The other day in class, I was telling my students about the need to work in our self-awareness as a way to develop empathy and being able to understand others, and how this is especially important when we work. With the naivety of the age, some of them told me that in a working environment, you don’t need that. The only thing you need is staying professional and do whatever you were paid to do.
I must confess that after 25 years of working, I don’t know what staying professional is. Moreover, I have no idea of what “professional” means. This wasn’t always like this. Many years ago, I would have given the same answer, but time goes by and gives us the opportunity to have fewer certainties and more questions.
The truth and the bias
Following with the debate, I asked them to tell me what “professional” means. With the first answer, a quick response came to disagree. I let the conversation go on until it was clear that we wouldn’t find a common meaning. For some of them, being professional is about getting things done no matter what, for others it has to do with working for the best of the team; someone even talked of being professional as an act of love (I loved that one). Needless to say, everyone was right and passionately defended their positions.
The problem with defining a term like this is that we all have our truth based on our education, our experiences, or even our expectations. These shape the glasses through which we see the world. And of course, we have our sources to confirm what we truly believe!
Along with our truth, it comes our bias. Because we love to be right, we tend to fall in what is called a confirmation bias. This is a cognitive bias that favors information that confirms our beliefs or values, while we ignore any information that contradicts those beliefs.
This always leads to an unintentional bad judgement that stuck us in a place from where it is difficult to enrich our views.
Be open to different ideas
In my opinion, developing empathy is, among other things, an act of selfishness. The more we understand others, the more we can learn and the wider would be our world. But this is impossible unless we concede others’ ideas and perspectives the chance to be examined. It’s impossible unless we’re enough open to recognize that maybe we’re not right all the times.
I’m not saying that we must change our mind just because someone has a different opinion. What I’m saying is that we should listen carefully to see if they can contribute to our thinking.
That day, the class ended with what I call an AHA moment.
One of my students argued that it couldn’t be possible that I didn’t know what staying professional was. And when I insisted, he got desperate.
Then, I stopped the conversation and asked him: what if this was about a work we have to do together and instead of trying to understand each other, we do this? How important would be trying to get into the other’s shoes and find a common place to go on?
I don’t know what staying professional is. What I do know is that without empathy and social skills, working becomes way more complicated.