What should I do here, with this human?

Almost everything in life must be done with others. If you learn to relate well to others, you increase your professional leverage and the emotional health of your relationships.

I. Understanding Others

The first step to relating well to others is understanding them. The first step to understanding others is understanding yourself. Here's How To Understand Yourself. Plus, by leading and modeling your own self-awareness, others will follow suit.

To understand others, read and practice the ideas in Graham Duncan's piece: What’s going on here, with this human? Graham argues that your goal should be to see people clearly. I love his frame on this:

When you see people clearly, you see the transcript of their conversation with reality.

Raise the bar for how much you want to understand people.

It's not just understanding their MBTI. It's being able to predict their sentences, know how their childhood affected their present, and know what their dreams are before they die. Rank how well you understand someone from 1-10. A 10 is how well Jony Ive knows Steve Jobs, or perhaps how well your own mom and dad know each other. Most people understand each other at a 2. Try for a 7.

II. Reflecting Others

Understanding others is the long-term goal. Reflecting their emotional state is an excellent short-term way to achieve that. Here are some guideposts to strive for:

  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  • Be curious first
  • Become an excellent reflective listener. Listen for emotions, not events. 
  • Don't just play back their statements, try to concisely synthesize their emotional state. 
  • Every conversation is an opportunity to practice.
  • Don't forget to put yourself into the conversation. Say "what I'm hearing is..."

The most helpful framework I've learned for reflective listening is nonviolent communication (NVC). Read the book. It is short and good.

NVC has two parts: listening empathetically and speaking honestly. Most of NVC comes in the listening part. Listen for emotions. Listen for needs. Your goal is to be present with them. Be a presentist. Be ok with silence. Even when they feel done, ask "is there more?"

To listen for emotions and needs, you need to understand them. To understand emotions, use this emotions 2x2. To understand needs, use the Bentoism needs 2x2. Understanding morals is helpful too. To understand them, use the six moral foundations.

The best leaders listen. When Satya Nadella joined Microsoft, he made the entire executive team read NVC.

Especially when managing people & leading, try to make your ratio of open-ended questions to directive statements around 10:1. In a peer-to-peer relationship, your goal should be to listen 60% of the time and talk 40%. When you're in a group, speak 1/n. If there are 4 people, talk 25% of the time. If there are 10 people, only talk 10%.

Don't focus on your own anxieties. Assume you are liked, and you will be. Your goal when interacting is to make the other person feel more comfortable.

You'll know you've succeeded at all this when someone feels seen.

It feels great to be seen. Some of my most impactful moments have just been friends reflecting my own words back to me. "Wow, that sounds hard." Or: "It sounds like you're comparing yourself to others." Or when they note something about my being that I didn’t see because it's the water I swim in. I still remember when I was 26 and someone told me I was enthusiastic. I was so surprised!

Give that gift to others. Reflect their emotions and see them for who they are. Make the people in your life feel seen.

III. Helping Others

80% of helping others has already been covered: be aware of yourself first and reflect other’s emotional state. One trap people (and more often men) fall into is "trying to solution" when their thought partner just wants to be listened to.

But you can help others by giving constructive criticism.

The best practice for constructive criticism is called motivational interviewing (MI). MI recognizes that all change comes from within. Think about this for yourself—have you ever changed because someone offered you unsolicited advice to do so? No. With MI, your main goal is to support their own self-efficacy and their own desires for change, not yours.

You do this in two ways. First, elicit “change talk” from them by asking what they want to change about their life. Second, build self-efficacy by reflecting how much they’ve already done and saying that you believe in them.

But in the end, the work is theirs to do and you can't control their behavior. You want the best for others but let them #doyou.

The key idea underlying MI and other change techniques is the idea of psychological safety. People need to feel safe around you in order to share their shame, in order to change.

This is shown by the pyramid in the excellent book, 5 Dysfunctions of Team:

  • Start by earning trust
  • Then you can disagree and commit
  • And drive accountability and results

(There's a similar idea of home → edge → groove in the excellent Robert Kegan book An Everyone Culture.)

Once you've built trust, be sure to give the constructive feedback in private while giving positive feedback in public. Then, when you give the feedback, see it as a partnership rather than as combative. As Claire Hughes Johnson notes:

We often envision critical conversations as combative, where the parties stand in oppositional positions. I aim to approach the situation as partners, standing side by side. To do that, you have to be aware of the language you’re using; you want to show empathy and curiosity but also take a bit of a risk.

Don't view feedback as +/- but +/Δ. The delta implies action-oriented change.

Try not to give too much constructive criticism over writing. Instead, record a quick Loom.

When you're considering whether to be honest with someone, almost always do so. Don't walk on eggshells. Often you might hold resentments within yourself, then let them out later all at once. This doesn't feel great for them. Instead of you telling them you were angry when they didn't take out the trash, you held it in, put on a mask, then eventually revealed your true state. This reduces trust because they never know what you actually believe. It's surprising when it eventually comes out.

Lend people ideas that are not yet fully formed. It's ok.

Clear is kind. Say the hard thing.

IV. Conflict

In addition to giving constructive criticism about a person, sometimes you disagree with a person about, well, anything.

Here's how to fight well.

First, start with the advice above:

  1. Understand yourself & others. The primary trait to look for here is agreeableness. If you're already agreeable, lean into conflict more. If you're not agreeable, look to open up space for others.
  2. Reflect others. Most conflict happens when you think you heard them say something, but they didn't actually mean it. As the poet Khalil Gibran writes, "Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost." Look out for the meant-said-heard delta.
  3. Help others. If you've already created trusted spaces, now you can leverage that trust for this conflict.

As you have conflict:

  • You don't need to join every argument you’re invited to. Ignore most conflicts, especially on the internet.
  • Steelman their perspective, don't strawman it. You'll know you have succeeded when you can pass an ideological turing test for their position.
  • As Patrick Collison notes here, see arguments as trying to collectively find the "topology of disagreement." Clarity is the goal, not winning. See the disagreement as an epiphenomenon of some underlying beliefs, and look for those.
  • Co-create a shared third rail for the things you agree on (facts, etc.) then understand the disagreement from there.
  • And, as always, tune in to your body. Breathe the tension out.