Opinion: Working with people who aren't like me


For most of us, one of the joys and challenges of work is working with people who aren’t like us, but just how do we do that?

My parents moved from Northern Ireland to Dublin in the early 70s and I grew up living with people who weren’t like me. I studied social anthropology (study of human society and culture), psychotherapy, and human development, so it’s a bit of a pet subject. I have also spent most of my professional life working in mental health and transformation and can tell you two things with certainty: there is no one else just like you, and, unique as you are, we are all pretty similar underneath.

There are several keys to working with different people: understanding self, understanding others and communication, communication, communication.

Understanding Self

The first step to working well with different people is to understand ourselves better and to appreciate that this is just one way of being in the world. We can increase our understanding of ourselves in many ways: through formal assessments (like Myers Briggs (MBTI), Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Big 5 etc) but more importantly through reflecting on ourselves and our experiences, where we’ve come from and how that has shaped us and how it influences our behaviour.

We are also learning all the time and our state is constantly changing. How we feel and behave is determined by many factors such as personality and temperament but also personal history, relationships, stress levels, right down to what and whether we have eaten. Some of this will be within our immediate control and some of it may take longer to reflect on and change. For example, we can make a point of taking frequent breaks and eating regularly or we may commit to a more in-depth period of self-reflection, learning and change through therapy, coaching or training and development.

We can also do a lot to manage our stress levels and build our resilience at work: understanding how stress works and our patterns can really help us to support ourselves through challenging times and tricky situations. If we can remain curious and compassionate about ourselves and our behaviour, we can continue learning about ourselves and extend this curiosity and compassion to others too.

Understanding Others

Secondly, we need to understand others and appreciate that there are as many ways of being in the world as there are people. Again, assessments can
be useful to understand strengths and skills within your teams. More important is reflecting on and communicating with the people we work with about what they are good at and what they love doing. We can then encourage open and honest discussion about who should complete different tasks, including the possibility of taking on developmental tasks, with support from those that are more experienced. Appreciating and celebrating differences, successes, and learning allows for greater engagement and the development of high performing teams.

Teams develop over time and go through stages of development and having frameworks to help navigate and understand this, such as Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing model can be helpful when challenging behaviour rears its head usually when you’re just trying to get things done! Belbin’s team roles can also help us to understand why people act in particular ways.

Other blogs will share more about the importance of having a strategy and objectives, but for working with others, it is fundamental. Having a shared idea of where the organisation is, where it’s going and how it’s going to get there, offers people the chance to work together to achieve shared aims, respond to challenges and opportunities as they arise, and also reduces confusion, frustration, and unhelpful conflict. Having agreed objectives and measures allows us to agree accountability and responsibility for completing tasks and if not completed to address this and learn from the experience.


Communication is fundamental to working well with other people: it is much easier to know what other people need, want, think, and feel, if we ask them or they tell us. There is a lot we can do to support open and honest communication within the workplace: modelling through our own behaviour, coaching and supporting others is invaluable.

A certain amount of conflict is normal and healthy for teams, but too much is counterproductive. We can do a lot to reduce confusion and frustration through spending time agreeing strategy and plans with colleagues and implementing clear accountability and responsibility processes.

Elizabeth Dunn, Xytal Consultant

For most of us, one of the joys and challenges of work is working with people who aren’t like us, but just how do we do that?