My Dear Students: Professional relationships can be less forgiving

(‘My dear students’, a fortnightly column that is a conversation with young minds on current events, books, popular culture — just about anything that’s worth talking over a cup of coffee.)

My dear students

Today I will like to talk to you about professional relationships, something that will loom large in your imagination once you trespass into the real world. Professional relationships are not very different from your relationships with family and friends, except that your personal relationships tend to be more indulgent of your personalities and quirks. Professional relationships can be less forgiving.

I suppose many of you are already aware by now that people are complicated and that you have to work on your relationships. There is a small cottage industry devoted to telling you how to go about building and sustaining relationships. But I thought it might be useful to state the challenge in jargon free terms for you. When we work with people, there are various relationship hurdles that we must navigate. I will discuss three of the most intractable ones.

The first problem is that we often don’t know what the other person is trying to say when they say something. The boss in charge of your internship says that she needs some research conducted on a topic that’s required for a client presentation. Bosses are typically distracted, and their directions can be vague and confusing. But they wake up to full consciousness only after you have submitted your work. At that time, they will most likely inform you that your work was not what they had in mind when they instructed you. You will wish that you had the ability, almost magical, to discern exactly what they were asking for. It’s almost tragic because their expectations would not typically be difficult to meet, but the problem was that you couldn’t fully comprehend what they were expecting. It’s not a question of language alone but a question of emotional quotient. Understanding what another person is saying depends on context, non-verbal cues and learning their peculiarities from their past conduct and reactions.

Trying to understand what a person is saying is hardly the only issue you are going to face. Here’s the second problem in professional relationships. We often can’t understand what a person wants. Your friend might say he is interested in writing a joint paper with you but what he actually wants is to read and reflect on the topic, not write about it. He might really want this even though he has deluded himself into thinking otherwise. You will be able to save a whole lot of time and effort if you were able to understand what your friend really wanted, and look past his statements.

But there are harder tasks ahead. Here’s the third problem in professional relationships, and the most difficult to overcome. We find it difficult to understand what other people are feeling. Feelings are different from wants because they are not about a person’s needs. They are about a person’s emotions, which are far more difficult to manage. You might be dealing with a person who is at the end of his tether, because one of his parents is unwell or because someone was nasty to him. How he deals with you might be affected by his emotions, and not by rational thought. Imagine if you were able to know what he is feeling. It would transform the way in which you would deal with him.

So now for the million dollar question. How do you develop your emotional quotient? I don’t have a comprehensive answer, because I struggle with the same issues I have outlined. I am in same boat as you are. There’s no formal teaching in this domain. Your schools and universities will teach you how to read, write and make power point presentations, but you will have to learn how to deal with people on your own. You can make a beginning by getting into situations where you engage with people in person, not over zoom. It can be anything-a sports event, a conference or a group project. When you engage with people, treat the inevitable conflicts as lessons that improve your people skills.

I can assure you that you will make mistakes in your relationships. Some days you will completely misunderstand what your friend or boss is telling you. Some other days, you will realise you have no idea what your peers want, despite what they are telling you. More often than you like, you will misread other people’s feelings, or not register them at all. But you will get better at navigating professional relationships, provided you keep an open mind while engaging with people.

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