I was talking with a trusted colleague recently – seeking some informal coaching on why I land differently with different people.
She cocked her head on one side, adopted a quizzical yet thoughtful expression, and said, ‘Well, you’re marmite aren’t you! Some people love your flavour – others really don’t. You could choose to be a blander condiment, but would you really want to?’ I’ve been thinking about that ever since – about navigating the inherent conflict between being congruent and authentic on the one hand, and behaviourally flexible on the other. Overdo the former and we risk becoming unbending caricatures of ourselves. Overdo the latter and we become cushions taking the shape of anyone that sits on us. The former is rigid – the latter is flaky. The writer-academic Rob Goffee gives good advice when he says ‘Be yourself, more, with skill.’
That’s not an easy balance because I find some people easier than others to get on with. I’m sure the same is true for you. Some people are a delight – I click with them immediately. We ‘get’ each other and it’s less about me tolerating their idiosyncrasies and more about me adoring their eccentricities. Other people I have to work at – we may not exactly click, but with mutual respect and a good dose of curiosity to find out who this unique person is, we get along just fine.
Others fall into a different bracket. I try. I try hard. And yet at best it’s clunky, often it’s awkward, and at worst, rarely, it fails. I’d like to say that as a developer of leadership in others I’ve found the magic for myself that means I can work seamlessly and equally well with everyone. I’d like to say that, but I can’t.
My coaching colleague went on to helpfully remind me that some things are my own – and some are not. The things that are mine – my weaknesses, my strengths, my style, my patterns both conscious and unconscious – I can manage more choice-fully with self-reflection and awareness. Other elements, though, are theirs – their unconscious assumptions of me around things like authority, masculinity, rivalry and more. These things I also have choice around, at least as to whether I accept or resist their assumptions. The study of this goes by the unnecessarily intimidating name of psychodynamics. The idea is that people don’t simply respond to who we are in the here-and-now but instead they project onto us their own stuff. Maybe I unintentionally stir someone’s unconscious memory of their authoritarian father, or their flippant brother, and their feelings about these people are transferred on to me. Or maybe my behaviour is experienced as similar to parts of themselves with which they struggle, of which they are less than proud and maybe deny. Either way I have a choice: to be Velcro to these projections and let them stick to me, or to be Teflon and let them slide off.
You see, people are different. I’m not talking about the obvious visible differences of race or gender – although being a fairly radical feminist and passionate advocate of diversity, I’m at the head of the march for inclusion. No, I’m talking about the genuine miscellany of human character, and the joys and difficulties that this psychological difference can bring. A friend of mine finds this a tricky reality to work with. She recently said, ‘But, we’re all fundamentally the same aren’t we? And isn’t it right to do unto others as we would wish be done unto ourselves!’ I responded with two observations, ‘Firstly, it’s better to do unto others as they would wish, which means working with genuine curiosity to find out what that might be, and second, don’t start your sentences with ‘but’!’. At which point she reminded me that marmite is quite a bitter taste.