Reading yourself is vital
You know how important we think ‘reading people’ is today. Not just the instant assumptions with all your prejudices and biases built in but the minute by minute reading of attitude, attention, mood, acceptance and rejection. People are quite consistent. They oscillate from receptive to mind-blank, from thoughtful to rote-speaking, from loving to hating, and all of this very quickly and frighteningly methodically. Consistently inconsistent, you might say. It’s why I enjoy dealing with people so much. Always a challenge, always really wanting to be discovered. A delicious mental pot-pourri of ingredients all churning on a heart beat, all fluctuating with every breath.
The Covid Pandemic is certainly a challenge to those who regard themselves as managers of people. Inevitably, that means you. If you shop, eat out, travel even locally, make phone or zoom calls, connect in any way with other people, you are managing them. You know how to be polite to taxi drivers to get their cooperation when it is necessary. You understand that negotiation is best conducted with reason and politeness but you also know that your personal treatment of the other side almost always ends up determining your value of a deal.
What you may not be quite so au fait with is the need to read yourself as accurately and promptly as you read others. You must know where you are in your own cycle of optimism and despair – minute by minute. For that not only determines how you interpret what is being fed to you, it also moulds and precipitates your feedback and, most importantly, the timing of it. So how do you read yourself equally well as you stumble through the exchange of litanies appropriate to a meeting? I asked this question of a young man who was studying to become a psychologist. “You look in the mirror,” he replied confidently. Alas, not so. The mirror gives a distorted view of you. Literally it is reversed but that is not the main cause of the problem.
The mirror is a facade. It shows if you are smiling, if your lipstick is smudged, if the pimple on your cheek is angry or dormant. It can be quite misleading. The smile may be faked. The lips may be raw, the pimple, introduced as an attracting artefact. What is going on in the heart and mind of the person whose reflection you see may be quite different. The blackest hearts apply warpaint with vigour, the mongoose smiles as he pounces on the snake, an artificial pimple forces attention more persistent than the creamiest of skins. To read yourself alone in a cave is difficult. In front of a participating chatterer it is ten times harder.
A client, Terence, was faced with a run of lost staff. He was slimming down a little anyway, so, for the most part, it was exactly what he wanted. Then, quite suddenly, his Deputy, Arthur, handed in his notice. This was a blow. Terence had been working towards the day when he could hand over his work to Arthur and concentrate on the future of the business which was not really planned at all yet. Losing Arthur would thwart his scheme and put it back several years. He asked Arthur why he was going to leave. The answer was that he had been offered a better job with a competitor. There was a 30% increase in his salary and he would have control over the somewhat larger operations than those of which he was Deputy at present.
Terence knew that Arthur didn’t really want to leave. He was comfortable where he was, the journey to work, which he had to do every day, was a good deal shorter than to the competitor’s and the present company had a very good pension scheme – better than the place that was offering him the job. So our client took Arthur and his wife to dinner at a smart, but not ‘over the top’, restaurant. The client’s wife came along too. Our client watched Arthur and his wife to see if there were any signs of over-confidence but they seemed to be their usual quiet, confident selves. And he watched to see that he was “level” with Arthur, not condescending nor begging.
Over dinner Terence offered Arthur promotion to the Board, an increase in salary that matched but did not exceed the offer and the position of manager of the whole of the operations they were in charge of. In other words, he brought forward the plan he was already considering. Arthur stayed. Today’s good management is usually about doing things faster.
A cardinal rule of any conversation is to think of the other person, what interests them, what provokes, what amuses, what puts fire in their belly. So there are three people in a conversation of two. Think of it this way. If you are having lunch with two other people you will want to engage each of them equally if you intend to be polite and fair. You will spread your eye contact to make it clear that neither is more important to you than the other but that both are equally, and totally, important. You must do the same if there are only two of you actually present because two = three. There is always one more person in a discussion than the headcount number.
That person is you, the trickiest in the room, the hardest to fathom in the debate that is taking place. You may think you know that person through and through but you would be wrong. That person – you – is changing, growing, learning all the time, at least as fast as anyone else involved – and probably faster than most. Watch that person lest they become over self-interested, loquacious, desperate to present their case. Watch that, as they read others brilliantly, they read themselves just as well.
It is the stuff of which conversation, friendship, management and negotiation is made.
It is the stuff of all successful engagement in times of trouble.