When we act ‘automatically’ towards others this can have a really detrimental effect on them, on our relationship with them, and on ourselves.
The more obvious examples seem to occur with people we see regularly, perhaps most days (partners, children, friends, colleagues) often when we’re preoccupied with something else and not really paying attention to what the other person is saying. Or when we answer the person greeting us at reception or serving us in a shop or café with a stock phrase when they ask us how we are today – perhaps it’s their stock phrase too, or perhaps not.
I caught myself responding ‘automatically’ recently at our local drop in shelter for the homeless where I volunteer to help with breakfast. Our clients come to the serving hatch to place their orders and collect them. They also bring back their plates once they’ve finished, and they can see into the kitchen and who’s doing what in terms of serving, washing up and cooking.
I’m often at the counter to take the breakfast orders so I’m used to chatting with them and aware I’ve developed some stock phrases when handing out breakfasts and taking in crockery afterwards. Like anyone, there are times when I’m more present than others – this occasion was definitely one of the ‘others’.
On the morning in question I wasn’t on counter duty but was cooking the eggs while someone else took care of the other ingredients. One client was bringing back his empty plate and I happened to be by the counter at the time, so took it from him. He said thank you and added that his egg had been cooked perfectly to which my reply was: “I’m glad you enjoyed it”.
On the face of it this might seem an appropriate and acceptable response but the client repeated his compliment again, telling me that his egg had been cooked perfectly. It was then I realised that I’d responded to him initially without making eye contact and with one of my stock phrases – an automatic response, not properly acknowledging the compliment he had paid me.
This time I looked straight at him and said, with feeling: “Thank you, I’m so glad that you enjoyed it.” and he went off then, happy. I can only imagine how this client, this person, felt after my first response – ignored, angry, unheard? But, luckily, he had the assertiveness to try again to get a proper response from me.
This might seem inconsequential to most people but in my experience, from working at the centre for a few years now, people who are homeless often feel invisible outside on the street and coming into our centre is one of the few places they feel acknowledged as people, as individuals. So I’m paying attention, much more now, to my responses – and trying to apply this to other parts of my life, too.
When someone takes the trouble to pay us a compliment, to try to connect with us person to person, how often do we truly meet them halfway? It would be impossible (undesirable, even) to be ‘in the moment’ 100% of the time, but I’m sure we can all do better – I know I can!