We have a regular commenter, hildi, who has always impressed me with her ability to navigate potentially heated topics kindly, in a very relatable way, and without seeming adversarial to either side. Here’s an example from a few weeks ago, when she was talking to a letter-writer who was allowing a former friend to really mess with her mind. And here she is giving a great explanation of task-focused people and relationship-focused people (something that comes up a lot here, and a bunch of people have said her explanation of this has made a big difference for them).
I asked her recently if she’d talk to me about how she pulls this off and she generously agreed. Here’s our Q&A.
Tell us a bit about the work you do.
I work for state government as an employee professional development trainer. I’ve been here for eight years and before this I was a personnel officer in the Air Force. In my role as trainer, I’m tasked with providing training for state employees on supervisory topics such as hiring, onboarding, employee recognition and motivation, performance appraisals, and documenting and discipline. I also have the freedom to develop general professional development topics that we offer to any state employee to attend. Some of my current classes are about cultivating a respectful workplace, defusing irate customers, and leadership for people not in supervisory roles.
I have a cool supervisor who gives me a lot of latitude to develop new topics that I am interested in and that I think would be well attended by employees. It’s a creative and rewarding job, but challenging because adult learners can sometimes be very unforgiving!
You have an extraordinary ability to navigate contentious topics not only with tact and diplomacy, but with kindness and likability too, and you have such a gift for being straightforward while still finding words that leave both sides of even very heated debates feeling understood and like you’re not taking sides against anyone. Where does it come from? Have you always had that knack?
That means a lot to me because I actively try to cultivate that kind of persona. I think that I naturally have a high degree of empathy – that’s definitely my natural skill, just like we all have a natural skill. I can’t do math to save my life, I have very few time management skills, and I’m really not good at following through on tasks. My brain operates in a much more abstract and relationship-oriented way. I have always understood people and genuinely like people. That doesn’t mean they don’t tick me off or I don’t have my share of conflict with others, but somehow I instinctively search for and analyze people from a lens of “what motivated them to say or do that?” And when I can understand or at least speculate on the motives for their behavior, it humanizes them and softens me to them because I can see a little of my own struggles through them.
It helps me realize that they are not a horrible robot who is purposely trying to offend me. They are a flawed and messy person that deep down is trying to avoid pain and be loved. True, that need comes out in some pretty gnarly and unpleasant ways, and I know it’s difficult to not be bothered by the how of their behavior. I choose to focus on the why behind the behavior because it just helps me cope with it better (and I’m not perfect – I get this wrong a lot, too). So I think a big part of any shred of success I’ve experienced in this area comes from good old fashioned luck of the draw on my personality. (Some of the real task-focused people reading right now are thinking, “that is a bunch of kumbaya touchy feely crap…..” haha. And that’s what I love about people.)
I also have a very, very strong need to not make someone feel bad. Generally speaking, I feel terrible if I make someone else feel stupid or dumb or that their thoughts aren’t important. I don’t know where this comes from other than my innate preferences, but also I think from my family of origin. My mom and dad always let me have a voice at the table and they are just generally nice people. There was no shaming for having a thought or expressing a preference. My ideas were always valid and listened to. I had a really good childhood, and now that I’m a parent I can see how I hit the jackpot that way.
My profession also requires me to be accepting of and encouraging of all viewpoints. I strive very, very hard in my classes to make everyone feel comfortable enough to offer up their opinions. It’s a major emotional risk to speak up, and people need to be made to feel like all viewpoints are welcome. I do this by sharing a lot of myself (stories, examples) and I’m very careful in how I respond to someone when they offer an idea. There are times when someone says something in class that I want to say, “What the hell? That made no sense at all.” But what’s the use of making someone feel that way? I can see no good reason for having to chest thump and make someone feel stupid for their idea. So instead I try to ask them for more detail and see if I can understand where they were coming from. In the end, there are times when I still have no clue what they meant (or I personally don’t agree with it), and I’ll just kind of wrap it up by using my never-failed me, go-to phrase, “hmm, I never really thought about it that way before. Thanks for sharing that,” and moving on.
Are there pitfalls that you see people commonly fall into in this area (or that you’re especially cognizant about needing to avoid yourself)? What are they?
I think there are two broad pitfalls people make when communicating about different ideas with another person: (1) taking things too personally, and (b) not taking things personally enough. When I finally was able to articulate this point for myself and then in classes, it was earth shattering for me. It completely changed the way I view conflict and helped me understand what is at play when people get all ruffled in discussions.
Taking things too personally: This is definitely my pitfall (among others, I know!). Obviously, I’m a people-person and value the relationship more than I value the task. I and others like me absolutely have got to stop taking things so personally. When you are dealing with people who value the task more than the relationship, when they say something that sounds crass or abrupt or rude, chances are very high that they don’t mean it in the way! So the key is to start to identify the people in your life whose heads naturally live in the task. Their motives for acting are generally out of a need to get the job done, to feel accomplishment, or to follow the process. As such, they are generally not prioritizing the relationship or your feelings. Which is hard for us to understand and grasp how that doesn’t matter to them the way it does to us. So you can’t read into those comments the way we are prone to do. Don’t assume their words are designed to be a personal slam or a passive aggressive comment. Consider their motive for saying what they’re saying, and you might find that even though it hurts to hear it the way they said it, they really don’t mean anything out of it. Chances are they still like you, but are trying to get the job done and all of our hurt feelings keep getting in the way :) That being said……
Not taking things personally enough: Yup, I’m talking to you task-focused people. Here’s the thing: You want to get things done, right? I completely understand – we need people like you to keep the train moving and achieving things. However, if you don’t consider how you say things to people and the personal value others place on your interaction with them, then you will not get things accomplished, because they won’t work with you because they feel like you don’t like them or are trying to send some kind of message. They will passively aggressively communicate with you, they will avoid you, they might even sabatoge you. It’s certainly not right or easy to understand, but as a relationship person I’m here to tell you that’s what’s happening.
This doesn’t mean you have to suddenly become a great lover of humanity. You certainly don’t have to share personal details with others. But you do have to smile more. You have to soften your language so you’re using more cooperative (vs confrontational) sounding words.
At the heart of the difference is this: Task-focused people can get the job done whether they like another person or not. Relationship-focused people have a very difficult time getting the job done if they don’t like the other person (or if they think the other person doesn’t like them). Each side need to keep that in mind about someone else and adjust their communications accordingly.
What’s your advice for people who want to be better in this area themselves? Are there secrets you can share with us about how to be awesome at it?
These are some of my core philosophies or truths that I try to live by (and I’m the first to admit that I screw these up often. I just keep trying):
1. What you think of people is how you treat them. If you are passing judgment in your own mind about a person’s background, appearance, way of speaking, life situation, predicament they’re in, etc. then I promise you that will come out in your communication with them. It will cause you to speak more harshly, more dismissively, and less openly if you have a head full of opinions about someone. Of course, we’re human and each moment we’re breathing we’re forming opinions. It’s hard work is to constantly check that impulse in yourself, but it’s necessary, especially when you’re in a contentious conversation with someone. This might be the dumbest thing ever printed on this site, but here’s what I do and it works remarkably well: When I’m with someone that I find distasteful or jerky, I try to think of them as an infant. Because they were once helpless and innocent and loved deeply by someone. They were once childlike and happy and laughing. I’m such a sap, but that makes me a bit teary anytime I think of someone as a baby. It’s so weird, but it usually softens me toward them enough that I’m willing to listen to them.
2. Empathy is not condoning. I would also consider this a pitfall some people fall into — thinking by having empathy for another person or their point of view, it’s somehow condoning the person’s behavior or belief. It’s not. Empathy is just the ability and willingness to distinguish an emotion someone is feeling and how they could be feeling it. But that doesn’t mean you are required to take on their emotion, you don’t have to coach them through the emotion, and you don’t have to agree with their emotion. To me, it seems like people who subscribe to the empathy = condoning belief remain rigid and inflexible when communicating with others, which sets them up for an Us vs. Them argument.
3. Let go of the need to be right. I didn’t coin this phrase, but I love it: “Do you want peace or do you want to be right?” I think that’s a question a person should ask herself anytime she’s locked into a perspective battle with someone else. And I don’t always think the answer should be peace. There are times when you need to remain firm and be right. But there are some people for whom being right is the default and they fail to see the consequences of this. Over time, they will become ineffective as an employee, boss, friend, parent, or partner because people will stop listening to them. There is no way you and the way you see the world is right all the time, so you have to be willing to concede that you may be overlooking something, or that you might not be right on a subject.