The Three Challenges We Face When Trying To Understand Others


Monday, 5.46am

Sheffield, U.K.

Anthropology, n. The study of all humans in all times in all places – Mike Wesch, The Art of Being Human

What is anthropology?

Where do you begin when you need to understand how someone else is thinking?

What’s in their mind, what kind of approach are they thinking of taking, how can you work out what it means for them and you?

How can you make sense of what is going on?

The field of Anthropology gives us some clues.

Anthropology is about people, wherever they are, and understanding what makes them tick.

It is a very wide subject – you can think about people in terms of biology, archaeology, society and culture, or language – or all of them at the same time.

It is one of the very few sciences that look at societies across the globe, rather than focusing on Western culture.

But can it help us do better business?

Anthropology and business

You can think of any business, one you work in or are trying to work with, as a small society in itself.

A business is, after all, a collection of individuals who have come together.

Some businesses have a few members; they are a small tribe, while others have thousands, hundreds of thousands, and are like countries.

Each business will have a way of doing things that they have developed over time that works for them.

This way of doing things, this structure, may be almost invisible to them – it’s just the way in which things are done around here.

You can think about that structure in different ways – in the relationships, the politics, the economics and so on.

For example, think about your business – the way people are hired, the way decisions are made and the way money is allocated – and you’ll see how you’ve created your way of doing things that is going to be different from the business in the next building.

If you want to work with others, and you will have to do that as an individual or for your business, you have to realize that they are different from you and make an effort to understand them.

And there are three hurdles you will have to overcome – three tempting ways of thinking and acting that will stop you from being able to appreciate and understand the people you want to work with.

This is my way

The first of these is called ethnocentrism – being the center of your own world.

You know what you know and have beliefs and values that you hold dear – sometimes unconsciously.

You may have gained these because of your training and your experiences but, regardless of the source, they have a powerful hold over how you think.

A classic division in a business is the difference between engineering, accounting and legal.

If you have an engineer, accountant and lawyer in a room, each one will probably think that they have the most important job, the one that’s most vital to keeping the organization going.

Each professional speaks a different language, believes in different things and finds it very hard to see things in any other way than the way they see them.

What is a no-brainer for the engineering is a conundrum for the accountant and an impossibility for the lawyer.

What is an option for an accountant is impossible for an engineer and a loophole for a lawyer.

What you’re seeing in these situations is a clash of cultures, an inability to appreciate how someone else thinks and feels.

And that’s because they have to learn a particular way of thinking first.

My way is the right way

This way is called cultural relativism and comes down to being able to see things the way others see them.

You’ve heard of the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s an ethnocentric rule.

The platinum rules says do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

That’s cultural relativism in action.

Cultural relativism is taking the time to listen, to ask questions, to seek to understand what is going on from the point of view of the other person involved.

For example, one of the reasons engineers cannot understand why accountants don’t go ahead with an idea is because they don’t see how accountants look at ideas in the first place.

An engineer might think in terms of whether something works or not, and if they can make it cost effectively.

If something can be made better and you can make money by doing it then surely you should go ahead?

The accountant, on the other hand, may be thinking of things like the impact of the project on budgets and cash flow, and whether there is any room for a new expense at all.

How do these two individuals reconcile their differences?

You’re doing it all wrong

The most common approach people take is to try and get other people to change the way they do things.

This might be expressed in debates in meetings, in contributions to policy papers and in negotiations about calculation methods – but it comes down to one thing.

You’re looking at this wrong and it would be much better if you did it my way.

This approach almost inevitably leads to conflict as both sides dig in and nothing gets done.

Engineers carry on doing things the way they do them, looking for projects and creating business cases.

The accountants keep doing their thing, reviewing cases and rejecting them.

And nothing actually gets done or changed or improved unless someone else gets involved and makes the decision for them.

The way to change this behavior is by changing the way you interact with others – through something called participant observation.

When you look at someone else’s world from the outside then you can’t really understand it, it’s like standing on the beach and looking to see how fish interact in the water.

You get a dim view but to really see what’s going on you need to get your fins and snorkel and duck underwater.

If you’re an engineer the best thing you can do is spend a lot of time with accountants and learn how they see the world.

When you do that you’ll be able to go back to your own world and look at projects in the way an accountant would and put forward opportunities that they will see as attractive in the way they see them.

But you’ll never be able to do that as long as you persist in being an observer, at keeping at arms length.

This is something technology people find particularly difficult.

“Give me the specs,” they say, “And I’ll build you a system.”

The problem is that no one actually knows exactly what the specs should be and it’s only by getting involved that you will understand what people are trying to do and how you can help them out.

The first step to fixing a problem is understanding what’s causing it.

And the three things that stop us from being able to understand others are thinking that the world revolves around us, that the way we do things is the right and only way and what we need to do is change others to be more like us.

These ways of thinking lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

Now that you know what’s in your way the next thing to do is understand how you can fix this.

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: