Is it possible to hold differing personal and professional opinions? This question is in the national conversation as Judge Brett Kavanaugh is being considered for Supreme Court appointment and as Mr. Peter Strzok has testified before the Congress Committee.
Many fear that personal opinions are harbingers of professional opinions or indicators of future decisions. In particular, we fear that Mr. Strzok’s anti-Trump text messages indicate misbehavior and questionable performance at the FBI, or that Judge Kavanaugh’s religion (Catholic) indicates what his vote is likely to be concerning Roe v. Wade.
This fear may be misplaced. I believe it is possible to hold differing opinions personally and professionally. Such a dichotomy is possible when the person inhabiting a public role does so with Professionalism.
Perhaps what we most need to be concerned with is the hierarchy of values that form the rubric by which the Professional constructs an opinion or makes a decision.
To begin, let’s talk about what constitutes professionalism:
- Values – the set of principles or standards by which one governs one’s life, behavior and choices. These values are typically hierarchical and constitute a prioritized scheme
- Character – integrity, honesty, willingness to listen and consider other opinions
- Ethics – willingness to seek counsel of peers, ability to prioritize values in service of others rather than self, long view for the consequences of decisions, awareness of own bias, ability to walk in another’s shoes
- Boundaries – power differential conferred by role acknowledged and honored, awareness of the rights of others, ability to put own agenda aside for others, no judgment of others choices – awareness of the limits boundaries provide
Can we know if someone is ‘professional’ by this definition if we cannot see the intent of others or the agendas of which they may be unaware? We must start with the possibility that consistency between personal and professional opinions is not necessarily positive. We can look at one’s history or performance in personal as well as professional arenas.
It is possible for one to have a personal opinion that differs from one’s professional opinion. Let me illustrate.
As a therapist, I do support A WOMAN’S right to choose abortion before the 3rd trimester.
As myself, I do not support abortion FOR MYSELF. This is a moot point given my age.
(Disclaimer: The intent of this essay is not to explore the merits or morality of abortion – that discussion is beyond the scope of this essay. The topic is chosen for it’s illustrative purposes only.)
The value I hold is upstream of both opinions and is the same in both domains although the opinions look quite different. My value is this: respect and regard for equality of others. As a default starting position, I believe people have a right to make their own decisions and to hold their own values and opinions regarding those decisions.
This value undergirds my position that people have a right to make their own decisions. In this particular case it is decisions regarding abortion. In view of my value, I have no right to impose my values and opinions on those choosing abortion. But this value also supports my right NOT to have an abortion.
Professionally, in Minnesota, Washington, and Wisconsin, I saw numerous women who had chosen abortion for reasons of their own, or were wrestling with proceeding with an abortion. I did not judge them because I cannot say that their decision was the ‘right’ thing – that is for them to say. But I do support their right to make that decision. That is my value: it is not for me to tell them what to do, not to tell them what is ‘right’.
Personally, I faced the question of abortion. I chose life for that child. My decision was enabled by adequate personal resources, confidence in life’s possibilities in spite of timing, coupled with the availability of support from key others to help me live into this decision.
Here is where facing the decision personally has an impact on the professional opinion: the decision was mine to make. My value for the respect for others’ autonomy allowed me to sit respectfully with these women who, facing different circumstances, made different choices. The value also recognizes and honors the fact that one person cannot know or choose what is best for another. I believe we must extend to the other the same autonomy we ourselves wish to have.
We hold professionals to a higher standard for their professional opinion than for their personal opinion, not because a professional opinion or decision carries long-standing consequences. Personal opinions and decision also carry long-standing consequences. We hold professional opinions in a different light given that those decisions come at the end of an array of upstream values AND competence: education, a Code of Ethics, institutional endorsement, experience, consultation with peers, awareness of bias, and, hopefully, an ability to question one’s personal opinion as it ought to be applied to others.
Personal opinions do have a place. Professional opinions and decisions are influenced by personal experience – or lack of personal experience. Intuition or ‘gut feelings’ are frequently driven by values – some recognized, others not. The messier and more difficult part of rendering a professional opinion is recognizing and confronting when, where, and how one’s personal values are at work in the process.
I believe it is the character of the person who inhabits the role that is at issue here. A better question might be asking how this person constructs the professional hierarchy of values upstream of an issue?
While I believe it is possible to render a professional opinion that is at odds with one’s personal opinion, it is the values upstream of an opinion that matter most.
What we most need to be concerned about when considering Judge Kavanaugh, Mr. Strzok, or any professional for that matter, is the person’s professionalism as exhibited by opinions and decisions thoughtfully, respectfully, empathetically, and generously applied.
Personally and professionally speaking, this is just my opinion.