For about 15 years from 1985 on, I had the pleasure, and the challenge, of facilitating life skills coaching programs for diverse client groups. Now more commonly called a variety of more politically-correct names, life skills programs provided the opportunity for people, usually disadvantaged in some way, to develop and practice more effective communication, team work, goal setting and general life management skills. The focus was on increasing self-determination and self-management. They were usually a mandatory part of a program that had some other goal. For example, programs to teach unemployed people or people on social assistance to become graphic designers, or accounting clerks, or health care aides were pretty common. Needless to say, the participants in the programs usually didn’t see the point of the life skills portion and felt it was a total waste of their training time. Add to that the fact that they were encouraged, even required, to accept responsibility for behaviours that they had previously viewed as beyond their control, and they were just plain not happy. I never got used to being so disliked and disrespected and I have to admit much of the time I thought it was a pretty thankless job.
But then someone would have an ah-hah moment that would result in a major life change – leaving an abusive partner, for example, or changing a bad living situation, or making amends with a parent they hadn’t spoken to in years. I wish I could say those situations made the rest of the Jackie-bashing okay, but that would be stretching it. However, I’ve said it before, looking at any situation from the perspective that time and experience gives, provides a clearer understanding of the purpose of the path you took and helps you to see the great and good that didn’t show up at the time. It’s like you look back at the path you took and the way the light is angled just so, it shows the diamonds and the gold scattered along the path.
In one program I led, there was a young woman who was creative, unique, bright and strong-willed. Sarah had a two year old son and wanted to work in theatre. Well, actually not at first. At first, her goal was to open a business but it became clear that it would have been a major challenge and so I found her a placement with a local theatre group working backstage. She loved it. Even at the time, no matter how difficult she was, Sarah was one of my favourite participants.
Years later, one early foggy Sunday morning, I took my dog for a walk at the marina. There was no one around and I strolled along the path by the lake and then went and stood on the dock. I saw an old van pull up on theroad that went around the marina. The door opened and a woman got out and came towards me. It was Sarah. She came up to me and gave me a hug and said,
“I’m so glad I saw you here. I just thought I would drive through the marina one last time before I drive out of town. I’m moving to British Columbia and I’m on my way right now. I can’t believe I saw you here. I just want to say thank you. I know I didn’t act like it but I learned a lot in those damn life skills sessions and I want to tell you that everything I learned changed my life. I’m so happy I saw you and could tell you or you would never have know how much you changed my life. Thank you so much for putting up with us.”
We were both in tears by then.
Well, I have to tell you, I cried my eyes out then and off and on for the rest of the day. Believe me, you sure didn’t hear many thank yous during the programs. It made me think about all the people who changed my life and never knew the impact they had. You never know when a word you say to a total stranger, might make that person think about something differently or behave differently, thereby changing the whole trajectory of their life. You may never know how much you impact another just by your example. Every word you say, every action your take, has a ripple effect and you have no idea how far reaching it can be.
Just as an update to the Sarah story. Even more years later, I went to see a play put on by a theatre here in town. It was a special showing of a play that was travelling across the country. At the end of the show, guess who was introduced as the director? You guessed it! Sarah. And she was amazing and beautiful and gracious.
My question is this: If you knew the powerful effect you have with your words and your actions, would you be more careful in your interactions?