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The Art of Not Taking Things Personally

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 past behaviours that we don’t understand and proactively look for compassionate ways to explain them. It’s easy to do this for young children. If they start crying or throwing a tantrum, we wonder whether they are hungry, or tired, or hurt. Sadly, it’s harder to do this for adults — and especially our co-workers. And yet a more generous interpretation of their difficult behaviour often ends up being right.

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

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 might be going on that you aren’t aware of. Perhaps they didn’t get enough sleep or recently had a fight with a 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 it’s their own targets they missed. Is this person blind to their own role in the situation?

Blame is a way of venting anger. The brain has a knack for redirecting negative emotions outwards, often to the unfortunate people 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 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 often when the anger subsides, the arguments change too.

3. Anxiety is Often Driven by A Lack of Visibility

They worry so much… that it 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, so many psychologists recommend writing your thoughts down. This makes them more tangible and easier to inspect and organise.

When you notice someone feeling anxious at work, try grabbing a notebook and helping them to get their concerns and questions onto paper. Often this takes the form of 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. They’re so interconnected that one person’s avoidance can trigger another person’s anxiety — and vice versa. Avoidance is often a defence mechanism against painful feelings, such as the fear of failure or rejection.

When you notice someone avoiding something important, try to encourage them to talk about it. Often they know they’re avoiding it and need some support to see it through.

5. Criticism is Often Driven by Shame

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

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

When you notice someone criticising, ask them who helped them when they faced a similar challenge, and how they did 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 advice isn’t welcome. Aren’t these people just control freaks?

Advice is sometimes regret in disguise. Perhaps a past experience has left them with a longing to have acted differently, and this is their chance to put things right and help you 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 there’s an unspoken perception of the other side not taking responsibility for their behaviours. This perception turns into resentment, which eventually shows up as a lack of trust. And of course, 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.

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 make bolder decisions.

When you notice someone who’s 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 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 seem like 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 overly selfless behaviour, help the person to check in on how they’re really doing — and whether their needs are getting 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 actually know how to put that need into words. Rosenberg suggests that labelling the universal human need can be therapeutic, or even transformational.

Here’s a link of commonly unmet universal needs at work:

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 accompanies it. ‘Are you feeling X because you’re needing Y?’.

How to Find Out the Real Answer…

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

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.

About me

Hi, I’m Dave Bailey and I coach tech CEOs from Series A to pre-IPO. Receive my weekly essays on leadership and management for founders.

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Written by

CEO coach to Series A+ founders, 3X venture-backed founder, angel investor, author of The Founder Coach ->

Learn how to manage your leadership team, improve your self-awareness, and help your business scale. Essays for startup founders by CEO and mentor, Dave Bailey.

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