How Philosophy Could Help You

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Philosopher-statue Have you ever taken a philosophy course? I remember looking at college electives and wondering why anyone would take a course on philosophy. What benefit could there possibly be in debating the nature of self, metaphysics, truth, or knowledge? How could that possibly help an engineering undergrad?

As the cliché goes, hindsight is 20/20. Not only should I have given philosophy more attention, but also English and speech. The question I should have asked is what good is a domain skill like engineering if you can’t empathize, persuade, or collaborate with others?

The philosophy course I should have taken isn’t the one about Greek mythology. Or the one about Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The philosophy I’m talking about is the understanding of how people think. There is nothing more important than being able to read, understand, communicate with, and align with people.

Philosophies are basic beliefs. They shape our thinking and opinions. They are created overtime through experience and often buried in our subconscious. They are core values that combined with innate capabilities form our instinct—how we respond to others and circumstances. For example, our core philosophy about right vs wrong determines what we consider acceptable vs unacceptable behavior. Our philosophies on quality and teamwork determine whether we put projects or people first.  Our philosophy on risk taking determines the types of jobs and vacations we take. 

As important as basic beliefs are, people ignore them. Managers ignore them when dealing with their employees. Sales people overlook them when selling. Teams disregard them when working together. Spouses skip them when having disagreements. Parents neglect them when raising their children. Business partners, preachers, doctors, lawyers, and most everyone miss the fact that people have different core philosophies that drive their thinking and behaving.

Here is a test to see if you appreciate people’s philosophies. How often do you ask your spouse, employees, manager, or friends “What is your philosophy on [fill in the blank]? If you do, congratulations. Hopefully you asked before you entered into a long-term relationship, started a cross-functional project at work, or changed jobs. It is perhaps the best question you could ask before spending significant time with someone. If you’ve never asked this question, or rarely ask it, consider adding this to your inventory of soft skills. You will learn about your co-workers, friends, and family to a depth you never knew.

Understanding people’s philosophies is the key to getting along with people. It is the key to motivating, helping, influencing, managing, working with, living with, and enjoying people. Before working on a project with someone, establishing goals with someone, living with someone, and certainly marrying someone, seek to understand what drives them. People’s philosophies reveal the areas most likely to cause conflict as well as enable harmony.

Listed below are a few of the [fill in the blanks] you might want to share and discuss with someone before embarking on a project or relationship. If you’re not accustomed to using this language, it will seem odd. It moves what might otherwise be a casual conversation into a deeper discussion. If you don’t properly build up to it, people will look at you like you have three eyeballs in your forehead. Some may drop their mouth as they struggle to find the appropriate answer. Talking about basic beliefs requires authenticity. It makes the person asking as well as answering feel vulnerable. In environments where people don’t often share their thoughts and feelings, it will be awkward and difficult at best. 

Here are questions you might ask: What is your philosophy on ….

Communication? Learning and development?
Leading vs following? Fitness and nutrition?
Entrepreneurship vs structure? Religion?
Careers vs jobs?  Politics?
Work-life balance, downtime? Details vs the big picture?
Money, expenses, profit? Being organized, cleanliness?
Authenticity vs privacy? Hygiene?
Relationships and people? Quality?
Teamwork? Risk taking?
Conflict, differing opinions? Innovation and creativity?
The definition of done? Change?
Sense of urgency? Commitments?
Responsiveness, meeting deadlines? Discipline?

Consider “the definition of done” as an example. If you’ve ever worked with someone who thought they were finished before the end of a project, you know the importance. You either had to do the clean up or write up the closing documentation yourself. If you would have aligned on philosophies before starting the project, you might have discovered that their definition of done was when the desired result was operational. Any end-of-job cleaning, communication, or documentation wasn’t on their radar. So, a question like “What is your philosophy on the definition of done?” might have been a good question to ask and discuss.

Talk with your spouse, colleagues, and/or friends about their philosophies in the areas important to your relationships and/or work. You might be surprised what you learn.


Article written by Mike Hawkins, award-winning author of Activating Your Ambition: A Guide to Coaching the Best Out of Yourself and Others (www.ActivatingYourAmbition.com), author of the SCOPE of Leadership six-book series on coaching leaders to lead as coaches (www.ScopeOfLeadership.com), and president of Alpine Link Corp (www.AlpineLink.com), a boutique consulting firm specializing in leadership development and sales performance improvement.

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