It’s not Personal

Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don Miguel Ruiz

When I was new to leadership positions, one of the challenges that I found incredibly difficult to overcome was that I often took things too personally. I was keen to do my job well, and my fear of failure meant that I was terrified of “doing the wrong thing”. When outcomes weren’t as expected, or people provided negative feedback – constructive or otherwise – it was very hard not to take it personally, because it hit upon my innermost fears and insecurities. It hurt my ego.

As you can imagine, this impacted some of my decision making, because my decisions were made from a base of emotion. The result was that my decisions did not always serve me well, and outcomes were not always as expected.

So how did I change this?

I have used a number of techniques to assist me in taking things less personally. When I first decided that this was something that I would like to change about myself, I didn’t know about Emotional Intelligence or “Way of Being” or mindfulness, or any of the concepts and practices that are very popular today. All I knew was that I wanted to find a way to take things less personally.

My first approach, based purely on what I thought might work,  and not on any theory whatsoever, was to become an observer in situations where there was a high chance of me taking something personally. For example, if someone was providing negative feedback, I would visualise myself standing outside of the conversation, watching someone providing negative feedback to someone who just happened to be like me. Then, as the observer, I would try to objectively establish whether the feedback was justified, and I would use this to determine an appropriate response. This approach worked well for me.

Some time later, I started to learn about emotional intelligence and emotional quotient. This enabled me to further develop my skills and approach.

One tool that has helped me in recent years is to understand the difference between assessments and assertions. Assertions are statements that are supported by fact and can be right or wrong – for example “the sky is blue”, “Mary is a doctor”. An assessment is basically an opinion. It is based on the evidence that we have available to us but, unlike an assertion, society has no rules or standards that can be applied to make it right or wrong. For example, “Mary is a good doctor”, “Mary is an excellent doctor” or “Mary is a bad doctor”. We can try to ground an assessment by looking at the evidence that we have available to us. It still won’t make the assessment right or wrong, but it helps us to further understand the basis of the assessment. For example, I may have had a number of experiences where Mary the doctor misdiagnosed me, or gave me medication that didn’t help. Examining this evidence may help to ground my assessment that Mary is a bad doctor. Someone else may be amazed that Mary was able to diagnose their “head cold” as pneumonia, enabling them to be treated before becoming terribly ill. Examining this evidence may help them to ground their assessment that Mary is an excellent doctor. So, two very different assessments, but both with evidence that seems to ground them.

So, why does understanding assessments and assertions help to not take things personally? Well, I found that this helped me in many ways. Firstly, understanding that an assessment is basically an opinion with no right or wrong helped me to take the focus off right and wrong. If there is no right or wrong, then I don’t need to judge myself so harshly if someone else’s opinion differs to mine. Additionally, if there is no right or wrong,  then it is perfectly reasonable that my own assessments also carry validity, even if they are different to the assessments made by others. It also helped me to understand that different people may all assess a situation differently and, based on their interpretation of a situation, they may even be able to ground their different assessments against the evidence that they each have.

So, if someone is giving me negative feedback, I try to look at what evidence they used to make that assessment. If I feel the assessment is grounded, I can then accept that and make a choice to change my behaviour to support the assessments that I would like them to make. If I don’t feel that the assessment is grounded, then I can accept that and respond appropriately. Ultimately, the benefit to me is that I am taking my ego out of the equation because I understand that an opinion is an assessment and I know that there is no right or wrong to measure myself against.

Do you take things too personally? What might you be able to achieve if you take things less personally?

Note: Assessments and assertions have really helped me with much of my learning. If you feel that they would be of benefit to you, you might like to visit this link.

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4 thoughts on “It’s not Personal

  1. This makes sense and is an easy system, for want of a better word, to follow. Just because someone has an opinion doesn’t mean they are right and I am wrong. Or visa versa. I like the way you have explained this and it is something to not only use in the work place.

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    1. Hi Kate. Thank you so much for your feedback. I agree that this approach is useful in many parts of life and not only work. In my assessment, removing the need for someone to be right or wrong can also significantly impact on the quality of interactions. For example, I found that I was really starting to listen more closely to people when I wasn’t worrying about being right or wrong. TCL

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  2. I once did a management course where I assessed my management style vs the requirements of my role at the time. I do not find it easy to discipline a staff member (some people do). This course had me realise that it wasnt personal: it was a requirement of my job, if I wanted to do a good job. (and subsequent courses helped me with techniques to do this)

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    1. Thank you for your comment; I really enjoy reading your insights. When I finally realised that “it” (management) wasn’t personal, I found that a whole new world opened up for me. I felt as though it was a key turning point and, like you have suggested, I also felt that my management style changed somewhat as a result. TCL.

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