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Old Portraits

This week I had a meeting with a colleague to discuss progress on a project. Our prospective offices were so far apart, that I suggested we meet for coffee that afternoon in a central location. I love remote work and the flexibility it delivers. We decided upon a Cracker Barrell as we knew it wouldn't be crowded mid-afternoon. Bonus: they have really good coffee.

I arrived thirty minutes early due to a previous meeting in the vicinity. First I browsed the unbelievable country store with its unique gifts and summery dresses. But after a few minutes, I decided to go ahead and get seated so I procure a table away from other patrons. The hostess was so nice, I feel like I have to give her a shout out. She led me to a section not even open and said she would serve the coffee since that was all we needed.

I nursed my diet coke (decided against late afternoon coffee) and I mused at the decor. If you have never been to Cracker Barrell, let me describe the walls. They are covered in old portraits of families, individuals and places that look to date back a hundred years. Mostly unsmiling, as was the custom of the day, the faces stared at me as if to question my very existence. As you can see, left to my own devices, my imagination can take me on a grand journey into the lives of people I have never met.

First I focused on the portrait of a couple. Obviously, by the way his hand rested on her shoulder, and the softness of his gaze upon her, the husband adored his wife. He worked hard to ensure she had the better things in life. She, on the other hand, with that distant look in her eyes, was manipulating him for a life she felt she deserved. All the while, she was having an affair with the dashing ferry captain who made stealthy house calls while his boat lie in port.

I frowned at her brazenness and turned away. Next, my gaze fell on a family portrait: a husband, wife and three daughters. Despite the stern looks on the faces of the adults (again, a product of the era) it was obvious that the mother was aloof and distant. The girls were all touching or standing near to their father because he was the affectionate one in the household. And yet he had something lurking in his conscious for which he was ashamed. This was evident by the fact that he couldn't even face the camera and the eyes that uncovered all.

My reverie of nonsense evaporated upon the arrival of my colleague and the beginning of our planned meeting. However, as I drove home from the meeting, I mused at the fictional stories I had created for these real families of days gone by. Without one shred of evidence, I had judged a woman for her imagined infidelity while wondering about the secrets of a father of girls. And while it provided amusement while I waited on a friend, I also thought about how quickly humans tend to jump at the chance to judge others based on cursory observations.

Even when supervising social workers, I would hear things like: "She didn't come for the visit today. She doesn't really want her children back." Or, "he talked a lot more than she did in the meeting. I bet she is scared of him." While there is much you can learn about someone from non-verbal communication, it is not always reliable. Non-verbal communication can reveal a multitude of clues when combined with actual facts. Yet snap judgements based solely on one encounter can color every interaction between you and your clients. I heard a quote from a Mentor that impacted how i thought about the power or judgement.

How I see you, is how I think about you, is How I am with you

Take that in, really take it in for a second and see the power of assumption. When we decided to take on the difficult path of working with families in crisis, most of us did so out of an abundance of care and commitment to others. And I am aware of how much stress and frustration comes with the job. Believe me I do.

But imagine how much more we could bring about positive change if we took the time to get closer; dig deeper; put aside our first impression and be open to a new awareness that things may not be as transparent as we think they are.

Challenge: Look at the difficult people (clients, or even family members) you are currently involved with. Take a chance to look past the defiance, the "resistance" the mistakes. Get closer and let them talk. Then really listen. Discover, for example, the pain behind the anger. You may find out that what is showing on the obvious outside, may not be the whole story. One we know the rest of the story, our thoughts and actions towards this person could change. And just the fact that you really listened to them can begin the process of engagement and trust, which are the precursors to partnership and collaboration.

I think it is worth a try.

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