At the end of a recent business trip, I hopped into a cab and headed for the airport. Tired and drained, I relaxed into the seat behind the driver and retreated into my head. My thoughts turned to my life at home –kids, husband, commitments. Immediately, my thinking was interrupted by the driver who cheerfully started chatting. Typically, this is where I would turn up the non-verbals, pleading, “Don’t engage me. I’m tired and don’t feel like small talk.” Yet, this time, I chose to engage, starting with, “Where are you from?” “Eritrea,” he said. “I bet you’ve never heard of it.” He was delighted that I had heard of it and actually could place it on a map. In a short time, I learned that he had returned to his home country a few weeks ago to bury his mother. Most of his family had emigrated due the threat of conflict with neighboring Ethiopia and an oppressive government. Life there is arduous and has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Yet, despite the bleak circumstances, he had a cheerful and sunny presence that followed me home.
That short but memorable exchange brought me to a place of deep gratitude and reminded me how easy it is to lose sight of the things I take for granted in my own life. It reminded me why it’s important to be available for the small and simple exchanges that are presented daily; how even superficial conversations can touch us.
As an executive coach, my job is to always be on, offering my best listening, my most insightful questions, my empathy and compassion. Because of the emotional investment I make at work, I can find myself turning inward to recover and sometimes I have a habit of shutting the world out. But I also realize that insulating myself doesn’t serve me, or my purpose, very well. I’m not always as available for my family and friends as I should be. And I know I’m missing out on moments that matter; ones I’m not even aware of because I’m not looking for them.
The biggest reminder for me after leaving the cab that day is that creating a personal connection can transcend the barriers between us and those outside of our normal social circles. It’s easy to think of compassion in the abstract, triggered by news and events we see from afar, leaving us with guilt about not volunteering enough time or donating enough money to a good cause. It’s also easy to disregard the people we pass every day, in elevators, in lines, at the store, even at work. Yet every day, opportunities present themselves to us to connect and make a difference or to just see things we weren’t looking for. It’s not hard to do. Here are four ways to get started:
1. Think about your intention
I believe people who are purpose-driven have happier and more fulfilling lives. Yet most people I know have never thought about a guiding purpose to live by. It doesn’t have to be sophisticated or esoteric. Something simple like, I want to make a small difference in someone’s life every day, or I want to be less of a complainer and more positive are legitimate daily mantras to follow. Spend some quite time thinking about an authentic and motivating purpose.
2. Find meaning in connecting.
See your role as something more than getting through the day, accomplishing your goals, and checking things off your list. Embrace a parallel goal of connecting every day. I promise you will start to notice new things about yourself and others. Personal growth and meaning come in small moments when you are there to see it.
3. Believe you do have something to offer.
I hear people say, I don’t have anything meaningful to add. I’m just a regular person. How can I make a difference? Exactly. Engaging people outside your normal routine only requires being a regular person. Simply being asked a few personal questions and heard by an empathetic ear is a gift to most people.
4. Be open to what comes back.
When we reach out with compassion, the world becomes a little smaller. We see fewer barriers between us and the world. We see potential and greatness, tragedy and heart break. Others become more human to us and we learn to let down our guard and be authentic. These are amazing free gifts we all need more of.
In my quest to be more aware, insightful and available to others, a few years ago I adopted my own purpose statement having to do with showing compassion unconditionally. I do ok where it’s easy – with clients who invite me in, with my family who expect it. But I could do better by engaging others more often, more fully and more unconditionally. I invite you to join me and see what happens.