The Art of Not Taking Things Personally

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under coaching feedback psychology


Why other people’s emotions might not be about you — and your emotions might not be about them

‘That’s irrational.’

‘That’s stupid.’

‘They’re making things difficult for the sake of it.’

When we encounter emotions and behaviours that don’t make sense to us, it’s often because we don’t have all the information. And in the absence of information, we tend to assume the worst.

‘Emotional generosity’ is the ability to see beyond behaviours we don’t understand by proactively looking for compassionate ways to explain them. Sometimes, this is easy; if a toddler starts crying or throwing a tantrum, we might wonder if they’re hungry, or tired, or hurt. Sadly, it’s not so simple for adults — and especially for our co-workers. And yet a more generous interpretation of their difficult behaviour often ends up being the right one.

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Here are ten useful patterns to help you nurture more generous interpretations — and get to the root of the issue faster.

Generous interpretations

1. Overreaction is Often Driven by Something Else Entirely

They shout and cry… over an innocent mistake. Has this person lost the plot?

Overreaction is often a sign that something else is going on that you aren’t even aware of. Perhaps the person in question didn’t get enough sleep last night or recently argued with a partner or friend. Maybe something about the situation is triggering an unresolved trauma from their childhood — a phenomenon called transference.

When you notice someone overreacting, broaden your focus and get curious about what else might be going on.

2. Blame is Often Driven by Anger

They point the finger at their colleagues . . . but they miss their own targets. Is this person blind to their role in the situation?

Blame is a way of venting anger. The brain has a knack for redirecting negative emotions outwards, frequently in the direction of those who happen to be closest. It’s a psychological trap that can prevent us from taking responsibility and holding others accountable.

When you notice someone blaming others for their own problems, help that person to label their underlying emotions. Some studies have shown that it takes about 90 seconds for negative emotions to dissipate — and when the anger subsides, the arguments often change too.

3. Anxiety is Often Driven by A Lack of Visibility

They worry so much . . . and that makes everyone else worry too. Don’t they have faith in their team?

Anxiety is a feeling of unease or nervousness, usually about a particular event or situation with an unknown outcome — and it can be contagious. My favourite quote about anxiety comes from tidying-up expert Marie Condo:

Anxiety comes from not seeing the full picture.

This doesn’t just apply to messy wardrobes; it applies to the mind too. Thoughts can be hard to organise when they’re bouncing around your head like ping-pong balls, so many psychologists recommend committing your thoughts to paper. This slows them down, making them easier to inspect and organise.

When you notice someone anxious at work, try grabbing a notebook and helping them get their concerns and questions into writing, perhaps as a list of to-dos or scenarios.

4. Avoidance is Often Driven by Insecurity

They put it off or make light of it . . . but they know how important it is. Don’t they even care?

Avoidance and anxiety are both ways of expressing insecurity, like different sides of the same coin. They’re so interconnected that one person’s avoidance can trigger another person’s anxiety — and vice versa. Avoidance is often used as a defence mechanism against painful feelings like fear of failure or rejection.

When you notice someone avoiding something important, try encouraging them to talk about it. You’ll frequently find they already know they’re avoiding it and need support to see it through.

5. Criticism is Often Driven by Shame

They criticise other people’s work . . . even when it’s not an issue. Do they get a kick from putting people down?

In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown provides a useful insight: ‘. . . we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking on folks who are doing worse than we’re doing.’ It’s easier to project negative self-talk onto others than deal with it head-on.

When you notice someone criticising others, ask who helped them when they faced a similar challenge, and how they overcame it. This can sometimes redirect them to more productive attempts at helping.

6. Unrequested Advice is Often Driven by Regret

They tell others what to do . . . even when their advice isn’t welcome. Aren’t these people just control freaks?

Advice is sometimes regret in disguise. Past experience can leave people wishing they’d acted differently and this could be their chance to put things right and help someone avoid the pain they felt.

When you notice someone giving unrequested advice, ask if they’ve been in a similar situation before — and how it went.

7. Mistrust is Often Driven by an Unspoken Expectation

They don’t trust their partner . . . even when they want to. Do these people just have relationship issues?

Trust tends to break down when one side is perceived as not taking responsibility for their behaviours. This perception turns into resentment, which eventually shows up as a lack of trust. And when trust breaks down, so does communication.

When you notice a breakdown in trust, try to uncover the specific responsibility they want the other person to take, as well as the responsibilities they must take to rebuild the relationship.

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8. Doubt is Often Driven by a Lack of Clarity

They can’t make a call . . . even when they seem to have enough information. Are they incapable of making decisions?

Doubt arises when outcomes are uncertain. However, in the modern world, if you’re waiting for certainty, you’ll wait forever. Clarifying what matters can help others overcome paralysing doubt and enable them to make bolder decisions.

When you notice someone overcome with doubt, help them to clarify what’s important to them.

9. Selflessness is Often Driven by Guilt

They say yes to everything . . . even when it’s not good for them. Are they trying to make the rest of us look bad?

Acts of selflessness may not seem like bad behaviours — and they aren’t necessarily. Working around the clock and sacrificing your own needs for others can be an expression of commitment and diligence. However, prolonged selflessness often masks a sense of unworthiness; if you believe you don’t deserve to have your own needs met, you focus on the needs of others instead. And eventually, this can lead to resentment, fatigue, and burnout.

When you notice such overly selfless behaviour, help the person to check in on how they’re really doing — and whether their needs are being met.

10. Every Negative Emotion is Driven by an Unmet Need

They’re negative . . . even when there’s a lot to celebrate. Are they just an energy sucker?

In Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication, he explains that every negative emotion is the result of an unmet need. However, few of us know how to put that need into words. Rosenberg suggests that labelling universal human needs can be therapeutic, or even transformational.

Here’s a list of commonly unmet universal needs in the workplace:

list of emotional needs

A list of common universal needs

When you notice a negative emotion in someone, get curious about what that emotion might be — and try to uncover the unmet need that drives it: ‘Are you feeling X because you’re needing Y?’

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How to Find Out the Real Answer…

These ‘rules’ aren’t guaranteed to work in every situation, but they can help you improve your ability to reinterpret bad behaviours with generosity. Ask yourself, ‘What else might be going on here?’ Listen carefully and stay curious.

Helping people to label their situations — and giving them the space to be seen and heard — can reduce the intensity of the negative emotions that led to their behaviours in the first place. When it comes to emotional reactions, listening might just be the best medicine.

But, at the same time, being generous doesn’t mean ‘taking one for the team’. If other people’s behaviours affect your wellbeing, it’s time to set some boundaries. After all, your emotions and behaviours are your responsibility.


Originally published Aug 18, 2021, updated Aug 7, 2023

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