You’ve never had a personality conflict. No, really.

Several years ago, I was having an intense conversation with a consultant I respected when he held up his hand to stop me. “No,” he said. “You are not having a personality conflict. As a matter of fact, you have never had a personality conflict in your life.”

He said this with a slight smile, so I smiled too, waiting for the punchline. I knew what he’d said was absurd: Of course I’d had personality conflicts. People have taken an immediate dislike of me (in their defense, I can be a strong flavor), and I’ve done the same. Everyone has.

He paused before completing his thought: “You’ve never had a personality conflict, but you have experienced behaviors that you did not understand or couldn’t appreciate in context.”

When I tell this story to an audience of leaders, they generally have a similar reaction to mine. First, incredulity, then a smile, then a rejection of the idea as nonsense, and I hope for some of them, consideration. At first, I wanted him to be wrong. If I have a personality conflict with someone, and I can’t change who I am, then I’m off the hook. We simply don’t mix.

I’ve come to believe that what he said is true—I never have had a personality conflict. None of us has. When someone rubs me the wrong way, it’s not because of who they are (what I conceive of as personality) but because of something they do or do not do, passed through the filter of my perceptions: my likes, dislikes, expectations and biases, etc. In our personal lives, we largely get to choose how and with whom we invest our time. At work, that’s rarely the case.

I form my perceptions of you based on what I see you do and hear you say, and you do the same with me.  While personalities are largely out of our control, our observable behaviors—how we communicate, verbally and nonverbally—are choices. If you are like me, you can and do change your behaviors all the time, specifically when your reactive behaviors wouldn’t get you the outcome you want. For example, I try to speak respectfully and listen patiently (sometimes with great effort) when I have a profound disagreement with a colleague. My reactive behavior (what my personality would want me to do) would be to get impatient and try to steamroll their position. Another example, when I am on a client site, the way I dress, the way I speak, and how I carry myself is very different from the way I do those things at home or with my good friends.

That may not be a great revelation to anyone, but I hope it is a useful reminder to everyone—because most of us run on a form of auto-pilot—we do what we do reactively, automatically, following the patterns and habits that have brought us success and rewards so far.

If our goal is to become or remain people of influence among those around us—something all good leaders should aspire to—we can choose to behave in what’s called an emotionally intelligent way. Many of you are familiar with Emotional Intelligence (or EQ)—but in a nutshell EQ is what enables us to choose the behaviors that will best meet the legitimate needs–not wants–of the situation and the people in it. Maybe that’s what empathy is at its core—actions chosen to meet the needs of others, without sacrificing our own.

The first step in being able to choose behaviors strategically is to have a deeper understanding of your own “default” behaviors. In the language of EQ, it is Self Awareness. This kind of awareness is much more than simply noticing what you do after the fact, it’s about becoming increasingly aware of why you do things the way you do them. From self-awareness, we can move to other-awareness, and finally to consciously empathetic behavior.

One of the best tools I’ve encountered to get smart quickly about behavior patterns is DISC. For an application like this, I prefer DISC to a Myers-Briggs profile. In my experience, Myers-Briggs is a wonderful tool for understanding your personality, but I’m interested in behaviors, not personalities—specifically how we like to work and to get results. DISC is a better tool for that.

Basically, DISC defines four primary styles, each of which has certain preferences. Regardless of culture, ethnicity, or any other demographic, we all fall into one or more of the styles to varying degrees or preference and in varied combinations. But by becoming familiar with the tendencies of each style (there are only four, remember, so it’s very easy to do), we can match people’s observable behaviors to a DISC style.  So, a person who walks fast, talks fast, and makes decisions fast likely has a “D” preference, for example. If I know folks with this preference like to get down to business fast and generally want bullet points, I can modify my preference for rapport building and chit-chat and get straight to the point when talking with them.

Is it deceptive or somehow false to flex my behaviors to meet the needs of the people around me? If I am doing it because I want to work better with someone, and in so doing to build trust and respect with that person, then certainly not.

If you’ve never done one before, take a DISC assessment and see for yourself.