Collegiality > Congeniality: Empathy
May 17, 2021
Sounds simple enough, right?
Perhaps it’s one of the most popular buzzwords to ever circulate our social spaces. But what does it really mean? And how might it apply to us in the education world?
I’m reflecting on educator collegiality in a series of posts, stemming from this one central expression: “collegiality > congeniality.” In this context, collegiality is more about navigating through uncomfortable spaces and conversations as a group or professional learning team (PLT) in order to better meet student and community needs, while congeniality is more about being nice to each other and feeling comfortable in our group interactions, regardless of progress toward common goals. I believe implications are such that the education side inherently celebrates nice people, while the business side survives with effective people.
Yet, In order to fully function as a unit, group, team, staff, or learning community, individuals must first hold and practice a specific set of interpersonal skills themselves. After all, if there’s no vulnerability, trust, and integrity demonstrated in our individual roles, then it’s highly inconceivable that any team might be considered as “highly-functioning,” a phrase birthed in and paired with extensive research on original professional learning community (PLC) models.
Before the group can move the learning forward, together, individuals need to move their interpersonal skills into a mental place of collaboration.
Before the team can progress through items on the agenda, teammates need to address their personal agenda items.
Before the community can share the vision, members needs to envision their role in the sharing.
Sounds simple enough. So, why doesn’t it always work out this way?
Perhaps, it’s a matter of at least one, priceless, interpersonal skill.
Barriers to Empathy
Have you ever heard, said, or felt expressions like these?
- It’s not fair!
- You don’t know how it feels to be me.
- You could never do my job.
- No one works harder than me.
- How can you give me feedback if you’ve never done my job?
I might argue that sentiments like these have been felt–if not expressed–by nearly every team member on every team, in every school, company, and organization, in the world, of all time, ever. I might strongly argue that that’s true. I might confess that I have personally heard, said, or felt all of these heartfelt emotions at varying points in my career. Maybe.
Valid or not, sentiments like these might ultimately create barriers between each other and our commonly shared goals.
So, what causes these barriers to genuine empathy?
The biggest barrier to collegiality is our own human nature:
Fear. Shame. Insecurity. Jealousy. Greed. Competition. Lack of empathy… What might you add?
In addition, one of the biggest assumptions in the education world is that all adults know how to build healthy relationships, have interpersonal skills to be a “highly-functioning team” member, and innately possess self-sacrificing perspectives and qualities to serve the greater good.
And finally, we saved for the best last. This one was a shocker to me. How many times have you said, heard, or felt this yourself?
“Don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
That’s been around for years. But what if it’s not true? I mean, what if you didn’t actually have to have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes until you could truly extend genuine empathy, to know what it’s like to… identify with their experiences?
What’s the Real Definition of Empathy?
If her definition of empathy is the right definition, then our congenial worlds might wobble off their axes. If this is true, then that means that you don’t have to actually have walked a mile in someone else’s shoes to be able to practice genuine empathy. If Brene Brown’s theory is correct, then our on-ramps to collegiality might be widening by the moment.
Why Is Empathy So Vital To Collegiality?
To establish and sustain collegiality requires more than a quick PD on how to build relationships, an administrator pep talk in forming the school’s theme of the year together, or more age-old, surface-level, feel-good, social media platitudes pecked out on all the devices, in all the spaces, and at a moment’s notice.
Congeniality allows for independent puzzle pieces to be in the presence of others.
Collegiality requires puzzle pieces to be interdependent, to thoroughly examine all the characteristics, to see how one piece may or may not fit the whole puzzle at the moment, to navigate through all the features and spaces, and to work as a team to put the whole puzzle together, together.
Have you ever worked a puzzle where a few pieces were missing?
Perhaps you realized you were missing critical pieces to puzzle:
- At the very end–It was obvious which obstacles prevented you from moving forward.
- In the middle–You were missing pieces from the border or the main subject, yet you might have had to meander around them. You knew where you were coming from, you knew where some of the missing pieces might be right then, and you knew that you couldn’t move forward to fit the whole puzzle together without some missing pieces, or at least without cutting some corners of other pieces.
- In the beginning–Unless you were taking an inventory of the pieces needed to complete the whole puzzle, there’s no way you could have known this. Unless you had specific, puzzle training or you had done extensive research on all the pieces, there’s no way you could have interlocked the inventory with the finished, whole puzzle.
Piecing It All Together?
Now, what if the missing piece that interlocks the rest of the puzzle is empathy? What if empathy is the glue that holds it all together? If teammates can’t identify with each other’s feelings and perspectives about experiences, then they might have a hard time interlocking strategies to fit specific needs, making deeper connections to collaborate as a highly-functioning team.
Collegiality requires empathy. In fact, I might argue that while you can have empathy without collegiality, you can’t maximize collegiality without empathy. Too much at stake to play nice with individual pieces. Too many interlocking pieces to fit together with our whole, interpersonal collegiality.