interview with an incredibly diplomatic person … or how to agreeably disagree

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.

Previous interviews:
interview with a lab worker at the Arctic Circle
interview with a former receptionist at a legal brothel

{ 251 comments… read them below }

  1. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Thank you to Alison for conducting the interview, and thank you to hildi for agreeing to be interviewed! There’s so much to absorb here I’m probably going to re-read this post for days. :)

    1. hildi*

      Thanks, Cosmic! I told Alison in our emails that it really was a wonderful opportunity for me to write down some of these deep, philosophical thoughts because I’ve been wanting to do that for my daughters and make like a photo book for them to have when they’re older (or if, God forbid, I meet an untimely demise). I always mean to do that, but never sit down and write my thoughts out. So it really was a gift for me and I’ll be extra happy if it helps a few people.

  2. fposte*

    I’ve been waiting eagerly for this post! Thanks so much for doing it, hildi, and for showcasing it, Alison.

    I think “Empathy is not condoning” is a hugely important concept, and it’s exactly the strength I was thinking that hildi brings to the table. I think that’s even harder to find–and even to accept–in our day of internet discourse, where we are really prone to fall into a pattern of picking sides and sticking to them (and yes, I’m definitely talking about myself here). It’s really cool to watch hildi step into a situation like that and manage to virtually put her arm around somebody and root for them–including rooting for them to do better, if they did something that they maybe shouldn’t have.

    I don’t know if I can develop the habit to hildi’s level, but it’s something I try to remember.

    1. hildi*

      Thanks, fposte! You’ve always been so kind to me and I love interacting with you. I like the thought of a side hug for everyone. I will visualize myself doing that from now one :)

    2. some1*

      “I think “Empathy is not condoning” is a hugely important concept”

      Yes! Extreme example: my friend’s grandfather went to jail for something that makes me want to puke thinking about. When he passed away, I was able to be sorry my friend lost a loved one and believe that his grandfather wasn’t a good person.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I hope that some day we (society) can realize that it is okay to have that dual thinking. Human beings can have two opposing thoughts running at the same time. This is not abnormal. This is part of being human. It’s part of realizing there are many sides to one story. (Most of the time we say “There are two sides to every story”. My theory is that there are actually numerous (perhaps too many to count) sides to every story.

          My friend’s son went to jail for Awful Thing. I can’t condone what the kid did. But I can see that my friend is grieving the loss of companionship of his son, the loss of his hopes and dreams for his son and many other things. I have no problem finding empathy for my friend’s grief. One story, many sides.

      1. Bea W*

        This is such an important distinction to make and it’s not easy, at least I know I struggle with it even though I am totally on board with it. I’m so glad hildi talked about this.

  3. ExceptionToTheRule*

    I really needed to read something like this right now as I’m struggling with some of these issues in my part-time job. Thank you, hildi, for sharing your insight.

    1. hildi*

      Sometimes when I teach a class I’ve taught a dozen times, I will say something different or end up making a point that I don’t normally do in any other class. I love those moments because I always think, “whoa, that wasn’t me doing that! Obviously someone in that room needed to hear something else and I was just the conduit to deliver it to them!” That’s kind of how I looked at this thing, because why else should I have a voice on Alison’s blog? Good luck at your part time job – I really, really hope something here helps.

      1. Ann without an e*

        hildi, have you ever considered going into consulting and teaching these courses to private companies…..I think you would be great.

        1. hildi*

          Ann – the thought has crossed my mind! I think I even asked about it here a long time ago on the Sunday Free for All. I am at a point right now where I’m pretty comfortable and there’s not a lot of risk in my life. I don’t know if I’m settling in and will never want to shake it up again or if I crave security because I have two small children. I suspect it’s because of that, but I do wonder if I’d ever have the guts to strike out on my own. I’d like to think I would be able make a go of it, but that’s really putting your chips on the table and….I don’t know if I’m brave enough?!

            1. hildi*

              After seeing how Alison edited my scribblings into something readable I can see what a dang hard job she has!!! Most stuff seems easier from the outside!

  4. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I’m in government too.

    These are all really good suggestions, and I honestly believe that a lot of people engage in destructive behaviors so much so they don’t realize how much damage they’ve truly done.

    My last boss and I were not on speaking terms by the time I left, and I preferred it that way. Her habits destroyed relationships she had with her staff: interrupting, accusing people of things they didn’t do, never backing down even in the face of evidence, shutting down my ideas five seconds into hearing them, brazenly playing favorites, putting people in bad positions, making very personal criticisms, etc.

    One time, my boss called me into her office to berate me for not sending her a news article in a timely fashion. When she asked me why she was reading an article that was two hours old, she often left me no choice but to sound snarky even though I didn’t want to. My answer was, “I’ve literally been at your side since 7:30 this morning until five minutes ago.”

    Mentally I was done with her long before she was done with me. I’m probably guilty of a lot of things in this interview, but on some weird level I don’t care.

    People’s first instincts will be to protect themselves and their feelings in the face of animosity, anger, and accusations.

    I admire your ability to give people so much latitude, but that’s not something I can do myself. You know, you kick someone enough times, you shouldn’t be surprised when they bite.

    1. AMG*

      I’m in this position with a coworker and struggling with it. It’s hard not to bite back when someone comes at you. Hildi, I sincerely appreciate your insight and will be re-reading this post again.

    2. Kai*

      I was thinking something similar, as I have a colleague who continues to be demanding and rather nasty to me, even as I feel I’ve tried to give her a lot of leeway and support in the year or so that she’s been here. Sometimes people just have bad days, and sometimes they have different working styles to contend with, but then you reach a point where you realize that someone is just a jerk. It can be awfully disappointing to eventually get to that conclusion.

      1. hildi*

        “…but then you reach a point where you realize that someone is just a jerk. It can be awfully disappointing to eventually get to that conclusion.”

        This is so true. And I think there are some of us that tend to give people more chances than we should or the other person deserves. Because I always think, “surely they can’t be this awful!!” Nope. Some people just are is what I’m discovering.

        1. Serin*

          I had a very difficult boss once. I was working through how her personality type was different from mine, wondering why knowing that didn’t help me deal with her, and the spouse said, “You know, someone can be an ENFP and a jerk.”

          1. hildi*

            TRUE!! I know I talk about personality/behavioral stuff like it’s the panacea for all of the ills we have with other people. But I totally get that it’s not. You can understand your differences with someone, try to glean from their behavior and still come up scratching your head because there’s are other factors not related to inherent personality that cause someone to be a butthead.

          2. AVP*

            ha! I’m an ENFP and, from what I’ve been told, very empathetic and nice to work with. But some people are just jerks and coming to that conclusion can be really freeing.

          3. Bea W*

            I spent so much mental energy on this with a former bf. Some people are just jerky (or clueless or self-sabotaging) and no amount of trying to understand and adjust your approach and communication style with them will change that.

    3. hildi*

      “Mentally I was done with her long before she was done with me. I’m probably guilty of a lot of things in this interview, but on some weird level I don’t care. People’s first instincts will be to protect themselves and their feelings in the face of animosity, anger, and accusations.”

      Snarkus, my biggest fear with this interview was coming across as smug and all-knowing and perfect. I desperately don’t want anyone to think I’m lording anything over anyone. Because I am right there with you on this one. I have (am) experienced this with an in-law. Sometimes you just don’t care anymore. It’s so hard to rise above, not fire back, but in the process opening yourself to more crap from this person. I get that. I suppose it has to be a calculated risk? Sometimes the relationship and what you get from it isn’t worth the pain you endure to get there so you choose to go into the pit with them. But at least the person is aware of what’s happening and not simply reacting.

      I think when people are just DONE with a person like this and don’t care, it’s a defensive mechanism. I see myself as pulling in my shell to protect myself at this point. “Eff them, I don’t care how I come across because I’m too busy making sure I protect myself right now.”

      Yeah, it’s hard. I appreciate you bringing it up.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Thanks so much for commenting. I do appreciate it. I never thought you (or AAM) ever came off as smug or all knowing. I think you had a lot of good things to say, and I’m glad you acknowledge that it’s difficult to follow through in reality.

        The same can be said for any relationship, especially marriage. But I think I’ve had too many negative bosses and workplace situations that it’s so hard for me to judge what’s what anymore.

        I admire your approach, and I admit I probably get to the “eff this” a lot faster than most people. But I admire what you have to say. You’ve got a talent with people.

        Do you ever wonder what it would be like if the people we wrote about on AAM and in the comments read the stuff we said about them?

        1. Wo Fat*

          “Do you ever wonder what it would be like if the people we wrote about on AAM and in the comments read the stuff we said about them?”

          Maybe a few do. But I think what happens with many of us when we read an article or a post is that we can see our self in it, though we’re not the subject of it. This does happen to me from time to time.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      How to say this.
      I think hildi has done an outstanding job here. And I hope everyone in the world reads this and takes it to heart, because there is so much here that is so very valuable.

      There are people out there who do not play by these “rules” and they never will. They do not even have any interest in exploring these concepts. Unfortunately, these people do not come with warning labels, so we never know when we have a toxic person on our hands.

      A few things:
      If we approach everyone in the same overall manner, it becomes easier to spot the toxic people. Because toxic people react differently than regular people. If we are using consistency in our approach to others, the inconsistent ( potentially toxic) responses stick out like a sore thumb. Over all, positive people respond within a given range of answers. (Back to what hildi said we inadvertently telegraph to others where our thinking is at.)

      Oddly, there are times where we are the wrong person, at the wrong time with the correct message. This means we will get ignored. Someone else MIGHT come along later and be the right person, at the right time, with the very same correct message. (I call this the second voice. Some people need to hear it once and ignore it. The second voice is the second person who says the same thing and is declared Einstein reincarnate.)

      There are times and there are people where the thoughtful/gentler approach is not going to work, period. In fact, you could cause yourself to be injured. Once you have been able to figure out that you could possibly be harmed, do not allow yourself to remain in harm’s way. Take the necessary and ethical steps to protect yourself. Don’t hug someone who is trying to burn down your house, instead call the police and get to safety.

      We do owe it to our fellow human beings to give them the benefit of the doubt and put them in a place where they can succeed, etc. BUT, if this is going to cost us a bloody nose or lost job, then our priorities need to shift back to taking good and proper care of ourselves, first and foremost. (I am agreeing with you, there are people out there that live in a manner such that a person must make their own self a priority in order to protect themselves from the toxic person.)

      Unfortunately, in effort to protect ourselves from toxic people, we can accidentally shut down entire parts of our being. In turn, we can become someone else’s toxic person because of our own anger/fear/coldness/whatever. The irony is that in effort to escape that toxic person we become a toxic person ourselves, because we have shut down so much of who we are. The toxic person won.

      Hildi is describing a way out of this pit, how to get back into the swing of things with normal, sane people who are just trying to make their way in the world like everyone else. And this is a topic so huge, that we will spend the rest of our lives learning it. It’s important to realize that this does take a life time to master, if at all.

      1. hildi*

        People, I just spout off stuff I’ve read, observed, listened to others say. Any 34 year old ninny can do that. NSNR has lived what she talks about. So good.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Sigh. I was 34 when someone gave me this talk, because I stepped in a biiiggg pile of crap. In short, I stirred a hornets’ nest then found said, “oh, that was a hornets’ nest???” grrrr.

          I believe what you are saying is the way to go at things. Even though I got bit pretty good, I still will say- “go with what hildi is saying”. Offer most of the people you meet these opportunities.


          You have to live with yourself.
          You have to be an ethical person to sustain your income/quality of life/creature comforts.
          You have to surround yourself with ethical/quality people. Remember- like attracts like.
          You send out a ripple- some people don’t like to think about this. People see you and you never know when they are deciding to copy what you are doing.
          Karma. What you send out does come back. It may take decades but it comes back.

          I cannot say enough to encourage everyone to support the Alison’s and the hildi’s of the world. We need these type of people so badly. We need the voices of reason, logic, caring, compassion, and support. We need people that break situations and relationships down in manageable bits and start real and meaningful conversations.

          Rock on, hildi.

      2. Another Lauren*

        This is me…the person who became toxic after dealing with a toxic person. I have felt targeted and antagonized for the past 11 months by a coworker. Unlike others on my team, who experienced similar negativity from him, albeit to a much lesser extent, I handled it poorly. Others took a step back and said “this guy is a jerk, stop giving him so much credit.” I, on the other hand, gave into neurotic tendencies, obsessing about how he could behave this way towards me, why he did what he did, how did others not notice, etc. I was constantly assessing his actions and justifying my frustration a and outrage, to the point where I’m sure I became an unbearable bore to my closest friends/colleagues (though they were far too kind to tell me).

        This person is finally leaving the team, and I can see how much I allowed this situation to control my emotional state. I am starting the process of “detoxing”, as I don’t want to be others’ toxic experience.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          You are at least 50% back from there now. Probably more.
          Simply identifying the concern and where it came from is so powerful- it really starts to break down all the negative that is there.

          I had to learn about this stuff for myself, too. Because I became a person I did not like so well. I like me a bit more, now. You are moving along a lot faster than I did.

          1. Another Lauren*

            Thank you for saying this, NSNR. It’s been a humbling experience for me, but I’m trying to approach it as a learning experience and an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

            It also helps to look at it through the lens that Hildi described in terms of task- vs. relationship-orientation. I’m starting to think I may be closer to the task-oriented side of the spectrum, and this person was more of a relationship-oriented person. Some of the things that she described in the “taking things too personally” and “not taking things personally enough” really described the dynamic between he and I, and I think I can apply that advice in the future to minimize the likelihood of having another experience as volatile as this one was. (Note: This is in addition to, not in place of, my work on “detoxing”)

            1. Ann without an e*

              Try yoga. I have been going through something very similar I think. I have found yoga to be extremely helpful.

    5. I'm a Little Teapot*

      “People’s first instincts will be to protect themselves and their feelings in the face of animosity, anger, and accusations.”

      Very well put. I had some jobs where I spent most of my time doing that. I find it hard to empathize with people who are hurting me because I’m scared and trying to protect myself, and one of the best means of self-defense I know is counterattack.

      1. Wo Fat*

        “. . . one of the best means of self-defense I know is counterattack.”

        Of course. The best defense is a strong offense.

    6. Ann Furthermore*

      Late to the party here, but thank you to Alison and hildi! This was so interesting to read.

      I had a bad boss situation that ended much like yours did. I moved on to a position to another department, and was so happy when I no longer had to deal with this guy. However, that experience taught me a really valuable lesson — a few, actually.

      The guy really was a colossal jerk. He immediately antagonized me, as well as the rest of my team, almost from the first moment he set foot in the office. We clashed from day one, and it never got any better. He was rude and arrogant, but was not able to back up his ego with anything substantive, which is one of my biggest pet peeves. If someone is an a-hole but knows their stuff, I can not like the person but still respect their expertise. If there’s no there there, then that’s it for me.

      Anyway, right before going on maternity leave I was able to move to another department, and thought that was the end of my dealings with him. But fast forward a few months, after I’d had my daughter and settled into my new job. We were doing a huge ERP implementation, and New Boss told me she wanted me to take the lead on the portion of the project that Old Boss was heading up. I told her I didn’t think that was such a good idea, and she told me, basically, to suck it up. So I did — I didn’t really have any other choice — with great trepidation. And it turns out I’m glad she did, because it was an eye opening experience and taught me a few things.

      First, very few situations are truly all the fault of one person, and that was certainly the case here. Yeah, the guy was an ass, but I was pregnant at the time and more high-strung and emotional than usual. So managing me couldn’t have been a picnic for him. And since he became my boss while I was pregnant, he didn’t even have any experience with the non-hormonal Ann to refer too. A few times in meetings with him, to my horror, I actually broke down in tears. He actually was very kind about it, saying that he’d been through 2 pregnancies with his wife so he was accustomed to the heightened emotions. Thinking about it later, I realized that there were some situations I reacted to badly, and some times that I said some things I really shouldn’t have. I often wonder if I’d maybe handled some things better, things might have worked out differently.

      Second, very few people are able to truly be objective if they’ve been given a one-sided view of something. I’m fairly certain that the director and VP painted a pretty unflattering picture of the team for this guy. Everyone routinely worked at least 50+ hours a week, and the workloads steadily increased. Requests for additional headcount or other resources were denied, answered instead with banal platitudes like “work smarter not harder.” Even so, we were all regarded as a bunch of lazy slackers, and the answer to any problem was to simply work more hours. It’s easy to say that you will form your own opinions without letting yourself be influenced by others, but it’s really hard to truly do that. I’d have a hard time with that, and that manager probably did too.

      And finally, working with someone as a peer and working with them as a manager can be 2 completely different experiences. I worked very well with that guy when we were colleagues — so well in fact, that we made peace of a sort. He even gave me a roundabout apology for the way he treated me, believe it or not. To my surprise he was not always a pompous gasbag, and actually had a few pretty good ideas. The way he tried to execute them sucked, but his ideas were sound.

  5. Stephanie*

    Oh, this is cool. And a lot of process–definitely bookmarking this for future reference.

    Alison, interview fposte and Not So New Reader next. :)

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      So do you also have people here whose comments you follow, people you’d like to meet in real life? I wonder if the people we meet here are really like how we imagine them. We actually learn so little of another person here, and yet, I think I would really enjoy meeting and becoming friends with many of you.

      1. hildi*

        yes, I’d love to know what everyone looks like!! But I also recognize that could really mess with the image and character we all have in our minds of one another. But it would be fun to add that dimension to how familiar we all must feel with eachother.

    2. louise*

      When I saw the headline on this post, I realized what I really want is an AAM conference. Obviously Alison must be the keynote speaker and at some point there must be a round table discussion we can all watch between Alison, Jamie, fposte, and some of the others we all love and respect. Then, there could be breakout sessions/workshops led by various commenters in their field of expertise.

      Please can it be in Kansas City? Closest big city to me and it certainly seems like a central location…

      Except, I’m afraid to meet everyone and shatter the illusion. It’s easier to love you all when I don’t know all our weird tics.

      Perhaps we should just stick to these interviews. So cool!

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Except, I’m afraid to meet everyone and shatter the illusion. It’s easier to love you all when I don’t know all our weird tics.

        Yes, I’ve read that my favorite authors are not really the people I imagine they are from their writings, and therefore you are probably all vastly different from my mental pictures of you. But getting to know you this way is so slow!

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Ok, how am I going to explain to my spouse that we’re taking a vacation in Kansas City, hanging out with a bunch of mostly introverts who I’ve never met but really like? I guess if I mention BBQ, he’ll be willing.

          1. C Average*

            I am having a giggle at the thought of telling people I’m traveling to attend an introverts’ convention.

            1. louise*

              huh. When you put it that way, I guess that’s what we have every going on here every Friday and Sunday as it is. :)

  6. Texas HR pro*

    Thank you for tip #3! I spent a loooong time (decades) working on it and I’m still guilty of some hardheadedness in that area. Thank you for the gentle reminder that even though I’m often right, I’m not always right, and do not always need to be proven right!

    Fantastic post. Thanks, Alison!

    1. hildi*

      I’m glad something jumped out at you, TexasHR pro! My husband and I have many discussions about how his way is the right way when it comes to loading the dishwasher, etc. so I have lots of daily practice with this topic :)

  7. KarenD*

    This was a truly inspirational interview! Hildi sounds like a very emotionally intelligent person who has found her perfect job, and Alison was so right to feature her.

    1. hildi*

      Karen – that’s so kind, thank you. I do really enjoy what I do. Being a trainer is a great way to explore ideas with other people (and where else can I legitimately read AAM for hours a day??)

    2. C Average*


      hildi, a related question for you. When you stepped into this role, did you think immediately, “This is the perfect job for me, given my skills?” Or have your skills evolved to make YOU the perfect person for the job, rather than the position the perfect job for you?

      1. hildi*

        C Average, OMG, you are speaking my love language because I love the chance to analyze some more!! Cool question.

        When I saw and applied for this job, I figured I’d be a pretty good fit. While I never had any formal training experience prior to this, I had experience when I was an FFA State Officer back in college presenting workshops to high school ag students. It was my time in the FFA that helped plant the seeds of “I would love to be a motivational speaker one day!” Now I understand that motivational speaking and training can be two very different things. I am most decidedly NOT a motivational speaker. I’m a teacher, which is why I think I’ve been ok at my job.

        I do think this job has allowed me to really sharpen my natural skills and cultivate some new ones (like being able to take critical feedback – it bites when someone had a bad experience in my class and takes it out in the evaluation. But I do try to see what I can learn from that), and I’ve used those skills to shape the training experience for employees that come to classes. I am proud of myself that I have developed a reputation for doing quality classes based on increase in special requests from agencies over the years. I also think I’m a pretty good fit with the government culture. I came from the military, which shaped my early years in the workforce. I don’t know that I’d be a very good trainer at a corporation like Apple or Zappos. Perhaps I would be, I dunno. But I do know that I have managed to adapt to the culture of government and try to meet employees from that perspective rather than acting like and trying to get them to behave in ways that run contrary to the culture around here. If any of that made sense. :)

  8. Lurky McLurk*

    Yeah my colleague has an issue with “not taking things personally enough”. We have to email secretaries for info and he has a really issue with one of them who he feels doesn’t do what is asked for fast enough. This means he sends very terse emails when making requests which the secretary doesn’t like, especially not when managers are copied in and he has implied she hasn’t done her job, so she’s less inclined to make the effort to help him ( I know because I’ve emailed her on occasion and yes I did have to chase her up but once I’d chased her up she got the info to me within 24 hours and apologised for the delay). I honestly think if he was a bit nicer in his emails she’d be more likley to get him what he requested within a more resonable time frame.

    And of course I’m one of those people who takes things too personally so we have an intersting dynamic between us!

    1. HSP INFP*

      “I honestly think if he was a bit nicer in his emails she’d be more likley to get him what he requested within a more resonable time frame.”

      I totally understand this! As a hugely relationship oriented person who needs to get people to complete tasks for me, I have become known as a “great cheerleader” because I genuinely appreciate the work people do to help me do my job and I let them know every step of the way. I’ve found that it inadvertently makes them work harder for me, and it’s great!

    2. A Non*

      One thing that’s been helpful for me is to think of behavior in terms of usefulness rather than right or wrong. Your coworker might be totally right that the secretary is slow or unhelpful, but expressing that view to her is not going to be useful in any way. Politeness and encouragement (and clarity about “I need this by tomorrow noon) are going to actually lead to better results. Accommodating people’s personal quirks and needs is less onerous a task if you view it as part of the process of getting work done.

      1. Lurky McLurk*

        Yeah that’s a great way to look at it. If I thought he’d actually listen I’d try and explain that to him unfortunately I think it would go in one ear and straight out the other!

        1. A Non*

          If he’d respond to something slightly crass, perhaps you could compare it to getting enough fiber in your diet – taking time for interpersonal niceties keeps things moving?

  9. Mimmy*

    This is terrific, thank you Alison and hildi! I may have to bookmark this :)

    I also read hildi’s post about task oriented vs. relationship-oriented people, and I struggle all the time trying to decide which end I fall on. I wonder if it’s possible to have aspects of both? I am incredibly sensitive about how I interact with people and what I say, but I feel like I mess up all the time; thus, it makes me want to just run away from anything requiring relationship-building, though I do enjoy exchanging ideas with people about certain topics. Yet, I don’t think I quite fit the task-oriented mold either, though this is where I process my thoughts best, i.e. just taking my time to research an issue or evaluate a grant rather than having to think on my feet.

    I know that’s probably a bit off-topic, but this was an “a-ha” moment for me.

    1. Judy*

      I guess I see the task oriented vs relationship oriented as a spectrum. It’s good to be mindful about where in relation to you on the spectrum the person who you are interacting is.

      1. hildi*

        A spectrum!! Yes, so true. I do have a tendency to make this concept seem like it’s either/or, when in reality you’re exactly right: human behavior is on a spectrum. Thanks for the reminder!

      2. neverjaunty*

        Yes, this – and also to see them as approaches/skill sets, not immutable parts of your personality that can never change.

      3. fposte*

        I also think that context affects how you’re viewed on the relationship-to-task spectrum. I’m much more task-oriented than most of my field, but then I go to a tech/engineering group and suddenly I’m the queen of touchy-feely in comparison.

        1. LMW*

          I tend to shift a lot depending who I’m with — if they are very relationship focused, I suddenly am more task oriented. If they are more task-oriented, I’m more relationship-focused. I can’t tell if it means I like balance or I like to be contrary.
          I will say this has been very helpful in terms of thinking about my boss — he’s so relationship-focused it makes it hard to get things done and I tend to get frustrated. But if I couch things in terms of who it impacts, it might help.

    2. AMG*

      I believe it can also vary by task, person, or situation. I’m sure we aren’t all one or the other all the time.

      1. hildi*

        I think it totally can, you’re right. I’ve found a lot of personal application from a behavioral style assessment rather than Myers Briggs, for example. To me it seems that MBTI is more about what’s happening on the inside of a person (how they see the world, how they make decisions, how they process info, etc) and I have observed that it’s harder for most people to remember that or see that in others. I have taught a behavioral style class that talks about observable things: the content of what a person talks about, gestures, speed of movement, etc. And my big disclaimer in that class is that because it’s behavioral we are all capable of adapting to the situation or environment. People say all the time, “well, I’m this way at home, but at work I’m a different way.” Exactly.

    3. Swarley*

      The is me to a tee. It’s refreshing to see that there are other people out there who don’t exactly see where they fall.

    4. C Average*

      I’ve had the same inner conversation and came to the answer, “it’s situational.”

      There are people who are My People and my relationships with them are everything, and I see the tasks that come from them through that prism. I know them, I trust them, and I want to maintain their trust and keep the great relationship we have. I’ll gladly perform tasks that don’t even make sense to me to these people.

      Then there are tasks that are My Tasks and THEY are everything. I want them done a certain way, and have a sense of ownership around them. Woe betide anyone who interferes! I have to remind myself often that the people who mess with My Tasks or don’t have the devotion to them that I do aren’t bad or stupid or less conscientious; they just don’t live in my head.

      The hardest scenario for me is when people who are not My People get mixed up with My Tasks. There’s no existing relationship to prevent me from seeing them as obstacles rather than people, which is all kinds of messed up.

    5. louise*

      I also know some people who are very task-oriented when it comes to how they communicate OUT but want communication IN to be more relationship-oriented. Basically, they can dish it out but can’t take it, if you will.

    6. Mimmy*

      Thank you all – such a relief to know that it does not have to be either / or. Yes, I would say it’s situational.

  10. Nerd Girl*

    This was great!! This resonated with me the most: “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. ” I work hard on not passing judgement in my mind and it’s hard when I feel like I’m being judged in my communication with someone. I felt dismissed and judged as recently as last night and it was hard. I hate feeling that way and I work really hard to not make others feel this way. Thanks for putting it into words!
    (Oh…and I use the baby trick myself! Usually when watching the news and trying to understand what makes someone go from a baby who someone loved to someone who can perfom acts of cruelty. Knowing that someone, at some time, held that horrible person in their lap, kissed their chubby cheeks, smiled at their dimpled little bodies always makes me feel less angry.)

    1. J.B.*

      Yes. all of this is great. Empathy is huge and continuing to see everything from others perspectives. Plus remembering when someone is really pushing your buttons that it may not be to push your buttons it may be a defensive reaction of their own. Although I have been comparing adults to a 5 year old, and seeing some of the same challenges there (with change, needing to feel control of a situation.)

    2. Lluviata*

      People can tell what someone thinks about them. I think that recognizing dislike is often subconscious but it definitely affects the interaction, regardless of whether the dislike is stated.

      1. Clever Name*

        I dunno. I have a coworker who I thought I was friends with, but it turns out I was so very very wrong.

        1. bad at online naming*

          I work with someone now and have worked with others before who are so very good at masking what they think that it always freaked me out…

        2. C Average*

          So what do you do if you work with someone for whom you have a pure chemical dislike that you know is irrational, but you can’t seem to get over it?

          I can see why people don’t like feeling deceived about someone’s warm feelings toward them, but when the alternative is genuine but cold feelings, I’d think the fake warm feelings are preferable.

          (I’ve been on the opposite side of this scenario and know the cold slap in the face it is to become aware that someone you thought liked you actually doesn’t, at all. It makes you feel awful in a very awkward, middle-school kind of way. But I think when you can’t get over your dislike of a colleague, masking it as effectively as you can is really the only reasonable choice.)

          1. Lluviata*

            I think ideally you’d act in the middle ground: not warm, not cool, but polite and friendly and slightly reserved when talking and also spending as little time together as reasonably possible. Now that I wrote that, though, it sounds like maybe someone else’s idea of being cold.

            I say ideally because it’s really hard to stay in the middle when you dislike the person. When I come away from a discussion with someone I don’t like, I’m always second guessing myself. I think “Should I have been more forthcoming?” or “Why in the world did I laugh at that awful joketo make them feel better?” etc

          2. Me again!*

            “So what do you do if you work with someone for whom you have a pure chemical dislike that you know is irrational, but you can’t seem to get over it?”

            This is a great question. I currently work with someone who I disliked the moment I met her. No rhyme or reason for it, just plain and honest dislike. I tend to listen to my instincts with these things so I’ve never tried to talk myself into anything but dislike. As I’ve worked with her I’ve discovered that my instincts weren’t wrong and she’s definitely not someone that I want to be associated with. I tend to avoid her. I’m not mean but I do not go out of my way to talk to her. Any conversation we have is work related. I think it’s preferable all the way around. I can’t really fake warm feelings. If I don’t like you, I can be polite but I can’t pretend to make conversation with you. I do try not to judge, I do try to keep my personal feelings from coloring our work interactions but I don’t fake nice.

            1. Ann without an e*

              Awesome, I always do the opposite. Every time I have a feeling about someone I tell myself I’m being irrational, judgmental, and mean. Then inevitably I end up being proven right, again. In fact all the problems I’ve ever had could be at least mitigated if I was more like you. So how do you keep people that you have that feeling about from needling their way in? Especially the persistent ones? I need lessons.

              1. Me again!*

                I just remind myself that my instincts haven’t been wrong yet. Like you, the few times I ignored my inner dialogue I ended up paying the price for it. I tell myself that it’s not reasonable to like everyone or to expect everyone to like me. I can be polite but I don’t need to be welcoming. I keep my expression neutral, I don’t engage in small talk, and I remind myself over and over again that there’s something about this person that my primal self is rebelling against and there’s a reason for that.
                I have to admit, with this current co-worker it’s been difficult. She’s slightly older than me and acts 20 years older than that. She has managed to establish relationships with some of the women in the office based on the fact that she presents herself as a senior citizen. (She even goes so far as to dye her hair gray.) A different co-worker and I lunch together and for months she’s been telling me that I’m being unreasonable. And then, this month, things came to a head and suddenly all of the reasons I knew were there to justify me in my dislike came to the surface. Suddenly my lunch buddy is finally seeing the same things I saw all along and I’m no longer unreasonable and we’re both sitting back waiting for this woman to get fired. (It’s coming soon…I can feel it!)

                1. Stephanie*

                  @ the gold digger: Yeah, as someone who went prematurely gray, I don’t get this trend. At the moment, it’s just one interesting chunk in the front. But at some point, I may just need to get the dye.

              2. A Non*

                So in our culture there’s a lot of pressure (especially on women) to be friends with everyone. It’s bullcrap, you don’t owe anyone your time or attention or friendship.

                I try to remember that disliking someone is not a judgement on that person – it’s like trying on clothes when you’re shopping, and that sweater that looked great on the hanger looks like a pile of blegh on you. It’s not a bad or wrong sweater, but it is not for you. I don’t feel bad about not buying the sweater. In the same way, I don’t feel bad about politely rejecting someone’s overtures of friendship if I know they’re not someone I want to be friends with. There are other people out there whom the sweater will fit, and they will find each other eventually.

                Of course as Me Again! says, an instinctive dislike can often get proven to have very good reasons later. That’s another good reason to keep your professional mask in place. There’s a thing I’ve heard called “favor sharking” where people do friend-like things unasked for in an attempt to make you feel obligated to respond in kind. On a surface level it looks similar to someone who is genuinely being friendly, but once you’ve encountered it a few times you’ll start noticing the feeling of unease that it creates. It’s manipulation, not friendship, and a big red warning flag.

        3. Not So NewReader*

          Shame on THEM, not on you. You have done nothing wrong in trying to be a friend to them.

  11. Workethic101*

    Great read, i’m going to have to post it and print it in my employee offices. great insight.
    I have some staff right now wrapped up in the being right side of things, and the phrase “you can be happy or you can be right” was something i was taught years ago. your interpretation of “find peace” is a solid approach. well done and well said!
    also I can definitely benefit from your section on emphathizing but not condoning behaviors. I tend to approach my staff from my religious foundation of ‘loving kindness’ (although i don’t bring religion to work, it’s the underlying ethos behind daily intereactions) and i find that learning their motivation sometimes creates a struggle with me to disclipline and create firm boundaries.
    ultimately the job needs done and being able to empathyze while enforcing policy is a delicate art.
    thanks again.

    1. hildi*

      Thanks, Workethic101! I think this point: “ultimately the job needs done and being able to empathyze while enforcing policy is a delicate art.” would make someone MILLIONS if they could figure out how to put that in a pill and get it out to people. :)

  12. Andy*

    *stands, applauds*
    It’s not hard to imagine people as infants. Many times they’re very helpful and act the part for you.

    1. Clever Name*

      I’m imagining my balding coworker with glasses as a baby with male-pattern baldness and glasses. For some reason I’m not feeling more empathy for him… :p

      1. Myrin*

        My sister and I sometimes do this with an old teacher whom we both had when we were in school. It’s always amusing how neither of us can imagine him as anything other than a small version of his current self, all with grey hair and mustache.

    2. Mallorie, the recruiter*

      I actually try to think of people as mentally handicapped relatives (Wait! Let me explain!). My grandfather has dementia and I imagine that he meets people daily who become instantly annoyed with him. So when I am frustrated with someone, I try to imagine them as my grandpa – someone who I love and care about and would ALWAYS be nice to! I think this is similar to the baby thing in a way!

      1. Jillociraptor*

        That idea resonated with me too. I remember when I was in high school, my dad had an employee he just really hated. Really thought she did terrible work, found her hard to work with, just didn’t like her. My dad was actually a really good manager most of the time but he had kind of inherited this person and had a really hard time.

        Weird kicker: she was the wife of one of my favorite teachers, who was a really important person and mentor to me. It’s not quite seeing someone as a baby, but I always think back on that when I’m really pissed at someone and really committed to seeing them as Not Good At What They Do: they’re going home to people who love them, and probably saying the mirror of the things you’re saying to those people who love them.

          1. the gold digger*

            I took the commuter train yesterday from Big City A to smaller City B. I was in the Quiet Car, where cellphone conversations are forbidden and you are asked to keep voices low. I had deliberately sought the car because I wanted peace and quiet.

            As soon as I sat down, I heard this guy a few rows behind me gabbing loudly. I thought he might stop once the train started, but he did not. Then he said that they were going to have to re-start the conference call for some technical reason.

            I hate confrontation, but I am very good at being passive aggressive, so I posted something on facebook about how SOME people just can’t READ.

            He kept talking.

            I steeled myself, walked back, and asked politely, “Excuse me. Would you mind keeping your voice down?”

            He said that he had come back to this car specifically to make his call because he didn’t think he would be bothering anyone.

            I took a breath and left, thinking, “IDIOT! Do you NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT THE QUIET CAR IS FOR?”

            But he was quieter.

            Five minutes later, he was at my seat. “I apologize!” he said. “I did not know I was in the quiet car!” He took his computer and went to the next coach.

            Fifteen minutes later, he was back to get his coat and other things. He stopped and apologized to every single person in the coach. Every. Single. One.

            I was so impressed and I reminded myself that going straight to, “Dude! Can’t you READ?!” would not have gotten the same results. Better to assume ignorance than malice.

            1. hildi*

              Great story! And very classy that he apologized to every person. I bet that left an impression on most people. Similar thing happened to me recently, too (re: attributing to ignorance vs. malice):
              This past summer, we had some family photos taken with a photographer that was recommended by a friend. I placed a $150 order in early November. He checked in with me to say they should arrive within a few weeks. Life took hold of both of us and I finally thought to contact him in December to see if they arrived. No reply. So I contacted again. Nothing. I was getting a little frustrated that I wasn’t hearing back. But it wasn’t urgent and it was the holidays, so not a huge problem. I saw he was posting on Facebook, so I sent him a message thinking I might reach him easier that way. Nothing. Finally, I posted to his wall thinking maybe he’ll finally see it there! (At this point, I understand I could have called him. True). The entire time I was trying to contact him, I was very pleasant. I used non-confrontational words, “Hi Tim! Just wondering if those pictures ever made it to you? I can’t wait to put them on my wall”, “Hi Tim, wanted to check if those pictures arrived?” I flirted with the idea of being a lot more snarky and scathing, but I didn’t because it wouldn’t have improved anything other than making me feel superior for a few minutes. Finally the stars aligned and we connected and I got my pictures. Turns out that he is a brilliant artist and a terrible businessman. He had the pictures almost the entire two months but just didn’t follow through. And as I was leaving he told me this, “I’m going to open up your gallery again and let you download any of the pictures so you can get them printed on your own, as a thank you for making you wait so long.” I guarantee that wouldn’t have happened if I would have been terrible to him previously 

      2. C Average*

        My sister and I used to make a game of coming up with implausible but entertaining reasons why other people do inexplicable things. The oddly dressed person lost a bet. The person behaving strangely is doing an assignment for a sociology class. The erratic driver has a cat loose in the car.

        We’ve come up with some wild stories. It’s pretty fun.

        1. louise*

          Oh, golly, you mad me laugh! The erratic driver…I’m going to use that. “Self, calm down, you’ll pass them when you get an opportunity. And really, they’re driving pretty well, considering the feral cat on the loose in that vehicle.”

          Yes, like a game of telephone, I added one little detail. :)

        2. AnonEMoose*

          I was listening to a presentation by a couple who does raptor rescue/rehabilitation, in which they told the following story:

          Some well-intentioned people found an injured and unconscious (or at least very disoriented) goshawk. They called a local-to-them rescue group to find a place to take the bird for treatment. Now, from what I understand, goshawks are known for being somewhat…volatile. So the rescue folks told the people to ensure that the bird was well under control in the vehicle in case the bird came to and got upset.

          The people proceeded to place the goshawk in a box with a towel over the top. And, of course, on the way to the rescue facility, the bird regained its senses and went absolutely nuts.

          So, your erratic driver might also…just possibly…have a pissed off goshawk (although, from what I understand, that phrasing is rather redundant) in the car.

        3. Stephanie*

          The erratic driver has a cat loose in the car.

          Oooh. I like this. It’s Snowbird Season right now, so I’m going to do this to calm myself instead of muttering about the Dodge Caravan with Saskatchewan plates going 27 in a 45.

        4. Not So NewReader*

          I was coming home from work on a narrow, twisty road last year. I went around the corner and there was a guy coming at me on MY side of the road. I had no where to go. I hit the brake and hoped for the best.
          He got his car under control and as I passed him, I saw the problem. His BIG, HUGE dog had decided to get into the driver’s seat with the driver.

          I bought a harness for my dog that attaches to the safety belt, soon after this happened.

      3. the gold digger*

        I was in a Walgreen’s once, in line behind an elderly man. The clerk was so short and impatient with him, rolling her eyes and snapping at him. He was old and he was slow, but that was no reason to be mean.

        I was appalled. I found the manager and told him. “All I could think of was someone treating my grandfather this way,” I told him.

        The manager sighed and said he had gotten the same complaint about the clerk’s rudeness from others. I hope this was the piece of information he needed to fire her.

        (And no – I did not think empathetically about the clerk. Did I do it wrong?)

        1. hildi*

          It’s hard to do! I bet she’s got a miserable life to be so miserable to others. And I am sad for people like that.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          (Shrug) Maybe your role in all that was not to be empathetic to the cashier. Sometimes all we can do is trust we had the correct reaction and it was for a reason. But we may never know the reason.
          For me, I would just say “is there something I want to do differently, going forward?” Maybe rough out a few ideas of how I would handle it differently if I ever see it again. Or maybe I would not even thing twice about it- there’s a lot of factors to consider that would make me go to different answers, depending on the setting.

  13. Clever Name*

    Wow. Great interview! Lots to digest. I’ll definitely be reading it again.

    As a task-oriented person, I realize that I sometimes have blinders about other people’s feelings and how I interact with them. How can you tell when someone is a relationship-oriented person or a task-oriented person? I’m realizing I have to spend a bit more time doing the small-talky stuff with those relationship-oriented people that I’m not necessarily friends with, and small talk requires mental rehearsal and takes up a ton of energy, so it’s important that I can prepare mentally ahead of time. (I promise, I’m not a robot)

    1. hildi*

      Ha, you’re not a robot. You’re very accurate in what you said about it taking up a lot of mental energy, particularly when that’s not something you’re naturally going to want to focus on.

      The conclusion I’ve come to for me is I listen to what the other person talks about. I think listening to the content of what they’re saying is a good clue to their priorities. Listen for how often they talk about other people; show awareness of others’ thoughts and perspectives, etc. This is just my opinion (as all this is anyway), but I find people-people to be much more informal and loose with how they speak. Meaning they are more likely to use slang, more words, and qualifiers. The task-people I have observed being more formal in their language, more direct, more succinct.

  14. Mallorie, the recruiter*

    3. Let go of the need to be right.

    ^This is a big one for me… it is reaaaaally hard for me to do this. I once had an employee say “I’d rather be the one who’s wrong, to help things move along” and I liked it so much I printed it and hung it on my cubicle wall to remind me: sometimes being “wrong” is the right thing.

    1. LawBee*

      I had someone ask me once Ido would rather be right, or be happy. My then-response was the the one lead to the other.

      I know better now.

    2. louise*

      That’s a big one for me, too. Watching a bitter, older relative once led me to tell my husband, “I’d rather be loved than be right. And I’d rather love than be right.” The bitter older relative was questioning our faith in God, a deeply important part of our lives. It hurt, and we had to find a way to reconcile what we believe about God with the way the relative lives out her beliefs. I’m still trying to apply the concept of love>right in all areas of my life, but it’s hard.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Ugh. Rough stuff.
        The longer I go along, the more I think of love as a commitment, not an emotion. If I were committed to keeping that relative in my life, I guess I would have to learn something about what made her tick. Okay- in short I would need something/anything to hold on to here.

        Additionally, some people will not allow us to love them fully. They put up walls, hurdles, barriers, heck, some of them have sandbags, lots of sandbags.

        I think it is helpful not to think in terms of her beliefs vs. your beliefs. You (her and you) believe that living your (yours and hers) beliefs is important so this could turn into a spitting contest. Not what you want. Sometimes all we can do is love people in the ways they allow us to love them. This could be a simple as being that Rock of Gibraltar person who will answer the phone at 3 am and go restart a furnace for her.

        Trust that the answers are simple and they are right in front of you. Trust. It just makes life sooo very much easier. We don’t know what it is we don’t know. There are usually missing puzzle pieces.

    3. A Non*

      I’m in tech, I had a situation a few months back where I took the advice of someone more experienced than me, which didn’t sound quite right, but I trusted them and did it anyway. It caused the single biggest IT cluster$@(* I’ve ever seen. The whole situation was a very extensive mess, but the immediate cause was me being more focused on being cooperative and friendly with the higher-up rather than standing my ground and refusing to poke the tower of cards. Lesson learned. Along with a great many other lessons about not building card towers with your computer systems, but that is another rant.

  15. newbie in Canada*

    Thanks for this!
    Personally, I loved this:
    “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”.

    1. Seattle Writer Girl*

      I forget who taught me this, but I was told that oftentimes the things you dislike in other people are really a reflection of something you dislike about yourself.

  16. Lluviata*

    I’m working on a theory, based on hildi’s previous posts, that task-focused and relationship-focused people are mirrors.

    Just as relationship-focused people find their ability/willingness to do the task affected by the relationship, task-focused people find their relationship affected by how well the task is going.

    I’m task-focused myself, and I’m drawn towards people who are competent at what I’m trying to get done. On the flip side, if someone is bad at their job I have a hard time compartmentalizing that and liking them as a person.

    1. aebhel*

      I think that’s very true, and I think it’s at the heart of some conflicts that are going on at my job now (mercifully not involving me).

    2. Jillociraptor*

      This is SO true for me. While my basic orientation is as a task-focused person, relationships are very important to me (one of my top StrengthsFinder themes is Relator) and I get a lot of motivation for doing things from helping and supporting people. But in situations where I don’t trust the other person to do a good job, or feel like they’re letting unnecessary things (judgy,I know!) get in the way of a great product, I find it hard to build a relationship with them, personal or professional. These are situations where I tend to block others out and just execute independently.

      Interesting idea!

    3. hildi*

      “Just as relationship-focused people find their ability/willingness to do the task affected by the relationship, task-focused people find their relationship affected by how well the task is going. ”

      I really like this. I’m going to have to think about this some more. And it really helps to read your third paragraph for insight.

    4. Another Lauren*

      This definitely resonated with me. I’ve been trying to figure out if I am relationship- or task-oriented, but when you wrote this, I definitely found that the task-oriented perspective resonated more. As others have said above, I do like the idea that it is more of a spectrum, and I don’t think I’m all the way on the task-oriented side. That said, I definitely find that your third paragraph describes me pretty well.

    5. Dwight K Schrute*

      Ugh, yes. The worst professional moment I’ve had was blowing up at a coworker fumbling as a project lead on something that was very important to me. We had a large presentation to give and the day before he decided he was going to wing it and not use the points we had already discussed. As we left the meeting room, he asked me what I thought about his plan. I said bluntly, “You’re wasting my time and I don’t want to be a part of this,” then just turned and walked away. It caused irreparable damage to our relationship. He needed feedback from me and probably some kind of reassurance since it was his first time leading a project. Looking back, his poor performance made me see him as a bad person in my mind. So, I treated him badly and actively disengaged from the task.

      If I could have separated him from the task, I would have seen that he needed help. He wasn’t trying to mess up the presentation. He was nervous and I made it worse by killing his confidence. He hasn’t taken on anything big since then and I feel partly responsible for that :(

  17. Adam*

    Very interesting read. Thanks for the article and definitely encourage more of this type!

    I like to think I’m a task-oriented person who knows how to talk to relationship-oriented people, but I realize that even I have my limits…(hello dear friend. I’m glad you’re having fun getting lost in the super sale at the huge hobby store, but I really don’t need a play-by-play of your shopping adventures…)

    1. hildi*

      Adam – I have discovered about myself that I get really, really antsy when conversations get too detailed. Like the water cooler talk in the morning, for instance. I am fine with a “my evening was good!” and then moving on. But it amazes me (in a good way) how some of my coworkers are able to recall exact conversations or exact details of how an event from their evening unfolded, but I do get a little antsy to move onto something else. Though I know I annoy these same coworkers when later on in the day I suddenly feel the need to explain to everyone why a certain brand of pencil is my preferred writing instrument and make them suffer through that explanation. So…..what goes around comes around with good friends, right? :) ha

      1. Adam*

        For sure, and I know in the past I’ve been obtuse to the point where talking to me is like talking to a brick wall, but I’ve gotten much better about it. But yes, too much detail and I zone out right quick, particularly when the speaker is going on and on about random people I’ve never met…This might be why I’m still single.

  18. Ann without an e*

    Congratulation Hildi, I have often read your comments and found myself nodding a long in agreement. I am glad that you are receiving this level of recognition for your contributions to AAM. Great interview and keep up the great advice giving.

  19. Jillociraptor*

    I love this! I learn so much from the commenters here and I’m so glad to learn more about and from hildi!

  20. hildi*

    Thank you everyone for your really kind comments! I still wonder how it is that I have any of value to say over some of the more prominent commenters on this site, but I do hope that whatever I’ve said you might be able to use. Thanks, Alison.

    Also, sorry my little flower gravatar is puking all over this page. I do want to try and respond to everyone that leaves a comment.

    And finally, I can’t tell you how tickled I am this this interview gets tagged into the annals of history along with ones from the Artic Circle and a brothel.

    1. The RO-Cat*

      Thank you very much, hildi and Alison, for this!

      A lot of what you said, hildi, resonated with me (up to and including seeing parts of me in a mirror-like way). But my big takeaway is the task- versus relationship-orientation. This comes to complete wonderfully some topics I touch in my training sessions. I’d like to use your approach (and the “Do not take things too personally / Take them more personally” thing) – is it OK with you? (I would have liked to also give the source, as I do with Alison’s website – anything you would prefer?).

      This is a fabulous post for me.

      1. hildi*

        Cat – so good to hear from you again! Yes, of course, please use whatever you think would be helpful. I remember you area trainer, too – if it would be helpful to you, I can point you to the actual materials I used and taught that gave me the seeds for this concept. Are we still connected on LinkedIn or via the AAM group? If so, we can visit there if you think it would help.

        1. The RO-Cat*

          hildi – yes, we’re connected. And yes, it would be immensely helpful if you could point me to the actual materials, thanks again! (As to my “absence” here – I lurk mostly, since I don’t feel I can really contribute much. But I’m definitely here, more than once a day!)

  21. CC*

    I’m definitely more task oriented, and this is an interesting and enlightening read. The most difficult situation I’ve been in professionally was one where I had serious ethical concerns over how something was proceeding. I had a very hard time making headway on this, and it’s not a situation where moving on would really be viable. Do you have any advice for how to address something such as that?

  22. neverjaunty*

    These are excellent points, hildi!

    Though while I agree 100% with what you say to let go of the need to Always Be Right, I admit platitudes like “do you want peace or to be right” put my back up. Dishonest and manipulative people use that approach all the time to get their way; they’re the ones ruining the peace, and they use that try to force a false choice on you (give in to them or they will keep making a fuss). And it’s particularly insidious when applied to women, who are under a lot of social pressure to be nice, smooth things over and not be “too aggressive”, particularly when the person being wrong at them is a man.

    Ultimately it’s a judgment call, and one that should be made without the need to feel that being wrong or letting things go means failing at life. On the other hand, it’s also not my job in life to pretend to be wrong so nobody else ever feels bad.

    1. Lynn Whitehat*

      I have a hard time with that saying, too. So the way to be happy is to be wrong? That… explains so much.

      1. fposte*

        I also think it’s misstating the options a little. If being right was the goal, we’d be happy sitting there silently and being right. But the saying isn’t about people who are silently being right, it’s about people who want to convince *others* that they’re right–and that those others are wrong.

  23. KTM*

    Thank you for such an insightful post hildi! I am somewhere in the middle on the relationship vs task-oriented spectrum but I love that you used one of my favorite phrases (albeit worded slightly different)! My husband actually was the first to introduce me to “sometimes it’s better to get along than to be right”, which is a hard sell when I’m in a pretty hard-core engineering group. One of my higher-ups and I have had trouble communicating in the past because I would consider her extremely task-oriented. Trying to think of it through her lens I think would help when I usually hear things from her that sound abrupt or harsh.

    We’ve discussed trying to work on our communication in the past and now I’m trying to think if I want to send her this post or not…

  24. Susan*

    Thank you for sharing this, Hildi. One version of letting go of the need to be right that I’ve worked hard on is letting go of the need to have the last word. I really really want to have the last word all of the time, because obviously I am always right and the argument can end as soon as I give my opinion!!! Except not.

    I used to work directly with professors and coach new staff who did the same, and I told them: let the professor have the last word as often as possible. ESPECIALLY if the last word is something crazy like ‘this policy is the dumbest policy in the history of everything ever’ or ‘I’m going to report you to the University President!’ or ‘robots are going to be doing your job in 10 years.’

    If the person is going to be completely unreasonable, getting the last word in won’t help your case anyway, and chances are they will eventually realize that they’ve been ridiculous and you avoided joining their ridiculousness party.

    1. louise*

      Yes! Giving up my need for the last word helps so many things! We had to let an employee go a few months ago, and his direct supervisor was really a jerk in the way he handled it. I tried to explain to the manager later why it went so badly and I told him “there was no need for you to have the last word and completely squash that guy, even though he was in the wrong. You have a high paying managerial job–that IS the last word.”

  25. Ann O'Nemity*

    So much great advice here. There is one aspect that I feel like I’m not getting 100% on…

    I think I must be a task-oriented person, because I bristle a little bit at some of the advice. Please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems like the general message is:

    Relationship-oriented people (ROP) should change the way they think about task-oriented people’s words/behavior so that they (ROPs) can work better. This means ROPs being less sensitive so they don’t end up getting pissy, passive-aggressive, or otherwise difficult to work with. In other words, ROPs should make internal changes to improve their own work.

    Task-oriented people (TOP) should change the way they treat relationship-oriented people so that ROPs can work better. This means TOPs should be extra nice and empathetic so that ROPs don’t end up getting pissy, passive-aggressive, or otherwise difficult to work with. In other words, TOPs should make external changes so that ROPs can improve their work.

    To sum up, it seems like more of the onus is on the TOPs to coax a better working relationship with the ROPs. Am I understanding this correctly? Or am I just having a very task-oriented limitation in my thinking?

    1. Cat*

      Heh, yeah, I think maybe you are. I’m probably reasonably task-oriented but I work with a lot of people who are VERY VERY VERY task-oriented and I can promise you that changing my internal perceptions of what they are saying so as not to perceive it negatively is hard work –much harder for me than smiling more or making a conscious effort to soften my tone. I know it’s different for everyone, but this is definitely not letting relationship people off the hook with an easy task.

    2. KerryOwl*

      I think the latter, because when you put it that way, it seems like it’s more challenging to do the ROP thing! To me, it’s easier to change your actions than your mindset. So I guess that means that neither one of us is “right.”

    3. Colette*

      I read it differently – relationship-oriented people should think differently about task-oriented people’s words/behaviors because they likely aren’t intended to give information on the relationship, and task-oriented people should change the way they relate to relationship-oriented people because it will help them get the job done.

      In other words, each side will better get what they want if they adjust the way they think about the other group.

    4. hildi*

      Those other three above said it better than I could have. You’re not wrong for summing it up that way; I have had people in class say the exact same thing. They get irritated because it seems like the TOP is the one doing all the acquiescing to the ROP. I can understand how it seems that way. And I have never had a good response to that because that sort of hits the limits of how much I’ve analyzed this whole thing. So, it’s a good challenge for me. I’d love to hear what other people think of your question, Ann, and if anyone else feels the same way. Maybe if I can understand why that’s bristling to you, I might better understand and could offer some more insight!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I think I tend to be more ROP but I can get hyper about a task and forget my manners once in a while. I am not sure where that puts me.

        I will say that if I did not have a friend at work that would cause me to seriously consider leaving a job. I could not go all day with a group of people that only spoke of the immediate task at hand. I need more out of life and more out of a job.

        Fortunately, work groups seem to be mixed and I do believe that the onus is on me to flex/bend in consideration and respect for the person in front of me at any given moment. My personal belief is that it’s a quality of life issue: The more I can understand the person in front of me, the better everything is.

        I think hildi is suggesting flexing, not breaking. There is a difference. If it hurts so much you hear things breaking inside you- you have gone too far. Conversely, if everyone in the workplace is complaining about you (not you personally, OP, rather, “you” in the sense of anyone) then that can be detrimental to your continued employment, in this case taking even some small steps in hildi’s advice could be a lifesaver.

        I hang on to what my first boss told me. “No one will ever tell you this. But part of what you are being compensated for is your willingness to get along with other people.” We don’t have to adopt everyone and take them home to live with us, but we do have to acknowledge, “yes, you are a fellow human being”. And there are many, many ways to do that.

        1. Dwight K Schrute*

          So perfectly put:
          “I hang on to what my first boss told me. “No one will ever tell you this. But part of what you are being compensated for is your willingness to get along with other people.” We don’t have to adopt everyone and take them home to live with us, but we do have to acknowledge, “yes, you are a fellow human being”. And there are many, many ways to do that.”

          Thank you!

        2. hildi*

          ““No one will ever tell you this. But part of what you are being compensated for is your willingness to get along with other people.” ”

          That is profound. I am going to use that point in some of my classes.”

      2. California Anon*

        I can’t speak for Ann, but I think part of why that’s bristling is that this framework tells people whose focus is all on doing something (tasks) that they have to change how they do things, without saying the relationship oriented people have to change what they do. If your focus is on doing things, that seems like relationship oriented people don’t have to do anything. I think A Non gets it right downthread that each perspective thinks they’re being asked to do the harder thing.

        For me, personally, the other thing that can make this unpleasant is that no matter what the categorization system, I will always end up in the most boring, practical, down-to-earth category. (I’m an ISTJ. In Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies, I’m an Upholder. I’m task-oriented. I’m even a Capricorn.) There are many ways this is a good thing – I’m great at my job because you absolutely want that kind of person in my job. But there are also ways in which it feels like a bad thing – I’m not the person people want to invite to a party. Even us task-oriented introverts want to be liked and loved and accepted, and another iteration of “you are practical” can sound like “no one will ever like you because you’re not fun to be around.” That’s an illogical exaggeration, of course, but that’s how it can feel.

        As a side note, hildi, if you’re not familiar with it, you might be interested in the Facilitative Leadership framework. Their framework puts forward three areas to be concerned about as a leader: results, process, and relationship.

        1. Another Lauren*

          Are you me? I am an ISTJ. I am a Capricorn. And I’m beginning to realize based on Hildi’s descriptions (and after much googling, etc.) that I am more task-oriented than relationship-oriented. I wasn’t familiar with Rubin’s four tendencies but after reviewing/taking the quiz on the website, I’m pretty much split between Upholder and Questioner.

        2. hildi*

          I’m going to check that out, thanks for the tip, CA!

          My husband is an ISTJ, too. One of the things I started mentioning in my classes was that it’s not that task-oriented people don’t like people. Of course they do! They have personal relationships and people they love and who love them. The thing I have observed and experienced is that task people are much better at compartmentalizing task and relationship, which I think can make them appear cold and unfeeling to people that aren’t as discerning. It’s unfortunate….just like it’s unfortunate that ENFPs are thought of as airheads. Or wait, maybe that’s just me. :)

          But I totally take your point and will be more aware of that going forward.

    5. Well*

      It seems telling to me that based on your description, although you break it up into two “sides”, your view is that there’s really only one reason things breaking down: ROPs turning pissy, passive-aggressive, and otherwise difficult to work with.

      TOPs can just as easily turn passive-aggressive and pissy. (I know this because I am one.)

      Sometimes I have to remind myself that – in the workplace – the highest virtue isn’t task completion *OR* relationship building. The highest virtue is effectiveness (or maybe productivity) which (in most cases) relies on a mix of both tasks and relationships. Tasks are great and all, but without relationships you’re not going to get buy-in from peers and higher-ups on your ideas, let alone an actual sale to a customer. As a result, both types of people are really needed – which is why Hildi’s advice on how they can both get along better is so important. (Thanks, Hildi!)

      The fact that you heard the advice aimed at you and bristled is probably how most people feel. I imagine the ROP take is something like: “What the heck? I’m supposed to accommodate people who act like jerks, barely give me the time of day, and just see me as a cog in their spreadsheet-production engine? No thanks!”

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        I think your first paragraph sums up what I’m talking about – the idea that a TOP needs to modify their behavior to placate a ROP, while a ROP has to control their own expectations and emotions so they remain happy. In other words, it’s all about the ROP’s happiness.

        I recognize that both types have their strengths! In fact, most studies suggest that ROPs are more effective leaders. So please don’t think that I’m saying that TOPs are better! And maybe Cat and KerryOwl above are right – maybe it’s harder for a ROP to change mindset than for a TOP to change actions. But I bristle just a bit that the goal of both changes is about appeasing only one side.

        1. Cat*

          I think the key is that the ROP does have to change their actions – they have to not respond to a TOP with pissiness or passive aggressiveness outwardly either. That is easier to do if your feelings coincide with your actions but you have to do it either way.

    6. A Non*

      I’m in the ROP camp, so from my perspective being asked to ignore abrupt or prickly behavior sounds far more difficult to do than modifying behavior to include impractical stuff. It’s like asking me to ignore being jabbed with a pin. I’m guessing it’s the other way around for TOPs – to them, ignoring people’s rough edges is easy, and changing how they communicate is really galling. So each side thinks they’re being asked for the more difficult part. Which is sort of a requirement for compromise, now that I think about it – if people only needed to do stuff that comes easily to them, it wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        That’s another way of putting it. A ROP compromises by ignoring the other side’s natural preference, while a TOP has to compromise by adopting the other’s natural preference.

        I mean, doesn’t that sound like a bit of an imbalanced compromise?

        1. A Non*

          It’s not asking ROP to ignore the other side’s preference, though. It’s asking them to ignore social niceties (or rather a lack thereof), which is TOP’s preferred mode of operation.

        2. Another Lauren*

          Even as someone who identifies more with the task-oriented approach, this actually doesn’t sound imbalanced to me. If the ROP’s natural reaction is to respond to someone based on how they say something (rather than simply responding based on the merit of what’s being said), I imagine it would be incredible difficult to simply ignore how someone said something and just focus on what was said. That truly is a change in behavior (not just mindset). Similarly, if a TOP’s natural inclination is to simply come out with it, it really is difficult to insert what may seem like unnecessary niceties, etc. before getting to the point.

  26. Shell*

    Five years ago if you asked me if I wanted to have peace or be right, I’d absolutely have said I wanted to be right (and peace should follow thereafter because hey, I’m right!). If I couldn’t have both, I’d still have wanted to be right to have the moral high ground :P

    Now, I know better. It’s not so much an absolute right vs. wrong, it’s about what I’m likely to achieve. Before I make a comment or ask a (sarcastic) question, I have to ask myself, “what am I hoping to achieve with this comment?” If it’s snark and vindictive validation, nope, not going there. If it’s trying to understand a process or error, okay, maybe…but after I tone it down a little more. (I tend towards snark. Which means a lot of times I just…don’t allow myself to comment because other people can put it much more diplomatically than me, and I’ve since learned that good relations matter as much as getting things done. :P)

    I’m still a task person who likes point A to point B and I still have to add in empathy after the fact, but it’s a start. So thanks, hildi, for sharing all this.

    1. hildi*

      I love your whole second paragraph. I have always said about my job as a trainer that I’m there just to get the spark of conversation and thought going, but there is more collective wisdom in a room of adult learners than I probably will ever have. And all of these comments people are leaving with their own philosophies prove my point! I’m going to remember that, “what am I hoping to achieve.”

      1. Shell*

        Admittedly applying it isn’t as easy as I’m making it sound like. :) But I’ve been trying to teach this to my parents too…with some difficulty due to cultural differences.

        For example, my brother was late to a family dinner and my father kept telling me to call my brother and tell him to hurry up. And I (patiently, though said patience waned as my father repeated his request) told him that my brother was on the road, answering his cell phone while driving will earn him a ticket, and it’s not like he could drive any faster if I call him. All the phone call would do would be to annoy my brother further, and if the call would let me vent my spleen a little, it ultimately wouldn’t achieve much of anything because the mood would be grumpier for everyone. And then I told my father that he wasn’t spending enough time eating if he kept complaining at me, so he had to eat more. :)

        …took a few tries to get that one to sink in. Human relations is hard! I’m definitely a task person.

        1. hildi*

          Well, and then there’s the dynamics of families and that definitely throws a wrench into all of this psychobabble!

  27. HSP INFP*

    OH MY GOODNESS. As an absolute touchy-feely, kumbaya, relationship driven person, this absolutely spoke to every ounce of my sensitive little being. Thank you so much for this Hildi. Every word is beautiful and I am going to have to read it a few times at least.

      1. HSP INFP*

        Oh my gosh! Hi!! I knew I liked you as I have been agreeing with your comments for months from afar. :)

    1. hildi*

      It’s such a wonderful thing to meet a kindred spirit. I’m an ENFP, but I think E/I is pretty close. Being with NF’s make me feel most comfortable because we just “get” eachother :)

      1. HSP INFP*

        Yes!! I agree! ENFPs are rad! I love em’, those inspire-rs! I especially related when you talked about not being super task focused/time managey. That’s gotta be the P in us for sure. Thanks for the great, insightful posts Hildi!

      2. So Very Anonymous*

        ENFP here too! Hi! Appreciated your insights here. Thank you for working on moderating between the ROPs and the TOPs here. As an ENFP I want to make the TOPs feel OK, but I also want them to stop rolling their eyes at me when I talk.

        I would be lost if I didn’t have a few other ROPs to work with. I have a great collaborative set of projects with two other ROPs, and we talk A LOT, but we also get a huge amount of work done together because the talking creates such great relationships, and leads to us dreaming up new stuff to work on.

  28. TT*

    I love it. Hildi you are awesome! I manage a customer service desk for a public agency, and maintaining a pleasant attitude is both crucial and incredibly hard sometimes.

    1. hildi*

      Thanks, TT! yeah, I act like all this stuff is a snap, but it’s an ongoing battle with other people and within ourselves. And then trying to convey to your direct reports I’m sure is another battle in and of itself!

  29. Elizabeth West*

    Yay hildi!

    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.

    Not dumb at all. In fact, I’m stealing this and bookmarking the entire post. I could stand to be less of a self-centered **** for sure. :}

    1. hildi*

      Thanks! I’m really surprised by how many other people do the same thing!! I always knew I had to be pretty average – I’m hardly original for thinking of that.

  30. C Average*

    Thank you, hildi and Alison, for this really wonderful post.

    I found that quite a bit of this really resonated with me.

    A question I’d love to see you answer: What do you do with the people in your world who LIKE confrontation for its own sake? As someone with a similar peace-making, relationship-focused nature, I tend to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights when I’m faced with someone with a chip on their shoulder.

    1. AnonAcademic*

      Not Hildi, but I deal with confrontational types more than I’d like. I have a relative sidles up to people and tries to pick a fight based on what she thinks their deepest insecurity is. My goal when interacting with her is to be teflon. So if she says “wow you’ve put on some weight” I might reply “Yep been really enjoying all this holiday baking! Did you try the pudding pie, it’s delicious!” As soon as she realizes my fortress is impenetrable she moves on to an easier target.

      My mother in law is also aces at this. She has a SIL who baits her. She will often take the passive aggressive jabs literally with a smile that basically says “don’t even try me.” So if Evil SIL says “Oh MILy your tiny little Christmas tree is just so *adorable*” (dripping with condescension and insult) my MIL will just say “Thank you Evil SIL! Would you like another cookie?” and then moves on like nothing happened.

      1. Tau*

        I’m on the autistic spectrum and my understanding of social undercurrents and motives and the like is still not the greatest. One of the unexpected but very nice upsides of this is that I’m close to immune to passive aggression of the sort you describe! Sorry, you’ll have to spell your poisonous implication out clearly if you want me to pick up on it and not just take what you’re saying literally. :)

    2. hildi*

      I feel like a fraud because I don’t actually have a lot of nasty people in my life to practice with. So I think AnonAcademic is 100% right on. You just have to not take the bait, which is the first thing. Some things I know I’ve seen here before for possible responses:
      — Complete stone-faced silence. Neutral expression. If you can let the silence and direct gaze hang, the person really has nothing to fuel their nasty little jab. They tend to squirm away (Difficulty level: Tough. It’s easy for me to suggest because it would be incredibly tough to do, but done well the payoff could be huge).

      — Play dumb (This is one Alison suggests often!): Tone is genuinely questioning, maybe a little gullible: “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what you mean by that?” (Difficulty: Easy. Though you run the risk of getting entangled with the person, but it does sort of let the person know you heard them but aren’t going to respond to it.)

      — Agree with them. If there’s any aspect of what they said that you can agree with, this totally knocks the person off balance because it’s not what they were expecting. They were expecting a fight or for you to attack back. Again, it gives them no further ammunition. (Difficulty: Medium. There may be nothing for you to neutrally agree on. Also depends on if you even want to go there with that person. Oh! I see AnonAcademic already used that as an example. Well, it’s a good one).

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Uh. Heart surgeons don’t feel like frauds because they have never had a major heart event.
        Writers don’t feel like frauds because their name is not Twain or Dickinson or Shakespeare.

        You have the number one thing that is absolutely necessary. You are willing to listen and think.

        1. hildi*

          Thanks for that perspective – that helps!!! The heart surgeon thing really hits home! I am the type of person that feels more authentic if I have experienced something firsthand. It’s really stupid, but when I’m sick, I don’t take medicine until I have really felt what I’m feeling and have a good handle on how the illness makes me feel. Then I feel like I can credibly talk to the doctor about what’s going on. That methodology will probably end up killing me one day, but at least I’ll feel “tough.” (which isn’t necessarily admirable but hey, we all have our stubborn streaks) :)

      2. OriginalEmma*

        Re: your last point. A disarming little phrase is “I don’t disagree with everything you said.”

  31. AnonAcademic*

    Great post!

    I have a somewhat unusual perspective in that I am, by nature, a strongly task oriented person. However understanding relationship dynamics IS part of the task for me now. My first job involved basically playing diplomat between two research groups whose collaboration was failing. I didn’t succeed – in a fight between a plucky 22 year old and two stubborn tenured professors, the professors will always win – but I did learn the consequence of neglecting relationships in favor of tasks. I have consciously worked on developing emotional intelligence to the point now where naturally empathetic people think I’m one of them – but really, I’m very procedural and cognitive about it – I always think logically first, emotions later. But even emotions have a logic to them (just a very weird one…but it’s there). Most humans have the same basic needs and reactions to things. Figure out which need to address (validation, support, etc.) and it makes getting the task done so much easier :).

    1. hildi*

      “But even emotions have a logic to them (just a very weird one…but it’s there). ”

      Yay! I’ve never been able to articulate that for others when we are having that discussion because I don’t know how to put it in a non-feeler way that will be respected by someone who doesn’t understand that perspective. I just want to scream sometimes, “FEELINGS ARE FACTS, TOO!!!!” To the person that is feeling whatever they feeling, you’re damn right it’s a fact. Just because it’s not a fact you can prove scientifically or that is an objective fact, doesn’t make it any less real to the person feeling it.

      And now that I think about your comment about feelings having logic to them, I’m having a lightbulb moment. OF COURSE they do! They are logical because feelings don’t just spring out of nothing. Feelings are driven by thoughts, by the words and actions of others, and by a person’s experiences. I find feelings to be quite logical. For instance: When my kid darts out from the car in a parking lot and almost gets hit. What’s the first thing most parents do? Yell at their kid! So the yelling doesn’t seem logical, but it is because that anger is a secondary emotion to fear and relief.

      Ugh, I sometimes hate thinking too much. I annoy myself sometimes.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        FWIW. Family member used to say “Life is all about perception and all about where you are standing in the story. What is actually going on is sometimes irrelevant, because people react to what they THINK is going on.”

        Sadly, this is what happens in news reporting, also.

        So, yes, suppositions and assumptions become facts in the context that people move forward with their supposition/assumption as if it is fact.

  32. Nashira*

    Hildi, thank you so much for your suggestions regarding improvement. Up until about two years ago, I couldn’t read body language or facial expressions (I’m still pretty bad at it, despite being 29) and it has affected my ability to bridge between my task orientation and my coworkers’ relationship orientation.

    I especially think that I will find it very helpful to consider how personally I am taking things. I tend to switch from taking them far too personally, directly into not taking them personally enough. Focusing on self-monitoring, and learning the balance point, seems like it ought to reduce my interpersonal stress quite a bit.

    1. hildi*

      Nashira – I think I can identify with what you’re saying about going from one extreme to the other. I find myself doing that sometimes, and it’s usually in a situation that means a lot to me where someone else didn’t value it the same way I did. For example: I am pretty good at coming up with ideas and getting people excited about the possibility of something. I don’t need to be praised for a lot, but I really, really, really do like to be acknowledged for the fact that I have an idea. I don’t even need to be told the idea is a good one – just that someone sees that I have a knack for thinking of ideas. So when that doesn’t happen (particulary in a high-stakes scenario – I don’t need constant and ongoing praise for every little thought – but on the big stuff), my way of coping is to swing wildly the other direction and just shut down and then act like I don’t care. It’s not really probably very healthy, but I recognize that I do it. So all of that self awareness and monitoring, like you say, is probably going to help me manage my way out of those situations without doing or saying something I’ll regret.

  33. Scott M*

    I try to have this point of view: if somebody does something that pisses you off, chances are, they didn’t do it on purpose.

    1. hildi*

      Scott – that’s really interesting – do you have an example you can think of for this? I like the easy simplicity of the theory (because it’s probably true), but I’d love to hear some more background on how you came up with that?

      1. hamster*

        Turns out i have a story . Welcome in IT. Lots of times as a deploying various stuff with newer technologies or configuring some apps i hit on some limitations on the system. While i was pretty sure the task Y “can not be done , not by this god-forsaken app, not in this universe” my managers required me to open very lengthy verbose and critical tickets with our different vendors, all demanding a solution , while in my heart of hearts i knew i was going to get just a confirmation that this does not work. Did sometime i made someone’s day unnecessary demanding? yes i did. no i did not mean to. actually i felt bad about it .

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I had a similar thing recently. I needed to ask questions that I already knew were not doable and probably annoying. I prayed I would not get shot. It went okay… after the laughter subsided.

          I did have one boss that would tell me to “own it”. That meant to take what she was asking me and pretend it was my idea. The problem started because people who knew me knew I would not come up with this idea that I was telling them. Oh, it was so awful.

    2. ExceptionToTheRule*

      It’s a variation on Hanlon’s Law: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  34. Lindsay*

    Thank you so much for sharing this perspective, Hildi, and for publishing it, Allison! I struggle with this all the time – I take things WAY too personally, and in my profession (corporate recruitment) I had to learn early on to at least “fake” having a thick skin when dealing with challenging candidates and hiring managers. I do have a question though: Is it possible to be a bit of both categories? For example, I definitely identify with the relationship-focused camp when it comes to interacting with colleagues, managers and with my family and partner, however I tend to be quite rigid in how I go about and accomplish task. I like deadlines, lists, and love the mundane details and process that go along with completing a task, and I find especially when I’m busy or facing a deadline, I tend to get frustrated by small talk or having to make or sit through otherwise-unnecessary meetings. How do I deal with possibly being a bit of both?

    1. hildi*

      I’d say you’re lucky then! How fortunate to be able to identify with both types of focus! (and see somewhere above for a discussion about all of this being on a spectrum of behavior – I totally agree. I end up making this sound more rigid than I think it really is). I think you’re at an advantage to be able to see both sides of how important each element is to someone and you can use that when you are trying to bridge the gap between two people, or pass along info in a sensitive way to a client that is unhappy with something. You can speak the language of both sides.

      Also, scroll back toward the top and see if you can find C Average where she talks about My People and My Tasks. I love how she puts that. Maybe you can identify with that?

    2. Dan*

      That’s kind of fascinating. The very nature of your job very much has some relationship oriented aspects to it. As a candidate, I really can’t just bluntly name my bottom line, at least not at first. And if your top dollar offer doesn’t meet my expectations, you will not get results without some relationship work mixed in there.

      1. Lindsay*

        Dan – it’s true. I’ve found that my natural inclination to be introverted/task-focused really needs to be curbed during the initial phases of recruitment, as I have to build a rapport with a candidate and a trustworthy relationship in a very short amount of time (and often only over the phone). It’s a push-pull situation, where I need to get the relevant information from a candidate as quickly as possible (as of course all of the roles need to be filled as of yesterday, lol), but also provide them with information. On the compensation piece, I find it’s always helpful to start at “what is your current/most recent comp package, and what are you looking for in a new position” and then talk about the range that we have and the other pieces of the package (benefits, bonus, etc.). Either way though, it takes a relationship-focused approach in order to provide the candidate with a good experience (even if they don’t end up getting hired), and the hiring manager with accurate information about a candidate’s experience.

  35. MeUnplugged*

    This is amazing. Thank you so much Alison and Hildi! I am very much task-oriented so this info on another perspective is invaluable. Thank you!

  36. hamster*

    OMG, this is so true.
    I’m kind the wrong of both worlds i think.
    I’m highly analytical task person. I’ve also been managing other people’s databases and infrastructure in the last 4 years of my career My analytical nature makes me a great troubleshooter. I love complex architectures, weird problems. The puzzles. But i realize i am also a fairly sappy person who loves the rush of responsibility when someone says : omg XYZ is down, you must fix it, you’re the best at xyz. i know, gullible. I like to have relationships oriented managers :)
    But i really don’t get people. i read cooking recipes in magazines and compile them in my head and point mistakes to the editors before i cook them ( they sometimes answer) . i try to fix my friends love issues. when someone complains about something is like they opened a ticket with me. That really comes across as blunt sometimes or cold and hard
    But a very wise colleague of mine taught me early in my life that people are always more willing to help you if they like you. And unless you’re god you always have something to learn or to gain from other people’s know how.
    I tried that first on a person paid to assist us with implementing a software( we were making comparative tests.) he was very nice already ( wanted to sell us his solution) but i poked and prodded asked 100 questions, and without realising being very matter of fact about the fact he answered me mails at 11pm. And then i tried to be nicer, smile when i talked to the guy, sent email with an useless ( to me) layer of fluff , politeness and tried to change the tone to warm. And BAM , the guy’s productivity, usefulness and general availability to us went through the roof. So now i try to conscientiously be more pleasant in my interactions. Why inside i wish people would just grow a pair, the troubleshooter in me just really wants everyone’s feelings to get accounted already so we can move on WITH THE TASK. and i learn that my wit is always tolerated better with a smile ;)

    1. hildi*

      hamster, I really, really like you. I love your whole story and your insight. I think people that are having a hard time grasping why it matters should ready our story. And this part is fantastic: “Why inside i wish people would just grow a pair, the troubleshooter in me just really wants everyone’s feelings to get accounted already so we can move on WITH THE TASK. and i learn that my wit is always tolerated better with a smile ;)”

      I think that’s exactly what it is – treated it like an open ticket and account for everyone’s feelings and then you can get on with what excites you. What a really healthy way to make the it seem relevant to you.

      1. hamster*

        Aww, you’re so nice. Thanks a lot. I loved that part of planet earth vs planet me. Really encapsulates a lot of my life story :) I think for me it was more difficult to learn and to process because in my family there always had to be someone guilty for everything. so as i spent my youth trying my best to be always right and do everything by the book , it was a humbling but freeing lesson to learn that 1.nobody is Always right ( except my father of course, he never learned that lesson ) and 2. sometimes being right doesn’t make you the winner. this interview crystallising for me why i read this blog and the comments. So much wisdom and fun :)

    1. hildi*

      ha! I love it – what kind of spirit animal would we be? Never thought about that before! I have a tattoo of a duck if it makes any difference……

  37. Dan*

    The corollary to letting go of being “right” is to not accuse people of being wrong or doing bad work, even if they did.

    Tell me I screwed something up, and you’ll get a “hold up bud” in response. I don’t have to be right, and I know what I gave you isn’t perfect, because in my world, nothing’s perfect. So “this is wrong” isn’t productive. Also, “perfect” is expensive. When I show you a work in progress, what I’m trying to find out is 1) is this what you really expect (funny how often people don’t know what they want until you show them something) and 2) how much time/money you’re willing to spend to get a production-level solution.

    Granted, if I tell you something is client ready, and it’s not, then I deserve flack.

    Assume that people are competent and trying to do a good job. If they miss the mark, figure out where the process broke down. If your employees are not competent, get rid of them.

    1. hildi*

      Yes, Dan, I always like reading your posts because you have good straightforward advice. Especially that last paragraph – I think it’s a much happier and easier life to assume the best from people.

    2. C Average*

      I love this so much.

      Unless you’re in charge of nuclear codes or heart transplants, imperfect work is an opportunity to learn.

      There are people in my organization who will come at you, guns blazing, if something is less than perfect or if you admit that you don’t know the answer to a question or aren’t familiar with something they think you ought to know. Dealing with them is demeaning and unpleasant, and it hasn’t made my work better. On the other hand, there are people who can be constructive AND kind, and I’ve learned volumes from them and am better at my job as a result.

  38. ActionableResearcher*

    I’m actually surprised so many readers are just hearing about these concepts for the first time, as every company I’ve worked with since 2007 has had a mandatory professional development class on this topic reaching precisely the conclusions hildi has laid out in her interview. There are a few consultants/companies that approach this in different ways, I think the most popular of which is “Insights Discoveries” which assigns you one of 4 colors based on your personality type:

    I’ve also attended communication preference trainings that split people into four groups, two task oriented (driver/director and analytical/systematic) and relationship oriented (expressive/spirited and amiable/supportive), which also help participants to identify their style, the styles of others and how to communicate with them most effectively. These are quite robust and useful, I highly recommend them as they do help people and organizations on a whole communicate/relate/work together well.

    1. hildi*

      ActionableResearcher – thanks for the link! I have needed to find a new personality/behavioral materials for class as my current one has run its course. I’ll check into this! I think not all training is created equal and some people don’t have access to training that talks about these things (and kudos to your companies for bringing this training to its people – YAY!). Also, I know this to be true: an employee can attend two classes on the exact same topic and depending on (a) what’s happening in their life at the time, or (b) the experience in the training room, walk away retaining completely different things. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea as a trainer, so I hope that when people aren’t “getting” it from me, they are able to attend a class from someone they do click with. I think we just have a captive audience here :)

    2. C Average*

      My team has done Insights Training twice and, while I can’t say it changed my life, it’s not a day of my life I wish I had back to do something else with.

      I don’t know that it imparted any major surprises to anyone, but it’s provided us with an avenue for talking about our different work and relationship styles: “Look, I know you lead with Red and you want me to be quick, but this initiative is complex and I hope you’ll bear with my Blue tendency to need to explore the details.” Sometimes it kind of reminds me of the way people talk about horoscopes: “Sensitive Cancer is a poor match for devious Scorpio.”

      1. A Non*

        Hah, love the comparison to horoscopes! My impression is that the conversations that those kinds of systems bring up are way more important than the systems themselves. Who cares if it’s not scientific if it lets people address important-but-taboo topics like emotional needs?

  39. RG*

    “Empathy is not condoning.” – this 1000 times! Just because I understand or argue a position doesn’t mean I agree with it.

  40. Cheryl*

    “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…”

    This is me to a T. I am task oriented, I am also highly sensitive and an introvert with Asperger tendencies to boot, so all that being said means I have a really hard time with small talk and am not good at it at all! I make an effort occasionally, but half the time I don’t even know what to say if anything. I have been told all my life that I am either “too sensitive” or “too blunt” or “you need to sugar coat it more”, which in my head is like asking be to describe the color black. Until you experience the color black there are no words to convey the sensation of black, the absence of light doesn’t help unless you stand in a room with no light.

  41. Ms Enthusiasm*

    I love this post. I can really appreciate the part about opinions. I’ve been guilty of this and just being self aware about it is a huge step in the right direction. There is someone I work with who I have certain non-flattering opinions about – and it has shown through in my interactions with her. I also like understanding the WHY of what motivates behavior.

  42. Sunshine*

    So. Much. Good. I’ll be coming back to this ine for sure. And if hildi is teaching a class, I’m signing up! And sending everyone I know!

  43. GOG11*

    I work on a volunteer mediation team and we have monthly skills nights. I am going to share this with the team and see if they’d be open to discussing it at one of our next meetings. Thank you, hildi, for sharing your insight with us!

  44. GOG11*

    Also, Alison, I think you might be missing a “be.”

    “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?”

  45. SaraV*

    I had a total epiphany when I came back tonight to read the comments of this outstandingly superb interview. (Too much hyperbole?)

    I have two part time jobs, one in traditional media, and one in a retail setting. (I don’t work “on the floor” of the retail setting) In traditional media…TV, radio, probably publications…there is ALWAYS a constant battle between those in production/writing, and those in sales. In my retail job, I see the conflict between those of us that only work behind the scenes, and those on the floor. Guess what? Production/writing people are TOP’s, along with us “unseen” in retail, and successful sales people are ROP’s. I can also see the internal struggle of my retail managers/supervisors, who most certainly lean ROP, when they have to deal with task-oriented aspects of their job.

    I’m not being sarcastic, but I suddenly feel enlightened. It will be work, but I will try my hardest to remember these tips/principles in these jobs and future ones.

    1. Blue_eyes*

      This makes so much sense to me! I’m definitely a TOP and having a job in sales is my nightmare. (I once had a job where I had to cold call people in my second language and ask them survey questions. I dreaded every call.)

  46. Blue_eyes*

    “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.”

    I love this part. I don’t do this instinctively, but I’ve been getting better at it recently and it really helps me to get along with other people. I’m definitely a task oriented person. My Myers-Briggs type is ENTJ and the combination of T and J means that my natural orientation is “get sh*t done.” But I’m also somewhat sensitive to whether or not I feel like people like me. I hate to be somewhere that I feel like I’m not liked or wanted. Because I’m an E, I feel like people like me when they are warm and chatty, because that’s how I relate to people. It’s taken me a long time to realize that people who are quiet are not cold or unfriendly.

    Thanks for the interview Hildi!

    1. GOG11*

      I periodically see the phrase “People aren’t against you. They’re for themselves.” and sticks with me so much and I think this applies here, though I hadn’t thought of it until you singled out that quote.

      I think the assumption that the things people do are “against me” rather than thinking about their motives (how does this accomplish something FOR them? what are they going for here?) keeps us from understanding what drives the behavior of others, especially when pain/hurt feelings/fear is involved.

  47. M-C*

    Just a belated thank you to both AAM and hildy for such a good writeup of the subject, and to all the thoughtful commenters. I’ve been discussing this very topic with my housemates a lot recently, in part because the ROP has been feeling ganged-up on by us both TOPs :-). I’m sure it’d have been very helpful in my life if I’d figured out earlier that there -are- ROPs at all :-).

  48. Lady Sybil*

    Loved this post. I’m working with a manager who is having difficulty with implementing progressive discipline with some long time employees. The theme of “Empathy does not mean condoning awful behaviour” will help here I think. The behaviour has gotten so bad that it is reflecting poorly on her management skills, which is hard to see. This post is also going to help me as I draft a dicipline letter from a place of respecting the person but not accepting the behaviour. I can be quite task oriented with this stuff but I can now see a way to inject more humanity into the process without getting mired in empathy. You still have to do the crappy dicipline stuff but you can do it with kindness and I can see a path to getting there thanks to this awesome post.

  49. nofelix*

    One thing I find incredibly frustrating, presumably meaning I’m a task orientated person, is the lack of interest some people show in process. They really seem like they want their ideas to fly without even discussing the consequences. I look back at my frustration in these situations with distaste and I know it comes off badly, but I’m genuinely stuck about what else to do. E.g. in a tender bid meeting this week:

    XY: We could say we use the latest teapot spout research!
    Me: How does that fit with the USP we agreed for this pitch?
    XY: Well we’re saying we invest in our clients so we invest in giving them the best spouts.
    Me: It’s “we invest in our client relationships”. That’s not the same as spout research. Is it worth mentioning these spouts if it confuses the message to the client panel?
    XY: This spout research is really good, it improves tea flow and was mentioned on the TeapotsNews twitter! Normal spout designs swirl the tea and that means it doesn’t taste as good, but this new design doesn’t!
    Me: I understand how it works… [conversation continues downhill until someone interrupts].

    The major problem I have in exchanges like the above isn’t necessarily that the idea is bad; I just don’t understand why we can’t talk it out properly. Later if it turns out the spouts are great, XY is aggrieved because I ‘attacked’ their idea. I just wanted them to address the fact their idea had costs and benefits and engage in a discussion over that :(

Comments are closed.