Mother knows best! What childhood taught me about narrative coaching

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Several summers ago I visited my alma mater, Middlebury College, to catch up with my former commons dean. When I left the commons office, which is still down the hall from the luxurious laminate floor and plush Twin XL mattress of my freshman year dorm room (GAHHHH all the memories! Make them stop!), I happened to glance across the way at the Studio Arts building. A dreary, dark colored building snuggled into the dreary weather of the day whose rooms sat chock full of charcoal, rulers, reams of paper, and left over stress hormone from the previous semester.

In the upper right corner window was an abundance of Post-It Notes stuck to the glass that formed the huge words "BE NICE". It made me stop walking. Not only because someone had taken a break from their other art to stick probably a hundred Post-It Notes onto a window - backwards, mind you - but because it was such a simple and powerful reminder. Just be nice.

In high school, a young soccer teammate had been bullied and subsequently had trouble fitting in. I told him that "being mean is easy because it is about domination. It's one-sided. Being nice is hard because you must give something of yourself, open yourself up to someone's experience" (I have since trademarked that. No one can steal it).

People aren't automatically comfortable being open. They're afraid that their kindness won't be "taken well" or "accepted". But that doesn't matter. Kindness is kindness, and it doesn't care if it is "taken well" or not, and neither should you. 

Kindness is the other side of asking for help (see the previous post). Asking for help is difficult because it requires vulnerability, which a lot of humans don't grow to very naturally enjoy. It is like asking for help is the super heavy lever that opens the drawbridge into the castle of someone else's kindness.

But you won't know how awesome and supportive the castle is until you start pulling on the lever. On the flip side, the castle needs to be open to receiving that person in order for both parties to thrive, so just be nice. It is as simple as that. 

Take my mother, for instance. She doesn't know you and you did not ask her for any kind of help, but she will talk to you and within thirty seconds flat she will know where you work, where you went to college, how your parents met, and how you happen to know her childhood friend's niece. She just does that. That is her kindness. That is how she was brought up to be. 

In my own childhood, my siblings and I would roll our eyes when we stood in line at Disney World or tried to leave a restaurant, turn around, and see mom deep in conversation with a totally different family.

One time when I was little and whiney (THE ONE SINGLE TIME, I assure you) I complained loudly to my mom to stop talking to someone so we could go home, and HER mother, who was in the car with me, snapped "Hush!" at me so quickly that a) I have never forgotten that moment and b) I realized, instead of a propensity for discipline, where my mom established her beautiful priority for selflessness.

After all, what kind of battle was I really going to pick with my grandmother, the Kindness Queen from whom my mom had received formal training all her life?

What I've come to realize is that the key to kindness is not only being open to someone else's experience. Even though my mom would respond back and forth and always had another question loaded up, the key is her ability to listen. How do you know what questions to ask if you aren't listening?

One evening in college, I picked up a billiards game with a young man who wasn't a student and asked "Do you play a lot of pool?" And that was it. Drawbridge lowered. He told me how it was what he did to relax and about how drugs had recently ruined his life, how rehab had affected him, what his current goals were without a job, and how his loved ones felt about his choices.

That was a big moment for me because I thought he was oversharing but I did not feel the urge to flee. I just stayed and listened and we played pool.

I am not surprised that moments like that led me to the work I have done. As soon as people in crisis have noticed that I was actually listening to what they were saying, they told me everything. They told me all the stories and all the pains and, because I was listening, I knew what questions to ask next.

That's how I developed my counseling approach. The more I listened and asked, the more stories they shared, and the more personal connections I could help them make. Sure, I have lots of activities and advice and anecdotes that I could share with clients, but often they do not need that at all. Instead they need me to simply listen and ask questions. Little did I know that my whole childhood was training me for narrative coaching all along. 

You see, my mother's kind of kindness lowers the drawbridge for people's stories, and watching her talk to other families in a ski lodge instead of her own is where I first learned how to do what I do now.

When I talk to a total stranger in the street or an elevator or a coffee shop now as a "mature" "grown up" and I learn a lot about them in a mere sixty seconds, or start with a new client and know what ten questions to ask next within thirty seconds, I stop and think about how that is what I whined about my mom doing way back when and I say to myself:

"Damnit. She wins."

Then I hear her kind voice in my head saying, "Watch your language, mister", and I think:

"Darn it. She wins again."