Understanding others and how to do it

Understanding others - students talking and interacting

Understanding others is the third pillar of EI

Understanding other people is the third pillar of emotional intelligence. I’ll say it right from the start and make no mistake here, other people are incredibly different from you. Your job is discovering and understanding just how different they really are.

Everyone else is just like me, aren’t they?

Wrong! Understanding others using this statement as a starting point will leave you confused and struggling to get on with others. Again, everyone else is not just like you.

How do they think, behave and feel differently? In what ways are they different from you and me? 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 can be 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.

The big problem is that everyone is as unique in their way as you are in yours.

How do people differ?

How long is a piece of string? I’m afraid I can’t offer a better answer than this.

Think of any one attribute you may possess. Do you perhaps believe you have a well-developed sense of humour? Well, now consider all the people you may already know. If you had to place them on a scale running from “no sense of humour at all” to “funniest person on Earth” where might they be placed. Where would you fit? Now imagine all the people on Earth placed on this line. If the line was 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. 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.

Psychologists, sociologists and many other “ologists” have tried to make more scientifically rigorous and objective categories and classifications. They have done this to improve everyone’s understanding but their terms can often cause more confusion than ever for everyday folks. These terms can of course be very useful to create a scientific lingua franca or common-language for differentiating people, but you will find many of these to be equally as subjective in the real world.

How can you get the knowledge you need?

Do you really have to know everything about everyone?

The good news is, although each one of us is truly unique, we can also be usefully categorised and bundled in quite general ways. For example, a classic and well-used distinction is that of psychologically introverted people versus psychologically extroverted people. People can all 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.

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 people we interact with. They could be said to be intentional and well-meant stereotypes. They represent a good starting point for quickly developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

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 then begin to adapt your communication and behaviour styles to get the best from any encounter with them. You can also begin to analyse interactions they have with others. Achieving this level of skill and adaptability will put you in a great position as a manager or leader.

Initial sources for understanding others

As a minimum, I recommend you read as many books as practicable on the subject. Read widely and read both fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps do some courses. Study psychometric instruments of various kinds. Get a mentor. Watch educational videos. Listen to audios. Watch movies and root out the motivations and communication styles of the characters. Learn the “ologists” classification language if it helps.

Subscribe to podcasts, newsletters, social media communities and any other source of information which will help you get a handle on other people and what makes them tick. You will find you also learn a great deal about yourself whilst you do this.

Do it constantly but be clearly aware from the start that there is no end to it. There will always be more to learn. However, every time you do learn something new you will be able to put it to immediate and very practical use. It is sometimes frustrating but also highly addictive at the same time.

What is the best way forward?

The biggest and best tactic of all

This one tactic will yield you the biggest and most useful results of all.

Become a conscientious and dedicated student of human nature. Become a people watcher.

Warning! Please don’t become 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.

As you watch people and observe how the behave, think, feel, communicate, look, listen and demonstrate emotion for example, make mental notes and comparisons.

Pick any attribute you like and run the same thought experiment which we did earlier for the sense of humour classification. Begin to create your own useful categories and sub-categories as required. Use the information as it builds up to form an opinion or model of that person in your own mind.

Now what do I do with these models?

This is where the fun starts.

Suppose you meet someone at a party and they smile broadly as they enthusiastically shake your hand. You like them immediately. They are very personable and touch you on the arm a lot as they talk.  Although they share some very funny holiday stories, they mostly chatter about themselves. They hit you with lots of hotel names and flight numbers too. They also seem to know a lot of the other people here at the party.

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 information.

If you were asked to describe this person in one sentence you might now 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 have created a new and consistent understanding of this person.

This would go a long way to helping you adapt your communication style and behaviour to get the best out of any future encounter.

This activity is both fun and addictive. Enjoy using it every minute of every day.

Why does this knowledge matter?

“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. Given that we are 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.

We all have a mental representation of the world as we think it is. This is our map of the world. Some people 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 in so many varied ways.

Treating people in the way they like to be treated and communicating with them in their preferred communication style will create huge levels of engagement. It will lead to you understanding their maps of their world. This knowledge allows an ever-deeper level of connection.

Even if you don’t like other people very much, understanding what makes them who they are can greatly elevate you as a person, a communicator and as a leader.

Take the time and expend the effort to learn about and understand others as much as you possibly can. Become a people expert. Make the study of others a constant and habitual part of who you are. This will be critical as you move to the fourth EI pillar which is managing relationships with others.

What next?

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have, please subscribe to either the blog or my newsletter to ensure you hear about subsequent articles and other useful and informative material.

In the meantime, you might also like to check out:

Emotional Intelligence in the real world

Self-awareness and how to develop it

Self-regulation and its importance to you

Relationship: The art and practice