Understanding everyone’s motivation

I think one of the toughest things about being in any group is remembering that everyone has a different underlying drive and motivation.

You like to think that, if you’re the one in the meeting making a presentation, that everybody else is fully committed to listening.

But of course, that’s almost never the case:

  • Someone is still thinking about something that happened at home before they left this morning
  • Someone is still hungover from last night
  • Someone just found out they are pregnant and hasn’t told a soul yet
  • Someone just got an explosive email from a business colleague that’s going to ruin their week
  • Someone is flat-our bored
  • Someone is jealous that you’re presenting because they still haven’t worked up the guts to do it themselves
  • Someone is simply trying to think up questions to stump you so they can amplify their own presence in the room

This can be really hard to remember. Because of course, if you’re the one presenting, you’re focused enough on your own shit to notice. So how can we practice this art or noticing? Or keeping other people’s motivations in mind?

Over the weekend, my husband and I went to see a play called The Ferryman. It’s a new Broadway production about an Irish family in the early 80s that’s layered with family drama, political unrest, unrequited love, and more. It’s possibly the largest staged play I’ve ever seen, often with 7 or more people in a single scene.

But one of the things that’s brilliant about the staging of the production is that, even when there’s a dialogue happening between two people, there’s often still other people in the background. In a family with 7 children and other live-in relatives, you have to imagine that a home like that is never quiet. And so, in each scene, you get to peek not only at the main narrative unfolding in front of you, but of all the simultaneous little subplots, too.

During the first 15 minutes, for instance, you’re watching a typical morning, and one by one as family members descend down the steps, they weave themselves into their own desires. Somebody is thirsty and makes a cup of tea. Somebody is hungry and heads off to stir the pot. Somebody is curious to read the daily news, somebody wants to finish an art project, somebody just wants to tell a funny joke.

I’ve never before seen a play that was so deftly able to capture so many individual motivations of over a dozen characters. By the end of the 3.5 hours (yes, it’s a long one, but trust me, it’s worth it), I really felt that I understood everyone on stage in a more nuanced way. Not just one or two main characters. And that is a hard thing to do in such short order.

In business of course, we have all the time in the world, and yet it’s still so easy to fail to poke and explore the motivations of other people in the room. How might we act differently in meetings, having taken just a few more seconds to put yourself in everybody’s shoes first? How might we greet certain people differently, if we feel as invested in their own stories? And what might you want your own character to reveal, so that others can work better with you too?

There’s not one answer, just a short list of a few more questions we might consider asking. And that’s the best part about any great storytelling experience.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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