I have a pretty cool job. I get to facilitate psychology/neuroscience based Safety and Operational Efficiency workshops in cool places around the world. Part motivation, part change, and all personal empowerment to participants that range from truck drivers, to managers, underground miners to CEO’s. Having worked with so many diverse audiences, I felt prepared for any personality. A recent trip to the Arctic Circle, however, reminded me why it is so important to also be prepared to be wrong

Efficiently identifying the need behind a behavior is of vital importance for a facilitator or coach. Important because, if you can identify the underlying need of the person, you can meet them where they are at, you can allow them to be heard, and you can calm down the part of their brain that is trying to protect them from you and begin working toward shared goals.

In my recent trip to the Arctic Circle, however, I did not initially get this right.

In my first workshop of the trip, I mis-identified the underlying need of three participants almost immediately. The first individual approached me before the workshop to let me know he was illiterate and seemed to have a “what the heck am I going to do” look on his face. The second individual greeted me by saying, “Nice to F#*#ing meet you!’ and it was not with a smile. And the third participant quickly turned his chair from facing the front to facing the windows in the back before we even got started.

Based on past experiences, the efficient part of my brain created three easy categories. Guy that doesn’t want to be noticed because he cannot read. Guy that’s pissed off and wants you to know it. And guy that is actively going to try and not pay attention.

Initially, given these presenting behaviors, I prepared to bring out the facilitation big guns. Actively coaching the illiterate guy while others are working, not responding to the negative behavior of the aggressive person to eliminate feedback of non-beneficial behavior, and utilizing proximity to position myself between the guy looking out the window and the window itself. Facilitation level ninja, time to put on the mask.

Only, before the workshop started, I remembered something a great mentor of mine once told me. “Always remember, no matter the behavior, we are all people first. People can only surprise you if you let them.”

So I paused for a moment. I considered letting the personalities come out as opposed to trying to manipulate them based on my assumptions. I realized, given they did not know my culture and I did not know theirs, that I was asking them to step into the unknown. And, if I was going to ask, I needed to lead by example. So I approached the class with the intention of letting the personalities come out however they would come out, and let the chips fall where they will.

The first couple of hours were a bit rough. Not a lot of talking from some and some seemingly negative comments from others. However, after the initial exorcism of behaviors from the group, I got to witness a little magic.

Once the illiterate person realized I was going to call on him as much as the next guy, he started contributing his thoughts and experiences. And, while he could not read, the insight he had into motivation, integrity, and compassion were more profound than so many books I have read.

The pissed off guy seemed to begin to notice that his confrontational style was not going to simply be ignored and, slowly, he channeled that energy into telling the rest of the group how, “We all need to start applying the S#!& we are learning today so crap will start getting better!” Not exactly the words I would have chosen, but the prior adversary became the biggest advocate.

And that participant looking out the window. Well, he still looked out the window. Only, when someone else began to question what it was they had heard in the program, the person looking out the window slowly turned around and regurgitated the content from the last hour more concisely than I had, as the instructor. Seriously, I almost found myself taking notes.

Throughout the course of the day, my assumptions, my expectations, and my “professional opinions” were all proven wrong. Had I not heeded the words of my mentor, I may not have gotten the chance to be so wrong, and what a shame that would have been.

I might have been 2500 miles from home in one of the most remote parts of the world, but even in completely different cultures, one thing remains. We are all people first. When we allow others people to be, well, themselves, amazing things can happen, surprises can happen, magic becomes available.

Being wrong is often the best gift we can get. Opening ourselves to that possibility requires us to simply step into the unknown right along with the participants, the people. Knowing we are all on this journey together as human beings.