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Go beyond first impressions to better understand others

4 min read


He was a leader who had a big swagger. He was brash, with an audacity and arrogance beyond compare. I observed him from afar and disliked him immediately. One day, he reached out to me and asked me to coach him. Although I didn’t realize it then, this was a test. Could I find any goodness in him?

As I opened myself to him, I learned that he was kind, funny and one of those rare people who would give someone the shirt off his back. Compassion was part of his personality, and it was a wonderful surprise. I grew to appreciate the good in him.

Those messy, complex, frustrating, wonderful people you lead rarely come with facts and data tattooed on them. Your ability to “get” people might not come naturally to you, and it requires you to rely on something other than traditional knowledge (or book smarts) to get good at it. People are unpredictable at best, frustrating at their worst. To lead them well, you must be able to understand them, to see beyond your immediate (or even long-lasting) impressions.

Many of you rely on facts and data to make your decisions. Relying on facts is a natural outcome of the times we live in and what kind of knowledge we appreciate. Yet, there are times when facts and data can’t tell a full story — perhaps we don’t have the right facts, or we are unable to obtain enough data. People are like that. True “data” about their motivations, inspiration, values and emotions (to name but a few things that aren’t immediately apparent or predictable) aren’t always visible.

Some people call the ability to judge others “listening to your gut.” However, the skill of understanding others takes all of you, including your brain, emotions, senses and body. It requires practice and wisdom. It is some of the hardest work you will do in your leadership, because you can still get it wrong. People are delightfully messy and complex.

You should work hard to get better at understanding others, because it will improve your relationships and your ability to lead. Some thoughts on how to start:

  • Observe: Understanding others requires your attention and a stillness that is in contrast to our high-tech, fast-paced and distracting world. You can observe glimpses of what others value and what motivates them by using all of you to gently watch them. Who frustrates you? Who do you misunderstand or want to get to know better? Observe them without judging.
  • Engage all of you: Using your senses is a great place to begin as you pay attention to others. See their body language, listen to their words, feel the emotion. Notice your reactions — how do you respond to the other person, and where do you feel this response? Is it a balanced response (or all negative or positive)? What might you be missing? There is a great richness in encouraging ourselves to dig beneath the surface of first impressions that can often create great allies out of those we thought we couldn’t tolerate.
  • Check your assumptions: Nobody is made up of pure evil or pure goodness. We all have depth and layers below the surface. We’re intricate. We aren’t what you think we are. Ask some questions of the other person about your assumptions, and stay open to surprise. Our assumptions are often wrong. The best leaders are willing to be mistaken about the conclusions they’ve made about another person.
  • Keep it up: Continue this disciplined way of paying attention to others as a way of understanding them. However, don’t expect to be able to control or predict their behavior based on what you observe. Everyone does things that are unexpected. Isn’t that great? The world would be a pretty boring place if people always acted as we expected them to. The richness of human behavior is to be celebrated, not put into a box with a label.

Challenge what you think you know about others by using all of you. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and owner/operator of Aspire Collaborative Services. She and her team work with organizations worldwide to develop and manage coaching programs and coach leaders to become the best they can be.