Be Careful How You Characterize

Authors create characters. Back in 1982, when I was entirely smitten with the work of novelist Walker Percy, I wrote him a letter to tell him that his writing was so good that I felt his characters were more real than people I met in my life.  (If you enjoy character novels, try Percy’s Love in the Ruins.)

Caricatures distort like character-izations

Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of being human is that we – who are not writers – continually create characters . . . from those in our real lives. We all write stories – in our minds and then in our language, as we character-ize people.* First, a personal example. Then an application to leadership outside the family.

For almost twenty years, I observed a set of behaviors of one of my children.  From very early on, I characterized this child.  I used words, like head-strong, strong-willed and tough as central for me to create this character. “Create” I say, because I did.  I took this person – who exhibited a set of behaviors – and I made a character.  Not the person, but a character along side them.  Sometimes I told them, “This (characterization) is you. I know you.”  I came to know my character . . . better than I knew the real child. Or I knew the character and therefore was not able to fully, openly know the child.  I had judgments, predictions, and prescriptions to see and try to shape this character…whether I knew them or not.  Of course, this affected, often negatively, a very real and precious person.

Now that they are in their 20s, I am – thanks to their coaching – becoming conscious of the pre-judgments I made – and continue to make – about their thoughts, motives, feelings, etc.  I’m learning I do this with others, too.  I have made my wife into a character (not unlike what her admirers and detractors have done).

I’m working on doing two things different.  First, I’m becoming more aware of the times when I think I know what another is seeing, thinking, assessing, etc.  Then, instead of acting on that, and/or telling them what I think I know is happening with them, I simply ask:  “What’s going on with what you’re thinking or feeling about X?” I’m learning two things about this practice: People really appreciate not being characterized!  Second, I have yet to find that I was right. I’m not always wrong, but I have assumptions, I miss nuances, misinterpret gestures, silences, and statements. I am learning more about them and their views.  And we’re both growing from it.

On leadership.  I think that we (am I guilty of characterizing you?) tend to think of leadership as lived on a large-scale, with big audiences, dramatic strategies, and flashing lights.  Truth is, leadership happens mostly in dyads and triads and small groups. And in these intimate places, we think we know what others think, feel, see.  And the more we know them, the more calcified our characterizations become. We think they are predictable. We cut them off. We fail to ask questions with a beginner’s mind. And we all lose as a result.

The losses are affective as skins toughen and routine offenses are repeated. And the losses are objective or intellectual as we lose the ability to see more data, to question assumptions, and to build win-win learning.

If this makes some sense, start with your closest-in people at home and at work and just observe when you are characterizing.  You can often tell because the characterizing part of your brain uses words like, always, never, again and again (e.g.,  your mind says, “there she goes again,” or “he doesn’t get it,” or “why won’t he ever listen?”).  After observing, ask an open-ended question, e.g., what, how, can you tell me… designed to distance yourself from your certain characterization and help you (and perhaps them) learn what the person – not the character – thinks, observes or feels.

It’s both amazing and enlightening for me to find out how little I knew as I strive in this way to

Lead with my best self.

*I like using the “ize” at the end of “character,” because it reminds me of words like minimize, pulverize, or as they like to say in basketball these days, “posterize.” Characterizing, in other words, is not just something in our heads; it’s something we do to others.