When you interact with someone in the workplace do you ever stop to think about the position you’re coming from being an influence on your interactions? Just as in language and grammar, when we use, “I, You, and They,” the positions of first-person, second-person, and third-person can change the outcomes in our dealings.
On today’s show, I talk with Pat Wagner who, along her husband Leif Smith, owns Pattern Research, Inc., a research, consulting, and training business in Denver. Most of her work for the last 40+ years has been for libraries, higher ed, local government, and small businesses. She talks with me about why it is important to understand positions in our libraries, how we operate within those, and how we can learn to change positions for best results.
This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.
This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.
When you interact with someone in the workplace do you ever stop to think about the position you’re coming from being an influence on your interactions? Just as in language and grammar, when we use I, You, and They, the positions of first person, second person, and third person can change the outcomes in our dealings.
On today’s show I talk with Pat Wagner, who along with her husband Lief Smith own Pattern Research, Inc., a research consulting and training business in Denver. Most of her work for the last twenty-five years has been for libraries, higher ed, local government, and small businesses. She talks with me about why it’s important to understand positions in our libraries, how we operate within those, and how we can learn to change positions for best results. I know this is information you’re not going to want to miss. Enjoy the show.
Welcome to the show, Pat.
Question #1: I’m interested to discuss your topic on using a position’s model for improving influence and interactions in the workplace. The model we’re talking about today gives us an understanding that the indication of position, used in language and in grammar, such as I, You, and They is embedded in the language. And, that position influences how we see the world and interact with it. So to start out, please give us the concept of what this model is all about. 02:00
Well, it’s interesting when I first started learning about this model many years ago I discovered that many different fields, disciplines of psychology and human behavior referred to it. It’s something people have been thinking about for a long time. The concept is this, that when you or I are thinking about something, interacting with the world we are either interacting from First Position, which is where we’re sitting here looking at the world, hearing, seeing what’s going on and taking action. Or, we’re focused on the other person. We’re trying to be empathic and see, hear, and understand the world from their point of view.
Third Position which is the big picture position. You might think of it as objectivity, where it has to do with rules. So, example: you’re standing at a service desk of a library and you’re waiting on a library user. You’re presenting ideas and information and interacting with him. To do a good job you also have to be able to understand the world from their point of view. Maybe they don’t know how to pronounce the name of an author, but you don’t humiliate them or put them down. Maybe they are uncomfortable in the library because they have never been in a library before. So, you try to empathize with their position.
At the same time you look at the bigger picture, which might include the fact that you have rules and regulations that you have to apply, that you have a strategic plan based on customer service. So, you want to make sure you are conducting yourself according to the standards. So, it’s like there’s me, there’s you, and there’s the bigger picture. Stepping into each of those three positions allows you to see, hear, and understand a different piece of the world.
Question #2: That’s interesting. So, what are the possible benefits of learning about the positions model? 03:59
The first thing is to really think about what it means to be in the I position, the First Position. A healthy First Position person means that you take personal responsibility, that you take action, that people can count on you. In some of the models it’s sometimes even referred to as the adult.
I had a mentor many years ago who told me, You know Pat, someone needs to step-up and be the adult in this situation. Why don’t you volunteer? [laughter] So, the person who is in First Position, if they really develop that First Position thing in a very healthy manner, people look up to them. It’s very much a leadership role, for sure.
The Second Position, that issue of being able to be compassionate and empathetic. I tell people, It’s not about the fact that you agree with the other person’s position (how they conduct themselves, what they say), but you’re able to put yourself in their shoes. What my husband would tell people is, Pretend that you were raised the way they were under the conditions they were raised, with the same kinds of belief systems they have. Isn’t it possible that you would be behaving as they would today?
I think back to when I was a college instructor. I would tell the students in my class, You don’t have to agree with what we’re covering in this class. You will have to, though, prove that you understand it in your test and your papers. But, don’t feel that you’re going to get a lower grade if you don’t agree, but you have to prove to me that you understand what we’re teaching in this class.
I think being empathetic is like that. That you have to really be able to influence people. And what’s really interesting, Adriane, is that I’ve had a chance to study maybe twenty different models of negotiation from a number of different fields in human behavior. Almost every single one of them says that the first step in being able to negotiate successfully is to have empathy for the other person. Without that, if you don’t have that, then forget it.
Then the third part, the objectivity. This just happened, just this morning. I’m on one of those neighborhood platforms, called Nextdoor. Some of my neighbors were arguing about something. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s just annoying. So what I did, adult that I am, is I went online to the City of Denver, which has a great website, terrific website, and pulled the information off of the actual ordinance they were arguing about and posted it to the timeline. And said, Oh, by the way folks here’s the URL and this is the ordinance according to the City of Denver.
Everyone went, Oh, never mind. [laughter] To me it was like this is what a good librarian does, right? It’s sort of like where people are arguing, Well, let’s do facts. I have a friend who is a professor in Ohio, a journalism professor. She likes to say, Let’s do science. For me that means, Let’s look up the rule, let’s look up the law, let’s find out what the facts are. Each of those roles has a benefit. The dark side is that sometimes people get stuck in only one way of seeing the world.
Question #3: Right. So, this gives us empathy. It helps us figure out what others may need, as you did this morning in your group. But one of the things you say is, It’s important to understand which chair we sit in most of the time, right? So, how does that work? 07:47
Well, it’s kind of like—and I tell people there are dozens of theories about how people communicate. We have to take every single one of them with a grain of salt, because any human being on the planet is more complicated than the most complex theory of human behavior. Given that, take this with a grain of salt. The best way to know how you’re doing in the world is how other people are responding to you. One of the rules in cognitive psychology is that you measure success, not by your good intentions, but how people are responding.
People who are only always in First Position tend to lack empathy, and they also sometimes don’t have a pause button where they will go and find information. Often times the dark side is if they don’t temper their ability to act, with the ability also to be compassionate, and also to look up the facts, they can be perceived by other people as a bully—someone who uses emotional intimidation consciously, or unconsciously – simply because they’re kind of pushing through things.
We’ve all had that shoot, ready, aim, boss or colleague who wants to take action. What they need is a pause button. I have to say that probably I learned the most about my own flaws studying ethics. I have studied ethics and library ethics for about twenty years, and I teach ethics. One of the main things is that it’s not just about how you feel about something, it’s also about the facts, and getting that bigger picture.
For Second Position, it’s hard because you really think you’re doing the right thing by being empathetic, by being helpful, and the problem is, is that you become that person and I think it was how many years ago that somebody coined the word codependency? That we almost become obsessed and addicted to other peoples’ behavior. We don’t have a life.
I remember a psychotherapist I know, she said that she would put it this way—Test what position people were in by what they talked about the most in the first fifteen or twenty minutes. If they talked mostly about themselves that might be an indication. If they talked mostly about other people that might be an indication. And if they only wanted to talk about theories that might be an indication as well, what comes up in conversations.
And the truth is it’s really hard for any of us to measure ourselves. My dad used to say that an instrument cannot calibrate itself, that it needs other instruments. The same thing with people. We’re all too close to our own stuff. So, I have mentors and counselors and therapists, and psychotherapists, and all sorts of people I know—some of whom I’ve known for decades. It’s kind of like my personal think tank.
When I really screw up, I mean I screw up everyday, but when I really screw up I have a half a dozen people I can call and say, This is what I did. They know me well enough to say, No, that’s just one of those situations. But sometimes they kind of wag their finger at me and say, Pa-at, [laughter] you’re doing that again. So, it’s not something you learn about yourself in isolation.
Question #4: Sure, but important to self-reflect as we start looking at this model, is that what you’re getting at, like kind of understanding who we are within it? 11:35
That’s right. And again, it’s just a frame, right? It’s just like putting a picture frame around a picture. If you use different picture frames, the picture will look different. Or, looking in different directions out of the house. What you see out of the front of the house is going to be different from what you see out of the back of the house.
Question #5: Oh, I like that. So we have first person, second person, and third person. Let’s go through these positions one at a time starting with first person. What is being in first person all about? 12:04
It’s about being able to take action and be responsible for life. Think of it as the healthy ego. You feel good about yourself. You feel that you have to be one of the people to do something.
I remember Jamie LaRue, when he was director of the Douglas County Libraries here in Colorado, would say, Don’t come to me and tell me that someone dropped the ball. Come and tell me how you’re going to pick up the ball. So, a healthy First Position is very much about taking the initiative.
Second Position again is you’re focused on the other person, how they see the world, what they care about, what’s important to them. You have compassion and empathy, but you don’t undermine the person.
Another one of my mentors, who’s a clinical psychologist behaviorist, Bill Casey, told me he was doing, I think, an internship for his degree and it was at a daycare center/nursery school, something like that. He didn’t have children at the time. He was watching the kids getting dressed, and I think it was in Kansas, and it was a wintry day, and they’re struggling with all their clothes. He reached over to help one of the little kids get dressed and the teacher took him aside and said, No, Bill, this is how they learn. You don’t want to undermine them and not allow them to learn, and not allow them to experience the consequences of their action.
So, a good second person might be a coach, might advise people, but as a friend of mine says, They don’t run out on the field and play the game for the kids, they don’t run out and play the game, they give you advice about what you need, and so on.
Just as the first person can be in danger of becoming a bully, the second person can be in danger of being the meddler in people’s lives. I have seen this, and I bet you have too, with people who have adult children and the parents step in every time the kids have a problem. Well, by the time the kids are forty they’re totally still dependent emotionally, and even financially on their parents. They’ve never learned how to struggle, survive, and grow up, in effect.
I know it sounds strong, but sometimes when I’m having heart-to-hearts with people I’ll say, The behavior you’re doing in the short-term may help this person, but in the long-term you’re infantilizing them. And, also knowingly, or unknowingly manipulating them to be dependent on you. This is something that’s kind of a difficult line for some people to walk.
The third thing, and this is funny because if I want to do a stereotype of Third Position I will do it of the subject matter—expert, brilliant, academic librarian who probably has seven higher degrees, knows tons of stuff and is really interested in the theory of life. I had an awful situation so I won’t, of course, mention the state or the library, but I was asked to come in. I was doing a staff day. And, we were talking about these different models. I talked about the work of Virginia Satir, particularly, and her book for civilians, called Peoplemaking, that’s been in print for many years.
She talks about the unhealthy side of being in Third Position, where instead of just having a healthy pause button and, Let’s be objective and look at the facts, and so on. The person uses it as an excuse to pretend that they’re not human, that they’re not affected by emotions, that they are somehow super hyper, rational and everything’s just about the facts.
So, I role-played to the group. I demonstrated for fun an exaggeration of that person, that some people call the computer, or the robot. And I said, Oh, my dear. Oh, my dear Pat. I am so sorry that your entire family was wiped out in an avalanche this morning. However, you are twenty minutes late for work. And I hope, my dear, that you understand this should not happen again.
Then when the person complains, Now, now, don’t get emotional. Let’s just look at the facts. So I did this and the audience of about 100 some employees went dead silent. I had no idea what was going on. At the break the HR director came up and said, I don’t know how to tell you this but you did an imitation of our head of reference. [laughter]
…oh, my goodness.
Everyone in the room was shocked because you nailed it, and nailed her behavior, perfectly. You know that cold, I’m better than everyone else, there are no emotions in the world. And he said, Let’s see how she took it. If she recognized herself. And he kind of glanced over to the corner and went, Oh, dear, he said. You have made an enemy for life.
And I said, I didn’t, I mean it was supposed to be a joke. He said, It was a joke you said, but it was the truth. And I have found over the years that sometimes in larger libraries, particularly in academic and special libraries people will say, Oh, yeah, we have that person on the staff. They like to pretend because they’re usually brilliant and incredibly knowledgeable, and have the facts that the facts should mean something. I tell people to be very careful of advocating for libraries with the new, Oh, let’s just present them with a lot of facts. Because on this planet [laughter]—may work on Vulcan, but on this planet 85% of what sells people is emotion.
So, what are you modeling when it’s just about the facts? Well, if the person has the same belief system that works well. But oftentimes, even people who pride themselves in being very rational are sold by feelings and emotions, and so on.
Again, each of those three ways of seeing the world can be extremely terrific. If you’re great at Position Three, I mean all three of them apply to leadership. But, when you’re really good at Position Three people really trust you.
My husband is brilliant at it. He is…well, we all love our families so of course we brag about our family. But it’s not just that he’s very, very smart that he will say, Well, what are the facts? How do you know that’s true? And, he has this kind of calming effect with his clients. So, when they’re upset about something he says, Well, let’s do the research and see what’s really going on. So, people trust him. I think again, that we can see that we do need all three ways of seeing the world.
Question #6: Definitely. I can see how they all play together. Not only do you want to know about yourself within the Positions Model, you want to know what healthy behaviors are within first, second, and third person. So, that’s great. Then you talk about—once we have an understanding of the positions, how we can learn to change positions, and what this does for us. So, if you’re in one and it’s not working you might need to use another one. Can you tell us about that? 19:27
In my work—and I am not a therapist, I’m not a psychotherapist, or a psychologist. I deal with productivity issues and relationship issues in the workplace. 85% of the work I do is with libraries and higher ed. I’ll be in a situation with a client where I’m either working with a group of people, or coaching a director, and it’s not working. I feel stuck. This is where I mentally step back, take a pause button and say, Okay, Pat. You may be in Position One, are you talking too much? Which is one of my sins. Maybe you’d better shut-up and start asking some questions.
That’s when that self-awareness comes in where—Am I actually getting the response I want from the other person? Usually then, because I spend most of my time in Position One, if I stop and start asking questions and really listen to the answers, and don’t make a big deal about—I have to answer them right away. I start learning things and engage them better.
Or I might say, You know, we’re having this discussion. Let’s take a break and see what’s going on. For example I was in, I think it was, California a few years ago doing a board training. We were discussing some new regulations that had been put on at the state level having to do with rating movies, which of course is very controversial for librarians. I asked the board, Well, what about the rating issue?
Again, just like with my neighbor group they started arguing about this and that and everything and I said, Wait a minute. And, I had pre-loaded all of this stuff on my computer, opened my laptop and I said, Let’s take a break, I’ll put up the screen. While we’re taking a break why don’t you go over to my computer and take a look at this stuff. Everyone was like, Oh, my goodness we had no idea that had been instituted.
Same thing happened working in the state of Georgia. It was all about rules having to do with a library’s responsibility for the emotional and physical health of people under the age of eighteen. Where are they considered like a nurse, or a teacher, someone in a position of authority that needs to report to the police if they suspect physical or emotional, or even sexual abuse? I was having a discussion again with someone who was arguing with me about it. I took a breath and I said, Let’s just look and see what the regulation says. So I downloaded the regulation and sent it to them at the time. It may not be true now. People would have to look this up for themselves. And they went, Oh, my gosh I didn’t know.
So sometimes, if I find myself being argumentative it’s because I’m in First Position. I have to stop and basically say, Okay, ask questions. And third, be more objective. If I’m stuck in being codependent, meaning that I’m being overbearing. I’m telling other people what to do outside of my role as a consultant, you know being that kind of person. Then I have to stop and say, I’m going to go and take action for myself. Or, Here is the information I find useful, do with it what you want. In objectivity, I can get lost in research like a lot of people can. And, instead of just quoting statistics and surveys to people, maybe I have to make an emotional connection with them. Or, again take action. Does that make sense?
Question #7: Yeah, it does. So, it’s all three positions and knowing how to go between all three to make the success that you’re looking for. Is there anything else you’d like to share? 23:20
Well, I think the main thing for people to understand, as I said before, that this is just one arbitrary model of human behavior, and that the social sciences are not really sciences. I hate to say this being someone trained in sociology and psychology, but they really aren’t. It’s not like we’re doing chemistry.
Any study, any survey, any set of statistics about human behavior please take with a big grain of salt. What you’re saying is, Hmm, Pat, that’s an interesting model. I wonder how it might apply to situations that I have today? Rather than taking it as some sort of gospel that everybody has to follow.
Question #8: And resources are fabulous as you start delving in. Do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 24:06
My favorite book on leadership is definitely, Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. It was published by Paulist Press. It’s been in print for decades. It was with a major publisher before that. I believe it’s still in print.
My favorite book that refers to this model or things like this model is Virginia Satir’s book Peoplemaking.
Question #9: Marvelous, thank you for sharing those. Pat, in closing, what do libraries, and working to make libraries the best possible mean to you, personally? 24:41
I’m not a librarian. I serve libraries. I grew up in an immigrant family in Chicago where libraries and books were like THE most important thing to us growing up. And, I didn’t set out to be a library consultant, that wasn’t the plan. But libraries, and library people, and myself, and my husband, and our little business—we found a strong affinity.
I see libraries as one of the best places to leverage productivity and to work for the better future of communities, institutions, and the people they serve. So, I feel that I can do my part to support all those great things that libraries do. It makes me very happy.
I’m so glad you found that affinity and that you have done so much for libraries over the years. It’s been great having you on this show. Thank you so much.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.