Although this is a book about the Myers Briggs Type Instrument, it does provide a great introduction into the concept of identifying useful common traits and their potential meaning when relating to other people.
The very best tactic of all for understanding others
This single tactic gives you the biggest and most useful results of all.
Be a people watcher. Be a conscientious and dedicated student of human nature.
Warning! Please don’t be an out and out stalker or a voyeur. These activities are quite rightly illegal. I’m talking about observing people as part of your everyday life and during normal interactions with them.
Look, learn & compare
Learn to look at people and how they interact with others and the world in general. Observe how they behave, communicate, look, listen, and demonstrate emotion for example.
Make mental notes to subsequently compare this information with other types of people you observe, and with yourself as well.
Pick any attribute you like and run the same thought experiment which we did earlier for the sense of humour classification.
As a result of all this work, you can now begin to create your own useful categories and sub-categories as required.
Use the information as it builds up and subsequently form an opinion or model of that person in your own mind.
Now what can I do with these mental models?
This is where the fun starts.
For example, consider these two hypothetical scenarios:
The encounter with X
You meet person X at a business networking event. Because they smile genuinely as they introduce themselves and enthusiastically shake your hand, you like them immediately. They are very personable and touch you on the arm a lot as they talk. Because they mostly chatter about themselves and their own business interests, they do mention a lot of interesting and quite detailed information on other local businesses too. They also seem to know a lot of the other businesspeople at the event.
In addition to the feeling that you like them, in just five minutes or so you have also been able to gather a great deal of potentially useful business information.
If you were later asked to describe this person in one sentence you might say, “X is a likeable, funny, tactile, outgoing type who appears well-connected, likes details but doesn’t ask many questions about me.” Through observation and classification, you created a new and potentially very useful understanding of this person.
The encounter with Y
You are now introduced to person Y at the same party when the event host took you over to them. The host mentioned person Y would make a great contact. Because Y seems reserved and doesn’t really smile at all, plus they have a very limp handshake, you aren’t instantly engaged.
You then find yourself having to lead the conversation which is not really your thing. They continue to answer your mostly business-related questions briefly and with little enthusiasm. Y did perk up a bit when they mentioned the enjoyable drive to the event, but you don’t like driving so that died a death. The only mildly interesting information you discover is that they run a local business with which you might well have some professional synergy.
The problem for you is the conversation feels too one-sided and too slow. It’s like pulling teeth. You bail out as gracefully as possible and look for X again. You aren’t personally drawn to Y at all despite the potentially good business connection.
If you were later asked to describe this person in one sentence you might say, “Y is a cold-fish who happens to run an interesting business.” You might well feel you haven’t really gained much from the encounter.
So, what can I do with all this?
This kind of assessment and information can be very useful. For instance, it will go a long way to helping you effectively adapt your communication style and behaviour.
In the scenarios, person X is more like you than person Y. Person X made it easy for you to engage. You easily saw benefits of staying connected with person X.
Person Y was hard to talk with because they were very unlike you. You felt you had nothing in common so missed a lot of opportunities to engage and connect.
There are clues everywhere
Observe the vital differences. The other person will always provide the clues you need. However, it is up to you to search for the clues.
Person Y wasn’t interested in discussing business of any sort. They might be bored by business talk – hence the lack of engagement. Person Y brightened up when talking about their drive to the event. For you, as a developing student of human nature, this should have been a big clue. For instance, what is it about the drive they liked? Was it their love of cars? Their love of nature or scenery perhaps? A chance to catch up on an audiobook? A chance to get away from other people or their family perhaps? Or something else entirely?
The point is, when you’re genuinely interested in finding out more about the other person’s world, even if you aren’t a part of it, there will be a connection. The conversation can then flow. You may well learn a thing or two in the process. This new form of connection could well lead to beneficial outcomes for both parties.
When you are adept at adapting, you’ll get the best out of any future encounters with people like X & Y.
Understanding others and their maps of the world
“I like to treat everyone else the way I like to be treated.”
Have you ever heard or used this expression? I’m sure we all have at some point in our lives. The thing is, laudable and generous as it sounds, it is wrong and can be very unhelpful when dealing with others.
Because we’re now agreed upon everyone being different a more effective statement would be, “I like to treat everyone else the way they most like to be treated.” A subtle but hugely important verbal and mindset distinction. It’s a great way for understanding others.
Maps of the world
We all have a mental representation of the world as we think it is. This is our map of the world. Some people, for instance, choose to hold a rigid and inflexible map whilst others attempt to add to theirs and develop new representations through learning and new experiences. Once again, we are all so different and in so many varied ways.
Treating people in the way they like to be treated, and communicating with them in their preferred communication style, means you will create huge levels of engagement. It will lead to you a greater understanding of their maps of their world. Applying this knowledge therefore creates an ever-deeper level of connection.
Continual practice leads toward eventual mastery
Even if you don’t like other people very much, because you understand what makes them who they are, you can greatly elevate yourself as a person, a communicator and a leader.
Take the time and put in the effort to learn about understanding others as much as you possibly can. Because, by becoming a people expert, you’ll make the study of others a constant and habitual part of who you are.
This kind of people watching and analysis activity can be both fun and addictive. Enjoy it. Use it every minute of every day.
This will be critical as you move to the fourth EI pillar which is managing relationships with others.
By the way, the four EI elements I talk about in this and other related posts, are based upon the EI elements offered by Daniel Goleman in his very popular and very excellent book “Emotional Intelligence.” Click here if you’d like to check it out on Amazon. Other models are out there such as the Bar-on model developed by Reuven Bar-on. I will likely look at elements from the Bar-on model in future posts.
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