Who Do You Deal With?

By Chris Chittenden

Part of being human is that we create stories about the people we know or know about. This is an important aspect of our relationship with others as we use those stories as a starting point to engage with them. For example, if you hold a story that I am untrustworthy, then the action you take when you deal with me will be coloured by that assessment and you will act to compensate for your expectations of my behaviour as being untrustworthy.

In our work as coaches, we have noticed an interesting distinction between the preferences people have about the stories we hold of others. One approach is to begin by holding a story about how someone should be. People with this preference tend to see others in terms of their own standards and assess people in relation to how well they live up to those standards. For example, they might expect their work colleagues to know what they know, have the skills they have, approach problems the way they do and so on. By seeing people in this way, they set themselves up to be disappointed as very rarely does someone else live up to all of their expectations. Taking this approach also has a negative impact on how someone views people as he or she has a tendency to observe what is missing in people rather than appreciating them for who they are and what they contribute.

The other approach is to begin with a story about someone in the context of how we experience them. From this perspective, we have a tendency to accept that they are different to us and, as a result, they see things differently and are capable of different things. This does not mean that we cannot hold expectations of others. Rather it means that we have expectations of how someone might be in the future.

Our observation is that generally people seem to have a bias to one approach or the other and so this distinction sets up an interesting dynamic in a person's way of being and their way of relating to others. By beginning with a story of how they expect someone to be, people with this preference tend to look to the negative - to observe what is missing. In turn, this creates a negative emotional space in their relationship with that person and, as a result, the relationship suffers.

By beginning with how they experience someone and looking towards how they could be, people create the space to accept others and a tendency to support people in their growth. Rather than focusing on what is missing, they appreciate others for who they are and who they could become. Again there is an impact on the emotional space of the relationship, however the impact tends to be more positive.

Another important aspect of this distinction lies in how our relationship with someone develops. If we are dealing with the person as we experience them, then we are dealing with them - the person. We will observe and engage with what they do, not with what we think they should do. This has the effect of developing strength and understanding in the relationship. However, if we deal with a person based on our expectations of them, then we are not dealing with them as a person but with our story about them. This has a tendency to create breakdowns in the relationship.

We believe this is a critical distinction in developing relationships. In one case, we deal with the person and how we find them. In the other, we are not really dealing with the person at all, rather with a fanciful view of how they should be. If you are looking to improve your relationships with others, it may well pay you to examine where you start with your story of them. You may be surprised and it may give you some insights to developing better relationships with others.

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© 2004 Chris Chittenden