Many people, myself included, were attracted to technical work because they found machines easier to understand than people. Computers are wonderful in that they'll generally do what you tell them to do (even if what you tell them is not quite what you wanted). They'll do the same thing repeatedly.
People are more obscure. There's a lot going on inside that's not readily visible. People often react differently to the same stimuli at different times. Different people may react very differently to the same stimuli at the same time in the same circumstances.
All of this can be very confusing for those of us with a technical bent. In my confused teens, I started to try to figure this out. Though I'd long envisioned becoming an electrical engineer, I studied English and Psychology in college. Both of these disciplines are excellent for trying to understand people. I applied them to studying both myself and others.
After a half century, I continue to study people and learn more. There's no end to this quest, but I've found many benefits to the journey. It has helped me in my career, opening new opportunities and giving me tools to be successful in a collaborative world. It has helped me personally, clarifying my view of the world around me and helping me find happiness there.
What I have received, I'd like to pay it forward. I offer you a few basic ideas that can help severely technical people understand how to relate to other people. Try these on and see if they fit for you.
First, recognize that you are a very special person.
No one else in the world offers the same set of talents and skills, hopes and wishes, or observations and insights that you offer. You, alone, have the resources to affect the world in ways that only you can do so.
Bask in that thought a moment.
Don't get a swelled head, though. Everyone else in the world has their own basket of offerings. Theirs is just as important as yours. Not more important, but not less important, either.
This gives us two important challenges. The first is recognizing what we offer, and the value of it. The second is recognizing what the other person offers, and the value of that. To do that, we have to understand the ways that other person is similar to ourselves, and the ways in which they differ. Not perfectly--there is no perfect understanding--but close enough.
One simple model to help you understand people is the oft-maligned Myers Briggs Type Indicator. If you're looking for it to classify people into tidy boxes and tell you what individuals can and cannot do, you'll be disappointed in that. Nothing can do that. People are far too complex to be effectively reduced to stereotypes. There are certainly more than 16 personalities in the world. For those who discount Myers Briggs in favor of Big-5, there are more than 32 personalities, too. MBTI can, however, help you to notice your own preferences, and to notice how others' preferences might differ from yours. That's useful information.
For example, in MBTI terms I tend toward the NT temperament, one of the four temperaments David Keirsey identified within the MBTI model. This means I'm more focused on thoughts than feelings, and ideas tend to spring up in my head more than I notice them in the world around me. Knowing my general preferences warns me to take extra care to notice how I, and others around me, are feeling, and to remember to observe what's happening around me. If I'm not careful, I'll assume that others know the chain of inferences I've made and can see the image I've built in my head. Then they don't understand me, and I get impatient. When I realize that I haven't communicated these things well, I can walk people through the path, starting with observable data. Not only do they understand me better, but sometimes together we find alternatives that I had overlooked.
No doubt you can use Big-5 in the same way. The insights you get and what you do with them are up to you. Just don't think that you've got the full measure of another person based on such a model.
I find the Satir Model, which is considerably more complicated, to be enormously helpful in understanding myself and others. You can get a good introduction in the book of that name, but you can also continue to learn by studying it for years. You might consider it a collection of models, as there are a number of different parts that have distinct names. The Change Model describes the meta-process we all go through when undertaking a change. The Ingredients of an Interaction explores our communication with another. These are two of the more widely known parts of Virginia's model and they make good starting points.
Satir's Iceberg gives us a model for exploring the underpinnings of our behavior, in depth, down the core of our being. Though expressed differently, our human core is something we share with everyone else. We all have basic yearnings for love, acceptance, belonging, and connection with others. We also yearn for creativity, freedom, and independence.
Virginia said that we connect through our similarities, and grow from our differences. These yearnings are the roots of our similarities, and help us connect with people who seem very different based on visible behavior. It's often worth the effort to make that connection, for that drives our own growth. Perhaps it's always worthwhile, if we can find it in ourselves to do so. That takes practice.
Practice and integration. That's the stage of the Satir Change Model that comes after the chaos of unfamiliarity, once we've hit upon a transforming idea that shows us a way forward. Often I find my transforming idea comes from a model such as these that gives me an overview of what my journey might be. Using the model as my map, I can proceed with more confidence.
I try to use more than one map. The map is not the territory. It simplifies reality so that it may be more easily comprehended. It may have errors, or merely not quite fit the territory that currently surrounds me. I might misinterpret the map. I continually question my course and double-check my position with different sources of guidance. As it says on my nautical charts, "the prudent mariner will not rely solely on any single aid to navigation." Different maps help me view the world, and the people in it, in different ways.
P.S. Would you be interested in learning more about this?
I've been thinking that it would be interesting to hold a seminar on this, or a related topic. What I envision is a zoom call with a handful of interested people to explore the ideas and ask questions, some of which may be unanswerable. I'm looking for something more engaging than a webinar, and less overwhelming than a conference.
Is this something that would interest you? Or do you have a better idea? Simply reply to this email or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd really love to hear from you.