Stuck In The Middle With Me

by  John E. Smith  |  Self Leadership
Stuck In The Middle With Me

You are only as good as you think you are. This month’s theme about opposites was focused on one well-known set of opposing characteristics: Extroverts versus Introverts.

Reading some of the thoughtful observations has made me think a little more generally about how opposites exist and sometimes clash in the workplace and everywhere else, for that matter.

Many of us approach interactions with others with one deeply-held belief: Our own preferred beliefs and behavior are the standards by which all others should be measured.

We base our perceptions of others on how closely they fit us and how we behave and think. In other words, you are more or less task-oriented compared to me or you are more extroverted than I. We do not often go to objective measures to determine where another person is on a continuum of a specific behavior or attitude.

It’s all about how you compare to the “I” I imagine myself to be. Another time I will explore this idea of the “imagined I,” but for right now, let’s stick to sizing up others.

Our beliefs about what constitutes normal behavior are formed rather early, during the enculturation period which extends from infancy through early adulthood. Even later in life, we still experience some changes in our perceptions, but the largest share of the work is done by the time we leave home.

Note, I just used a term leave home as though everyone who reads this will have the same general idea of what that phrase means. However, I’ll bet we did not all leave home at the same age or in the same way.

I believe that you are more or you are less tolerant compared to me. Here’s how all this works: If you are like me in some respect, I tend to view you as normal. If you are farther away on a scale of beliefs or behaviors, you are different.

I might even use labels like liberal or conservative, good or bad, and so on…but always based on the perception that my beliefs and behaviors are smack dab in the middle of the scale, right on top of the marker that says OK or Normal.

Of course, none of us are really normal, at least to the degree we think we are. Sorry about that, but we all deviate from the norm in some respects to some degree. Well, yeah, maybe Tom Hanks is perfectly normal, but the rest of us?

Why Does This Matter?

If we judge another’s behavior by what is familiar and comfortable for us, we are missing the opportunity to appreciate that other’s behavior for its own value.

  • When we measure another’s beliefs by the values we hold dear, we are viewing that person and their world from a very narrow perspective.
  • When our own behaviors and values form the standard, we might actually be way short of where we need to be aiming.
  • When we consider opposites and how being different can be a strength, one of the things we probably need to do is clear our minds of those enculturated ideas about what is normal, right, or preferable.

Be Aware Of Your Prejudices & Preferences

As leaders and those who help leaders grow, we first need to get our minds right so that we are aware of our own prejudices and preferences, and how this comes across to others. Let me suggest three specific strategies to help you do this.

  1. Hang Around With People Who Are Different Than You – When you are exposed to folks whose experiences and background differ from your own, you grow in your ability to appreciate differences. This is because your own perceptions and expectations change. We tend to hang with those with whom we have most in common – break that habit.
  2. Listen To Others To Really Understand Them At A Deep Level – Those of us raised in the United States often struggle with the idea of work as a collaboration between equals, and not a competition with those who are different, which may just reflect a different company culture. Put the gloves down and extend your hand.
  3. Create A Personal Growth Goal To Notice & Change Your Behavior Toward Others – Notice when you are judging another based on your personal preferences. Stop yourself. Confront judging by others. This may be the most challenging aspect of all this.

When you do the above, you model more inclusive behavior, which in turn strengthens the workplace and creates opportunities for growth through deepened appreciation of those who are not just like you.

What strategies for growth would you add to this list?
Photo Credit: Morguefile

About The Author

Articles By john-smith
I enjoy helping people learn and grow through intentional, strategic, and social interventions. I coach, teach, train, facilitate, organize, write, speak, design, and lead at the intersection of leadership, learning, and human behavior. I am a CCE Board Certified Coach (BCC) with specializations in both Leadership/Business and Life/Personal coaching. My primary blog is The Strategic Learner on Wordpress.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Duncan M.  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Interacting with people who have different beliefs can be at least tricky, if not uncomfortable. However, in order to become smarter and wiser people it is a good idea to stop emphasizing “I” from time to time and to focus on “You.” There are some valuable lessons that wait to be revealed and the only way to achieve it is to be open minded.

John E. Smith  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Duncan – thanks for responding:)

Yes … focus on others rather than self. This is a key element and not as easy to do as we might think. I have actually completed several trainings in my life that involved focusing on others, but still struggle with doing so. Somewhere in my brain is a little balding guy running around yelling “Me … Me …Me” loudly and repeatedly.

Those with wisdom note that the best conversationalists are those who ask and listen, not those who talk. In the same fashion, I think the best leaders, coaches, and educators are those who focus on the needs of others, and let their own egos fade into the background.

Appreciate your comments:)


Jane  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Can I just say that this is an awesome topic? I have been thinking a lot about this for several weeks. A certain event started the wheels in my mind, but there’s one word we all need to learn from the inside out. Acceptance! I agree with all your points and I think my word is incorporated into what you’ve said, but you asked what would we add. I would add – Accept the differences. Hopefully as I accept differences in others, they will accept the differences in me. It’s not a balanced world. As any scientist, even the Earth is tipped on it’s axis. If you want one more word – tolerate while growing in acceptance.

John E. Smith  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Jane:)

You have blanket permission to say anything you want … of course, that “awesome” comment is most welcome.

Now you are really challenging us. It’s easy to be tolerant of others … you simply only need to not outwardly respond negatively to whatever they are doing. I practiced being tolerant with my adolescent children many times … not saying anything and allowing them to be who they were at the moment, but not all that happy about it inside.

True acceptance is hard, because you have to do this both outwardly and inwardly. The word “Namaste” is useful here, because I believe it means something like “The God in me recognizes the God in you”, or as the Na’vi might say “I see you”.

Superlative addition to the list:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

John, I love this suggestion in particular: “Create A Personal Growth Goal To Notice & Change Your Behavior Toward Other.” I think that I do that, but I’m wondering how I can take it to yet another level. Hmmmmm. You’ve got me thinking. Which is the whole point. Thank you.

John E. Smith  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – thanks for commenting.

Yeah, you’ll notice I did not get into details about that suggestion:) Partly because I’m not sure what I am doing is effective and partly because this is real “personal”. Each of us is coming from a unique perspective, and while many others may share parts of our perspective, we are ultimately all “one of a kind”.

BTW, I don’t believe I got you thinking … you strike me as a thinking machine that is always switched on:)


Leigh Steere  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Such an important topic. Employers inadvertently get themselves into trouble with “like me” hiring. We tend to feel affinity toward people who are similar to us–and select those candidates over people who make us a feel a little uncomfortable. Instead of automatically moving away from the discomfort, we need to examine where it’s coming from. Often, it’s a signal that we have an internal bias. Thanks for this post.

John E. Smith  |  28 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Leigh:)

Excellent observation about an ongoing issue for managers and organizations. We do indeed gravitate to those who are like us, due to both comfort-seeking and a very basic human desire to connect, which is easiest when the person resembles me:)

This is so subtle sometimes that we are not even aware of it. Your advice to examine the discomfort over those who are not like us is essential to understanding this and changing that internal bias.

As we continue to explore the relationship between intuition (gut instinct) and formal learning, the idea of internal bias is central. A person may say of a hiring decision “I can’t put my finger on it, but I just like candidate A better”, which can be indicative of an positive bias of some kind or just a prejudice in favor of certain types of folks.

Intuition can be powerful, but not without the kind of introspection beforehand that you advise, so we are sure that our intuition is taking all into account, and not just our personal preferences.

Thanks so much for responding:)


Julian  |  29 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Good article, but you have to be careful who you hang out with.

If you hang out with people who are too negative, whilst you may grow spiritually (i.e. learning how to practice midfulness near them so they don’t infulence you too much), you won’t be growing too much as a person, as some of your energy is being sucked away (in my experience).
But I do agree that some contrast in personalities is useful for general growth and learning to appreciate differences.

Thanks for posting

John E. Smith  |  29 Aug 2015  |  Reply

Hi, Julian – thanks for commenting.

Could not agree more that we all need to choose carefully who we associate with.

Of course, some folks that appear to be much like me would fall into that negative category, while others who appear to have little in common may be very optimistic and have much to offer.

If one needs to practice mindfulness just to cope with being around a certain person, that is definitely a strong sign that a change is needed.

My point is that when we look for others with whom to associate, we should not automatically restrict ourselves or eliminate someone from consideration simply because they appear different.

In my line of work, being around someone who is negative might be considered a challenge for me to model positive behavior and influence that other toward more positive behavior through carefully-chosen questions and listening.

Appreciate your contribution:)


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