Playing Well with Others

Hell, said French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, is other people. For all our good intentions in life, there are people who just seem to get under our skin, who go out of their way to sabotage our efforts — often without even knowing it — or to whom we just can’t relate.

At the same time, we live in a world where our ability to get along with other people is increasingly valued. Companies are decentralizing decision-making, putting more authority in the hands of team-members whose actions are evaluated as a group; social networking has assumed new importance for everything from getting jobs to entertaining one’s self to writing academic works; even our architecture demands more and more interpersonal contact, with all its potential for friction, as employers move beyond the semi-open cubicle farm to fully open workspaces.

In short, we live in a world with fewer and fewer walls, and we are increasingly judged on our ability to deal with the challenges that entails. You don’t have to like everyone you meet, but you do have to manage to work with them, whether as co-workers and colleagues, clients, or consultants and service providers.

Getting Along Ain’t So Hard

The good news is that it’s not especially difficult to work productively with other people, if you have the right attitude. With not much work, you’ll find that encounters with even the most annoying people can be productive.

The keys to playing well with others are:

  • Listen productively
    Listening involves more than just nodding your head and saying “Hmmm…” every once in a while. Try to hear not only what a person is saying, but what they mean (this means don’t jump on mistakes — “But you said…”). What are their real concerns? Most people don’t want to expose themselves too much, to make themselves vulnerable, so often they’ll couch their true feelings in difficult and obtuse language; you have to try to cut through that to get to the core of what is being said.
  • Ask questions
    Another way we protect ourselves is to avoid looking like we don’t know something — so we don’t ask questions. If you’re unclear on something, ask. If you think you might be unclear, ask. One good strategy is to rephrase what’s been said and ask if that’s what was meant. “You want me to show you how to print to a remote printer, is that right?”
  • Show interest
    Try to be sensitive to changes in the people around you, in everything from mood to hairstyle. Ask questions about their life and their interests. Not only can you learn a lot if you show the least bit of interest, most people love to talk about themselves — give them the opportunity, and you’ll have made a friend out of them.
  • Enable innovation by asking “why?”
    We often succumb to the urge to criticize — and frequently with good reason. But nobody likes being on the receiving end of criticism. Turn the negative energy of criticism around by asking “Why?” — as in “Why do you think this will increase sales?” or “Why would this process work better than the one we already use?” The idea is to get them to reach the point where their idea crumbles on their own — and to give them an opportunity to work through that point, if they can.
  • Understand their perspective
    Here’s a unique thought: everyone does everything they do for what they believe are good reasons. It’s true — no matter how stupid or mean-spirited or incompetent someone’s decisions might look to you, they thought they were doing the right thing at the time. Your job as a fellow human being is not to tell them how stupid or mean or incompetent they are, but to figure out what their rationale could have been.
  • Act as if you’re wrong
    When I interviewed Tatsuya Nakagawa and Peter Paul Roosen on Lifehack Live, they said something startling: don’t fall in love with your ideas. That doesn’t mean don’t champion them; it means you need to create a space around your ideas where they can be tested. Bring ideas to other people and ask them to show you what’s wrong with them. Be open to other ideas that might be better.
  • Share credit
    Nobody accomplishes anything all on their own. At some point near the end of any project spend a few minutes to figure out who you couldn’t have done it without — from the administrative assistant who sorted your handouts to the vendor representative who helped you make an important connection — and make sure they receive ample credit. Be sincere and appreciative toward anyone that lend you a hand.
  • Keep your commitments
    There’s a saying that “you are only as good as your word”. No matter how insignificant a task seems to you, once you tell someone you’re going to do it, do it. Do it quickly, do it as well as you possibly can, and do it cheerfully. The time for not doing it was before you made the commitment — not later when you decide it’s not something you care to do or you don’t have time for it.

For the most part, playing well with others is a matter of simple respect — even for people you can’t stand. Especially for people you can’t stand. So many people get hauled into ugly office politics and interpersonal rivalries because they think they’re scoring points by treating their “enemies” without respect — get over yourself. You come off looking just as bad as the person you imagine yourself enemies with looks to you, and you reduce everyone’s ability to work.

Instead, be like The Dude — “Abide”. Keep yourself clean of office politics, and make yourself an asset to those around you. Or, of course, you can live in the Hell Sartre said we create for ourselves out of our relationships with other people. How much fun does that sound?

Anyone have any other advice for playing well with others? Let us know in the comments!

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