Principles of Overcoming Bias

A while ago, I completed study for a certification program by Dr. Jenny Bloom through the Appreciative Advising Institute, where we discussed a framework to help partner with students to “…optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials,” (taken from appreciativeadvising.net).

In one of my assignments, I was asked to identify certain personal biases that prevent me from having valuable student conversations. I was able to identify some low-hanging fruit, but still felt like the exercise was hard, because biases are deeply ingrained in each person, and most of us don’t know we have them. They are blindspots.

Below are some thoughts that helped me uncover some deep-rooted biases that were not in plain sight.

I am probably in denial

It is not hard to find research and studies pushing this idea: “Think you are not biased? Think again.” Unless I am willing to confront the idea that I DO HAVE BIAS, I won’t begin to understand WHAT my biases are. Denial is a very powerful emotion that often inhibits us from any progress.

Developing cultural competence – beyond what you learned in school

Some are already attuned to creating cultural competence by studying and researching different cultures and people. Even though I have studied/researched and worked with varying/diverse groups, I had to ask myself: Do I REALLY KNOW them in the context of what I am trying to achieve as an advisor? I found myself exploring these questions thinking about my immediate cultural knowledge:

  • I might know about the continents these students are from, the social impacts and economic development of their countries, but did I know them individually and how their backgrounds/upbringing/cultural values impacted their decisions?
  • Did I know my students as individuals who were trying to get the most of their academic experience so they were ready for a career? 

Ask questions and listen to understand. 

In the book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey said, “The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand. We listen to reply.” It was important to me during my discovery, to take time to ask questions and then truly listen in order to find the answer to the questions posed above.

I am a naturally inquisitive person, so asking questions is not hard for me. BUT, I also wasn’t sure how to start without offending someone. After some mess-ups with some of my students, I started to be more transparent about what I was trying to do. I gave the ‘why’ behind the question prior to even asking the question. 

My question went something like this: I am trying to figure out where my deep-rooted biases in my approach to helping students might be. I was wondering if I could ask you some questions that may seem pretty bold, to help me do a better job advising. I want to be better educated so my questions might not be fine-tuned. My intent is not to offend. Would you be ok if I asked you some personal questions? 

Creating this transparency paved the way for trust to begin. All of the students I asked were much obliged and even honored to help me understand more.

STORY TIME

At my last job, I met with several Asian students. After one hard conversation, I didn’t feel I had fully grasped the need for one of my students to feel that he was honoring his family by doing a major he didn’t like. As an advisor, I was trained to help him connect his interests to his goals, a career, and help him in this lifelong learning journey. I was stuck grappling with how to help him live out his “dream”, to the point where I didn’t understand the extent of this beautiful homage to tradition and family. 

Because of the course I was taking, I was able to recognize that I had some biases toward trying to help international students live the ‘American Dream’. I also realized the techniques and exercises I developed, overshadowed some deeply ingrained and important values of my students, because I developed them as an American, for an American.

To overcome these shortcomings, I asked several of my Asian students questions. I had many enlightening conversations that truly illuminated stereotypes that American advisors/counselors/professors have about Asian populations, and also stereotypes that we THINK we have. My students also helped me fill in the gaps for the stereotypes that Asians have about Americans and stereotypes they THINK they have.

How this made me a better advisor

When I found that I had this bias based on stereotypes and also with the American Dream approach I had to advising, I started researching and developing techniques to help me work with different populations of students. 

I shortly found that I STILL had it wrong. 

The important common denominator with ANY student is based on these crucial principles: Recognizing I had bias, and developing cultural competence THROUGH the art of asking questions and and listening to understand 

My approach to the entire student body changed in that I was able to recognize that every conversation and situation is so UNIQUE and deserved my adaptation to those unique circumstances.

Conclusion

My hope is that you will be able to use these principles as you analyze and discover personal and hidden biases that might prevent you from connecting to different students. 

I have used these tools to help me wrap my mind around  what is happening around the globe as a result of the George Floyd killing. Recognizing I probably had a bias, being informed and generating an understanding was the first step I needed to take to be a part of something greater than myself, and to be a part of the change that I hope for in this world.