Team meeting

There are about 7.3 billion people on the planet, and like a sky full of snowflakes we’re all unique. It would be strange never to find other people weird or mysterious now and then, but it’s possible to take a little of that mystery out of the equation with a genuine curiosity and willingness to understand others. The first Monday of February brings ‘National Sickie Day’; exactly as it says on the tin, this is the worst day of the year for absenteeism. Last year, the widespread and apparently overwhelming desire to stay in bed cost British businesses £34m, and that’s only a small fraction (not even one 365th) of the annual figure of nearly £30bn. Right now is a good time to ask what we can do to understand people better, to try and cut down a little on the seven days a year which the average worker takes off sick.

Here are some key areas where people often prove fundamentally different:

Use of senses

We all use all five (or 21, depending on which neurologist you talk to) senses, but the way we emphasise certain senses over others and use them for specific purposes can differ hugely from person to person. Some people rely mainly on visual stimulus and prefer to see a concept illustrated through pictures and diagrams. These people are more likely to use visual language like “I see what you mean.”

Others emphasise audio stimulus; these people prefer to discuss things in person (or at least over the phone) than to rely on emails or instant messaging. They’re more likely to pay attention to the words and tone that you use, and are also more distractible by background noise.

For others, feelings (both physical and emotional) are more important. These people tend to be more tactile, wanting to literally get hands on with a project, and also tend to be more concerned with comfort. People who emphasise feelings will use them to govern their actions a lot more, only doing things which ‘feel right’ wherever possible. How people use their senses, which are after all the way we experience the world, can have a big impact across all areas of their life.

Understanding of time

People who live in the moment are truly engaged. They’re quite literally present, and you can usually feel it when you talk to them; involved and interested as they involving and interesting, these people can often hold a room at a party or deliver a stunning keynote without a note in sight. They can also (easily) show up late, let a meeting overrun or forget an upcoming deadline.

Others are more conscious of the flow of time; they’re great organisers, and can be the perfect Chair of a meeting. If they tell you ‘9:30,’ they’ll show up at 9:30. Equally, these people can find that their need for planning and scheduling can distract them from what they’re actually doing.

It’s possible to develop some flexibility in our approach to time, but by realizing that people actually approach time differently, we can be more understanding of each other, and give the right people the most appropriate jobs.

Need for detail

Do you find yourself asking people to elaborate, or to get to the point? We all have a need for a different level of detail, and we’re naturally inclined to converse on our own level. Some people want to grasp the big picture, getting hold of a concept as a whole rather than understanding it through its specifics. Others need a lot of detail, wanting all of the bulletpoints expanded before they feel like they understand the discussion properly.

This has a big impact on all of our descriptive communication with each other, but we can learn to adjust the level of detail we use to the person we’re speaking to. The whole purpose of description is to improve someone else’s understanding, to bringing the information to them in the best form for them to digest it is critical.

I’ve listed just three of the points of which people can vary considerably, but the list goes on and on. We better we come to understand each other and the important differences in our behaviour and approach, the better we can appreciate and use each other’s specific skills and attributes, and the kinder we can be towards those who’re different from us. The best way to demystify other people’s behaviour is through genuine, open enquiry; not looking to compare or to bring our own preferences and prejudices to the situation, but simply to understand.

By Karen Meager, founder of Monkey Puzzle Training and Consultancy