Applied EQ #37 – Social Awareness & Seeing Others Clearly (Part 2)

In the last post we talked about Social Awareness and the importance of seeing others clearly.  By seeing others clearly, I mean that we are able to understand them and their emotional state. 

Seeing others clearly is a critical skill for a project manager who is striving to be emotionally intelligent.  However, it is not always easy to do.  There are three main obstacles to seeing others clearly: our own filters and biases, imposing our autobiography on others, and the shortcuts we take to put others into categories.

Filters and Biases

Our filters are the way that we view the world.  We all have a set of prejudices, biases, rules, and distortions that affect the way we see the world and the people in it.  These prejudices and distortions are ingrained in us.  They have been part of us for so long that it is nearly impossible to be conscious of them without significant work.  Like fish in a fishtank, we cannot see or appreciate the water around us.

One of the biggest filters is our own family of origin, or the family we grew up in.  How we see others is impacted by the interactions we had with our parents and siblings growing up.  A common example is that our view of authority figures is impacted by our relationship with out fathers.  We are going to discuss the impact of family of origin more in a future post.  For now, suffice it to say that any unresolved conflicts we have with our family of origin will create conflict in other relationships throughout your life.

Our family of origin is just one type of filter but there are others.  The 2005 movie Crash was a big hit because it exposed the various biases and prejudices that different groups of people had towards each other.  Whether the biases and prejudices are based on race, appearance, or ethnic background, they all do the same thing – cause us to isolate ourselves and to see others as different.  The net result is that we are not able to see others for the individuals that they are.

Our Autobiography

The second obstacle to seeing others clearly is our own autobiography.  Steven Covey discusses this concept in his bestselling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective people.  Our autobiography is when we put our life on others.  We cannot see others clearly without putting our own story on them.  We believe that others should do things the way that we did them, that ours is the right way to approach things.

I often find that I do this when people on my teams ask me about career advancement.  A frequent question that I get is "should I go for my PMP certification or go back to school for my MBA".  Instead of focusing on them and trying to help them think through the decision criteria, I often find myself referring to my situation and what worked for me.  This doesn’t serve others well. 

Shortcuts for Efficiency

The third obstacle to seeing others clearly is the shortcuts we take.  Project managers are generally pretty busy individuals.  We take shortcuts to be as efficient as possible.  One shortcut we take is pigeonholing people.  We pigeonhole others when we try to quickly sort out what they are about so that we can put them into a category or group.  Rajesh Setty accurately describes this process as the boxing game in this post from Life Beyond Code

The benefit of the shortcut is that we can think that we understand or know all about them because of who they are, how they appear, or where they are from.  We don’t have to learn everything about them. 

Unfortunately, this can easily backfire as it did to me.  I recently ran a large international project to develop applications in Arabic.  My team required IT specialists who were fluent in both Arabic and English to develop and test the applications.  We hired a number of people for the team who were originally from Palestine.  These Palestinians were all Muslim. 

Separately, I was at a dinner with a large group for a social gathering. When I met a gentleman who told me he was from Palestine, I automatically assumed he was Muslim also.  I did this based on my project experience with the Palestinians I had met.  However, as I talked with this gentleman, I shared something which revealed my bias.  He kindly corrected me and pointed out that he was a Christian.  The point is, we need to categorize people with caution because we will lose sight of the individual and we will sometimes be wrong.

What Next?

Given these 3 obstacles to seeing others clearly, what do we do?  How do we overcome our distorted views of others to see them more clearly?  Consider these actions we can take now.

  1. Recognize our own biases – We can start by recognizing that of course we have biases and prejudices.  Just admitting this is the first step, then we can start to explore what those prejudices and biases might be.
  2. Explore & Learn about people – We can expand our understanding of others by viewing life as a game of exploration.  We can strive to learn as much as possible about each person and be as empathetic about others.

    Twice in my career I have been part of large international project teams.  In both cases, I had the opportunity to get to know people from around the world.  We spent time together at work as well as outside work.  I found that there is something about sitting down and breaking bread with someone that helps you to really get to know them.

    Are you taking advantage of the opportunities around you to get to know people on a one to one basis?  Do you seek out people who are from different races, cultures, and socio-economic status to get to know there goals and aspirations and family situations?

  3. Dissect your own Family of Origin – One of the most enlightening exercises I did as part of my personal growth work was called Family Rules, Myths and Beliefs.  The purpose of the exercise was to take an inventory of the spoken and unspoken rules that were at work in my family growing up.  By understanding them, I could decide if those rules were still serving me and should be retained in my adult life. 

    What were the rules in your family growing up?  As an experiment, try starting a discussion with your parents or siblings about those rules.  Try to catalog all the rules at work.  See if those same rules are at work today and if they still serve you. 

Consider this just a starting point to learning about others and how to see them clearly.  Make lifelong learning a part of your journey. 

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