The Personal is Professional

The Personal is Professional

A few months ago, I found myself in conversation with a fellow content strategist at a networking event. We were discussing what he perceived to be a recent “trend” of strategists talking about empathy, and he was blatantly dismissive.

“Why is everyone so focused on vulnerability?” he snorted. “Where does that get us? A client doesn’t care. A client just wants to know how you’re going to improve his business.”

I didn’t have the guts to say it then, but: dude, you are missing the damn point.

When we talk about vulnerability, we’re not talking about a deliverable. We don’t add empathy to our budget. We don’t discuss our flaws with our clients. We’re not supposed to.

What we’re supposed to do is acknowledge, to our peers and to ourselves, that these things impact our work. They aren’t the work itself – they are its salty, ever-present undercurrent. Our emotional intelligence and self-awareness affect how we approach our projects, how we interact with our clients, and how we see ourselves as professionals.


I get frustrated with my commute. I get angry when I miss the blue line by thirty seconds and another one doesn’t come for 13 minutes. I get furious when people on the Metro are lazy and sloppy and slow and don’t make room for people boarding the train. I hate moms with strollers. I especially hate tourists. I mean, during rush hour! You are asking me to rage at you.

I get angry, and I rant, and I like to think that my rants are funny. My anger is righteous and hilarious! But underneath it, it’s also a lot of negative energy that maybe the world doesn’t need so much. And maybe I’m making myself a little unhappy when I actively engage my impatience that way.

When I’m on the train and just hating on everyone in the stupid little theater of my mind, I’ve started forcing myself to do something different. I challenge myself to find one good thing about each person in the train car.

Just one thing, mentally noted. I like that woman’s shoes. I like the pattern on his umbrella. That dude is rocking those glasses. Redhead’s hair is awesomely red.

Sometimes it’s hard. Mostly it’s not. It’s only one thing, after all.

After a few weeks of this, I realized it wasn’t about the positive energy that I was hoping to generate, or even about the negative energy I was hoping to combat. It’s actually just about humanizing people.

If I notice someone’s shoes, I’m also noticing the moment they took in their day to select those shoes. Suddenly they’re a person with choices, with preferences, with a decision-making process, with a place to be, wearing those shoes, on a long train ride with me.

I don’t know. I’ve been less angry at the Metro lately.


At work, I’m rarely frustrated with users. I know who they are. I have research to tell me so. They have hopes and needs and their own frustrations that I’m trying to solve. They have faces and names (thanks, personas!). I find it easy to generate empathy for them.

When I worked in agencies, I noticed that I was frequently angry with clients. Not in front of them, because I never met them. I didn’t know their faces. But I would sit at my desk and try to implement a seemingly useless piece of feedback and manufacture all kinds of stories in my head about how their delays, objections, and choices were all designed, personally, to thwart my brilliance.

The less we know about someone, the easier it is to forget their humanity. We do it in traffic all the time; we don’t feel bad when we cut off faceless cars with anonymous drivers. We do it on the internet all the time; never read the comments.

We can’t always learn as much about our clients (or bloggers, or commuters) as we can about our users. But that doesn’t mean there’s no data there. It’s just that we need to pay a different kind of attention. We need to approach all human interactions, personal and professional, with empathy.

I want to be better – not at hiding my feelings, but at using them productively. And when something goes wrong on a project, I want my first reaction to be generous. I want to give clients and coworkers the benefit of the doubt instead of the kneejerk defense. I don’t want to operate from scarcity.

Yeah – I think that might benefit my work.


The day I sat down to write this, my horoscope said:

You cannot simply work your way to success unless you also integrate your metaphysical beliefs into everything you do.


Our personal lives and professional lives are insistently tangled. We try to separate them and carve out time for each facet. We talk about balance.

But the truth is: when my dog stresses me out, I have a hard time focusing on sitemaps. When I’m jazzed about a new process at work, I spend less time on personal projects. And my awkwardness and anxiety in social situations doesn’t just disappear when I start interacting with clients and coworkers.

There’s all this bleeding that things do. And – just like recognizing that organizational culture impacts your ability to put content on a website – I believe that a holistic view yields the most productive results.


I can’t go to Dare Conference, but I wish so badly that I could. It’s important. It’s going to address all these things, these messes, these emotions, these people skills that affect our work. It’s giving voice to the idea that we can only become better professionals by becoming better people.

Because, see, once we acknowledge it, then we reach beyond it. Once we start talking about how to improve these skills, how to change ourselves for the better, how to elevate our work through personal growth – then we actually do it. We find big and little ways to improve. We work consciously.

It breaks my heart that I can’t be at Dare. But, my god, if you can get yourself to London in September, do. Go. Go, and come back, and just try to tell me that it didn’t change you and way you approach your business, I dare you.


8 Responses to The Personal is Professional

  1. Great post…and an extremely honest one. While I don’t take this approach on the Metro (I try and just Zen/ignore), I do find that assuming that people aren’t out to get you and that they are trying to do what is best gets me a long way in the sanity department. That is what we are all trying to do…we just don’t always agree as to our approach.


  2. I am happy you find personas so beneficial. I haven’t been able to get past how stereotypical personas appear to actually have empathy for the users. Not that I have to use personas in my particular position (currently). Personas just seem to make me so angry! Why are they all white? Why do the men get to do the smart stuff, and the women all the people stuff? Where is the diversity? Why do they all seem so straight?

    In writing this out I realize I am looking for a reason to get upset. Maybe these personas can be researched more thoroughly. Maybe this really is the composition of users. Maybe I need to stop criticizing what I don’t like and work on a more positive resolution, at least in my head.

    Tangent, yes. Dare Conference? I keep wishing. Maybe next year!

    • I don’t always find personas beneficial! When done right, they work wonders. When done poorly, though — and I think they’re too often done poorly. I don’t think personas should ever be done if they’re not based off direct user research, for one thing! I will keep you posted on how personas are serving me on my latest project — I’m hoping they help me rope in some resistant stakeholders. We shall see.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Lisa — empathy is really super hard, and it’s so easy to just get riled up and feel superior/smart/misunderstood. I want to embroider “I don’t want to operate from scarcity” on a pillow.

    @Pam, I think personas can have empathy built in, but probably often miss the mark. At their best, personas can help everyone on the team have empathy for users by humanizing those users. Stereotypes are fundamentally dehumanizing, so personas that take a stereotyping short-cut are probably sort of doomed. (I’m forgetting where I found it now, but I recently read an article that recommended building human limitations into personas — making one of your personas suffer from RSI, or have low vision, for instance. I liked that because it builds the “accessibility” personas right into your vision of core users.)

    • Yes!!! I hear you. And man — I just MIGHT embroider a pillow now. BRILLIANT idea! (Well, maybe just a sticky note on my monitor. I forget it way too often!)

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