Bringing people into focus

We talk a lot about the importance of self-awareness and the idea that “knowing thyself” is a prerequisite for self-mastery: We need to understand ourselves and our impact in order to be able to adapt our behavior when appropriate. But other-awareness is at least as important self-awareness. In fact, I might say that they’re inextricably related – because when we talk about being adaptable to the situation, we must understand that other people comprise the bulk of the situation to which we need to adapt. We are inherently social creatures, and our reality is predominantly socially constructed.

And yet at the same time, we are isolated in a way, in our minds. We communicate instead of commune with others. This invisible barrier between self and other often gives rise to the unconscious sense that other people aren’t quite as real as we are, especially the more distant they are from the core group of people with whom we interact. We tend to fail to appreciate or misunderstand others’ motives and behaviors – when we really think about it at all. We make lasting judgments about others within mere moments of meeting them, and not only do these judgments merely scratch the surface, we rarely revisit them.

What happens if we don’t stop at the surface? What can we learn about others if we go beyond these gut-reaction, superficial assessments? What can we observe? People vary in countless ways, but within fairly predictable parameters. Consider a few of the following:

  • Preferring options and flexibility vs. preferring clear path or plan
  • Reflecting before acting vs. taking proactive action
  • Avoiding risk vs. seizing opportunities
  • Preferring continuity vs. thriving on change and novelty
  • Relies on own judgment vs. seeks input/approval of others
  • Focuses on details vs. focuses on the big picture
  • Decisions emphasize facts vs. decisions emphasize people
  • Goals focus on serving personal goals vs. serving others
  • Tendency to be serious vs. preference for humor
  • Likes to be seen vs. prefers to be behind the scenes
  • Desires to control and direct vs. prefers to collaborate and team
  • Enjoys working with others vs. working independently
  • Generally steady and unflappable vs. quick to nerves or excitement
  • Feels comfortable showing feeling vs. uncomfortable with emotional displays

There are some really good reasons for taking a more penetrative look at the people around you. The fact is that people like people who are like themselves. People develop rapport more quickly when they sense some alignment with another person. When you understand and seek to show you appreciate and adapt to these deep patterns, it facilitates everything from from communication, collaboration, conflict resolution, persuasion and negotiation, and the entire gamut of management and leadership endeavors. These differences between people are fundamental to how people perceive and react to the world, and if we can understand them, we can better tailor ourselves to the social situations in which we operate.


“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” –Ralph Nichols