People Are Not Their Behaviour

Jul 02 • Ilona Nurmela • Comments: 0
Have you ever gotten angry at someone for behaving a business setting? Ever (inwardly or out loud) cursed the opposing lawyer for getting in your way in negotiations by standing firm on a wishful-thinking position or a completely unrealistic number?   Or, perhaps, after years of things going smoothly, the co-founder of your business venture, a person known to be difficult, is accusing you of doing something you didn’t and you suspect the accusation is merely him/her not getting their way?

Have you ever gotten angry at that waiter that was disrespectful to the customer of your rank…? That guy that pushed in front of you at the supermarket queue who didn’t even bother to apologise or ask first…? What about in a business setting?

Admit it. We have all called someone else unreasonable (if not worse names) at least once in our life. Personally as well as professionally. When this is personal, we sometimes find people’s behaviour and, consequently, the people themselves so objectionable, that we cut them out of our life. Anyone who has ever been de-friended on Facebook knows what I’m talking about and also knows the reason why they were surgically removed from someone’s social network and life updates. If this is business, it can all end up in a costly business-divorce with one or both parties doing additional damage by commenting on each others’ behaviour in the business community, which results not just in relationship damage (that has already been and gone) but in reputation damage. Reputation being the currency of tomorrow, this is pretty bad stuff.
People. Behaviour. Not one and the same. Without telepathy, we can never truly see into anyone’s mind or know with 100% certainty why someone does something.

Is there such thing as bad behaviour? Bar the rape and murder objections, let’s talk about life and business.

What if behind every bad behaviour there was a positive intention?

Let me explain that better. What if you found out there was a reason behind someone behaving what to you seems bad or unfair? You don’t think it would make a difference? Stupid is what stupid does…? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Haven’t you ever said anything that sounded judgemental to the other person, but your main concern was never to hurt, but always to help them? Like the time you commented on your friend’s poor dress-sense, what you really wanted for her is to dress smarter so she can look better, isn’t that so?

Let’s take it from the top.

We interpret words and behaviour. When someone says “perhaps this would be better” we can hear “what you are proposing is not good at all”. When someone does x, we take it to mean y. Why? Because we always have. Why? Because this is what makes sense to us. Why? Because this is the logical leap that our mind makes, based on previous experiences. Bingo.

When the waiter doesn’t offer to take our order with a smile as soon as we lift our eyes off the menu, LIKE IN OTHER RESTAURANTS WE APPRECIATE AND GO TO, we automatically label the waiter disrespectful. What if the reason for letting you wait for 10 minutes was to give the customer enough space to a. Inspect the menu in detail to make the best choice, or b. Settle in comfortably, including the rapport-building chit-chat at the beginning, or both a+b? You might see this waiter as lazy while his intention might have been to be considerate.

What if the guy that pushed in front of you in the queue had a real emergency to get to and was so preoccupied of getting both things right - the pampers for his kid and getting to the hospital to see his dying grandmother - that he de-listed explanations, politeness and other less important stuff from his priorities’ menu? Based on “HE PUSHED AHEAD, SO HE IS RUDE” you label the person. Had you thought “he pushed ahead, so he must be in a hurry”, you would have named the behaviour, wouldn’t have labelled the person as anything and would feel considerably better.

What if the wishful-thinking position in negotiations is something the other party in the deal truly wants to accomplish, which is why they are doing the deal in the first place? What if the unrealistic number they are quoting is money they need for another immediate, lucrative investment and there is profit-sharing that could be had if you ask them why and they share their needs? Based on what YOU WANT or WHAT YOU ARE PREPARED TO GIVE, you consider the proposition or the number unreasonable.

What if the accusation from a business partner is merely indicative of miscommunication on BOTH your part and you could choose to talk about it without blame, without guilt, without escalating to lawyers, court and ending the business venture? If you’ve always done what they’ve asked as they were experts in the field, you can see yourself as ACCOMMODATING, while they might see you as JUST THE ADMIN GUY or JUST THE MONEY, who lacks imagination as well as initiative.

What I’m getting at is that PEOPLE ARE NOT THEIR BEHAVIOUR. When someone behaves not quite as we would like, we assume that they are “doing it on purpose”, “are out to get us”, “intend us harm”, “want to take what’s duly ours” or whatever other reactive thoughts might surface. When we are under threat - and by “we” I mean our beliefs, our ego, our space, our stability, our finances, anything we consider that belongs to us or makes us who we are - the ancient reptilian brain (hindbrain) of 250 million years has a survival response. Fight, flight or freeze. An emotional response to react is engaged next in the limbic system or emotional brain - we mark behaviour as positive or negative, agreeable or disagreeable, we judge and based on that we decide how to respond/react.

When people behave in a certain way, in a flash we make a judgement. We assume. Meaning, we interpret that if they do x, that must mean y. Reality is a very relative thing. Remember, when we act, other people make assumptions too and not always the correct ones. When you can read people and see they are upset, you can explain what you meant or ask what is bothering them. This works in person. Emotions transfer even with emails or texts as subtext even when you use what you think are perfectly neutral words.

The question is - what do you do about it? How do you separate people from their behaviour? How do you not react?

As a professional negotiator and mediator who occasionally steps into it herself and finds she, too, needs to self-correct to communicate better, I have a few practical tips. They work in negotiations, mediations and any kind of communication, even in the queue in the supermarket.

Firstly, how you feel about anyone’s behaviour is a decision. Your decision. You can choose whether to get upset or whether to let it go.

Second, when something annoys you about someone’s behaviour, let’s agree to take stock and look in the mirror first. Yes, in the mirror. We are all capable of doing what other people do in terms of communication. Harsh words, sulky silences, brushing past someone and not noticing you’ve inadvertently pushed them, the lot. If a particular behaviour touches us personally and engages our emotions, perhaps instead of saying “I would never do that” we should smile and say, “Ah, yes, I could easily do just the same or react to this, but would I make the situation better or worse? Would reacting make me feel better? Would getting upset make me happier?”

Third, why don’t you just assume there was something positive that the other person wanted for himself or for you behind the what and the how of saying and doing things? Yep, don’t try to figure out what their positive intent was yet, as a first step just assume they did not mean you harm. Very few people mean harm in personal or business interactions. Even when someone does something in revenge, the positive intent could very well be that the person is trying to get their dignity back or restore fairness or prevent further damage to their reputation.

Fourth, in your mind, play a game of “what could be 3 alternative explanations to WHY s/he did what they did, are asking what they are asking”? By engaging your imagination you are actually tempering your emotions, so chances are that if you find an explanation that you like, you will not get upset.

Fifth, when assuming positive things does nothing to dismantle your anger, why don’t you try and verbalise it and give the other person a chance - just say “I am going to assume that you said/did that because your intention was to achieve something positive for you or for me. Could you please help me see what this positive intent could be?” If this is too abstract for you, then with the person who pushed in front of you in the queue you could smile and say “I assume you’re in a real hurry to get somewhere important.” In the negotiation setting, you could say “you seem really keen on that specific number, could you perhaps explain a little, why that number, what would getting this number enable to get you” or “from what you said it seems that getting [x in the position] is really important for you, can you explain what would you achieve if you got that, or perhaps, what would be lacking in the deal if you didn’t get it?”

Sixth, be open and listen. Don’t think what you’re going to say after they say x, y or z. Listen. To them. To what they have to say. This additional information will be the REASON behind their BEHAVIOUR, which should give you insight into WHY they did what they did.

Seventh, once you know the reason behind the behaviour, you can continue with constructive dialogue without devilising anyone. Or, if you are in the supermarket queue, just smile and let the person go unless it’s your grandmother dying in the hospital in which case you should already be running towards the exit. More importantly, by avoiding the chain-reaction of “bad” behaviour you can continue communicating without retaliation.

So, is there such thing as bad behaviour or do we have a tendency to label people based on how their behaviour makes us FEEL?

Guess what? You and no one else is in control of your emotions. Choose to feel good. Assume there was a reason behind ANY behaviour. Trust the reason was a good one. Start practising by letting those that cut in front of you without swearing at them - in supermarkets or in traffic. With proper tools, self-assessment and open communication skills (which is not the same as self-control) you can achieve great results also in professional negotiations or conflict management.

And if nothing I proposed works for you, you can always draw horns on the photo of your boss or opposing party or go punch that gym bag.

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