Post #3: It’s Always Personal, Or Is It?

In the first post of this series, I made the comment, “We human beings are almost always so busy protecting ourselves that even when we do or say something to another (whether nice or mischievous) is usually based in our own needs and the other person is just a catalyst for our own feelings and process.”Orangenblüten und Orange am Strauch

This is such an important part of not taking things personally I want to dedicate a whole post to it. When I first heard this many years ago, I did not completely agree, I could see situations where it applied, but not all of life.

At the time I worked for a boss I who’s process and style were almost the exact opposite of mine.  I struggled to work on projects I did not agree with and blamed him for being so hard on me. Then I heard this statement and was able to see his struggles as well. As a result I was able to relax more, take it less personally, and I think our work got a bit easier. Understanding his human need to protect himself in all the ways we  do–as a colleague, manager, and human being– and how I was doing the same, seemed like a useful answer to handling our differences in a professional manner (until I was able to move to another assignment).

The idea worked well in that troubling situation, and I figured it mostly applied to challenges like that where the people involved were so different.  Since then I have paid attention to the concept and see that I am almost always protecting myself, or how I define myself, and that most other people are too. Just watch an episode of Shark Tank if you don’t believe me. The company owners who are presenting are protecting their ideas and their work–their business. Even the highly successful Sharks are protecting their successes, and therefore themselves.

How does this affect us? I believe it hurts our work because it keeps us closed to making the connections that are necessary for true collaboration. Even the Sharks respond well when the contestants open up, get past their marketing spiel and share their hopes and dreams, become vulnerable.  In response, the Sharks are more willing to invest–both their money and their time.

Back to our day-to-day interactions with people we are more similar to. Here’s a couple of unexpected examples of how I protect myself:

  • Volunteering to head a project gets the job done, and also protects my status as someone who can accomplish things
  • Helping my nephew organize his ideas for a new business helps him move forward, and protects my identity as a knowledgeable business person
  • Making dinner for Jeff (and me) feeds us both, and lets me feel like I am contributing to our home

These all seem like caring situations, where my protecting myself doesn’t really distract from the core accomplishment. But what if I am making dinner so I get to eat what I want, and Jeff be damned?  Or taking on a project for the recognition of being head, but not doing a good job, or no honoring others in our work?

If there is even a bit of protecting ourselves, can we work together at our highest potential? Probably not.

What are some ideas for getting past this human tendency? I am not sure it’s possible to completely let go, but here are a few ideas for leaving our shields behind and working together more productively:

  • Just recognizing that it’s possible that we are always protecting ourselves helps me to see situations differently. There are two typical results from this recognition:
    • I cut myself some slack when I remember being protective is just human nature
    • I cut the other person some slack too
    • Either, or both, of these results causes me to relax and that almost always contributes to better collaboration
  • Ask questions to try to understand the underlying motivation of the other person, and KNOW they are usually not about us. When I understand the full story my attitude usually softens.
  • Ask ourselves about our underlying motivation. Often our actions are just reactions or programs. When I understand my true intention I can often let go, or head in a different direction.

There’s a great story about two people who both want an orange, so they cut it in half and share. Upon further discussion they discover that one wanted the peel to make a cake, the other wanted the fruit. They could both have the benefit of the whole orange. Most human differences are not this simple and I somethings think my protective armor is closer to a sharks skin than an orange peel, but what a great example to strive for!

What do you think? Think about a recent time when you were upset. Is there a possibility you were being over protective? Please comment and let us know!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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