Is it them or is it you? - Michelle Gibbings

We all have people in our personal and professional life who we find challenging. We may label them as ‘precious’, ‘difficult’, the ‘problem child’ or ‘hard work’.

If they’re a colleague, the typical approach is to minimise the amount of time you spend with them and to find a way to work around them. If you’re their team leader, you may take a similar approach and actively seek to move them onto another team.

The first step, however, is to do the opposite and to actively seek to spend more time with them. When you spend more time with a person you have the opportunity to better understand their perspectives and what motivates and drives their behaviour.

Stephen Covey, the author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

We all interpret the world and what is happening through the lens of our own experience. Consequently, it’s very easy to misinterpret a person’s intent or think we know what a person is thinking or why they are behaving in a certain way.

By seeking to understand a person we suspend judgement and drop the labels by being curious, open-minded and interested in them.

All of which puts us in a far better position to cultivate a healthy relationship with them.

Listen first, talk later
People want to feel they have been heard and their needs listened to. When they don’t feel heard they’ll either withdraw from the conversation or find ways to destabilise or disrupt it.

In contrast, when a person feels heard they feel valued and that they matter to you. This is because they know that their point of view has been considered and that you’re not only interested in what they have to say but you are interested in them.

Listening effectively is about being genuinely interested and curious as to what is being said and not said. You are seeking to understand what the other person needs and so you listen with empathy and compassion.

This means you ask questions and seek to clarify what you’ve heard before sharing your ideas or providing a solution on the topic. By doing this you are acknowledging how they feel and taking the time to recognise their needs as important. This doesn’t mean you need to agree with what they are saying, but you are respecting their right to voice their perspective.

Challenge your reaction
When you feel frustrated or annoyed by the actions of others, it’s important to challenge your immediate response.

A reactive response is usually not done from the wisest mindset, and is therefore potentially harmful for your health, relationships and leadership brand.

A considered response is one where you are naturally curious as to what is happening, what may be triggering a reaction and why you are feeling or wanting to react in a certain way.

This approach isn’t about ignoring how you feel. Instead, it’s about making sense of your feelings and acknowledging them. It’s accepting the fact that in many cases, the cause of the frustration is less important than the meaning you place on it and what you decide to do about it.

It’s only once you have this level of understanding that you are in a position to effectively know how to best respond and what action to take.

So next time you come across a person at work or in your personal life who you find difficult or precious, ask yourself:

  • Why am I feeling like this?
  • Why does it matter to me?
  • What meaning am I giving to this situation?
  • What else could it mean?
  • What would a wise response be?
  • Are my expectations of them realistic and fair?
  • How would they assess my behaviour and intent?

You may be pleasantly surprised as to what happens when you ponder, reflect and consider, before you react and respond. You may also find that what needs to happen is for you to change – rather than just expecting the other person to change.

As American Author, Donald Miller, said: “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are”.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®.

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them get fit for the future of work. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’ and ‘Career Leap: How to Reinvent and Liberate Your Career’. For more information: or contact

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