This week’s tip is incredibly personal; for you, for me, for anybody. It’s all about our sense of identity and the power that it has, for good or ill. And, right now, it’s incredibly personal to me!

Let me begin to explain what I mean. My colleague Martin Eldon did a lot of work at a council in one of the most deprived areas of London. One of the HR team was having to make people redundant, which she was finding difficult. She told Martin about one man, I believe in his fifties, who had been a dustman with the council ever since he was a young man many years before.

As she was going through the redundancy meeting with this man. When she broke the news to him, he said something really interesting. He said, “I am a dustman. I’ve always been a dustman. If I’m not a dustman anymore, who am I?”

I have heard so many occasions that redundancy, or even retirement, can have a huge and not always positive impact on our sense of identity. For me, your identity is all about your sense of self, of who you are; or who you believe yourself to be. Robert Dilts, one of my favourite NLP pioneers Robert Dilts said that, “It is our perception of our identity that organizes our beliefs, capabilities and behaviours into a single system.”

I have several different identities. I have the identity of a husband, a father, a brother, a friend etc etc. In each of these, I have beliefs and values that supports my sense of self. You might be wondering where your sense of identity comes from. My work that I have done over the last 25 or so years leads me to suspect it all starts out when we were young and the messages that we got from the people that were important to us at that time. Just ponder these two statements received by a young impressionable child and the impact that they might have on them:

“You are so precious to us”

“What’s wrong with you. Why can’t you be a good boy/girl?”

I believe that comments like this help to shape your sense of identity or self over your lifetime. And, as Mihaly Csikzentmihali (author of the great book, Flow) once said, “The self appears to be one of the most important contents of consciousness”.

When we are in rapport with who we believe we are, when we are centred in who we truly are, we are deeply connected to ourselves. When our sense of identity is challenged, as with the dustman above, it can have negative consequences.

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I do hope this is making sense to you because I would like to move the discussion on to something more tangible. That is how we give feedback to other people in our personal and professional lives. And, if I may I would like to once again refer to Robert Dilts and his model of logical levels. Let me just briefly explain what these levels are:

Identity: Who am I?

Values: What is important to me?

Beliefs: What is true for me?

Capability: What can I do?

Behaviour: What do I actually do in any environment?

Environment: In what context do I take action (when, where, with whom)?

My colleague Martin uses the example of a student who has failed an exam. As your tutor in this situation I could offer you feedback in (at least) three ways:

  1. Well, didn’t you have a bad case of the flu when you took that exam? This is/was obviously an environmental issue for you
  2. Well, you only answered three questions out of the four that you were required to so you were only going to get a maximum of 75% tops. This comment is aimed at your behaviour.
  3. Well, you’re a lousy student! Guess which level this comment is aimed at?

Going back to the logical levels model above, I believe that if I were to comment at environment, behaviour or capability levels you might be minded to listen as it is about your performance in a situation. Whereas, if my comments are aimed at your beliefs, values or identity you might well take them more personally because they are, in my opinion at least, exactly that; personal.

So, what’s the take away Ian, I hear you cry. Well, it’s that you need to be very careful when you are aiming your comments at the level of identity. These include statements or questions such as:

  • “Why are you so stupid?”
  • “Why are you such a useless salesperson?”
  •  “Why are you so bitter?”

The consequences of identity based statements such as these can cause really deep hurt and have a hugely damaging effect on your relationships both inside and outside of work. Please be careful!

With gratitude

Ian