Sometimes we doubt that we have any control over how our interactions with others go. Sure, we can change the way that we behave, but everyone outside of our individual bubble of one is untouchable. Though there was a time when I once believed this, I don’t think this is true anymore. We absolutely have the power to affect the behavior of those around us.
Take my colleague Jonathan, for example. Jonathan is working on his doctorate and is almost done. He had a class or two this past spring, and now he’s working on finishing his dissertation. Early this winter, we were talking, and I happened to ask him how his program was going. He expressed some frustration about getting started with his dissertation, and I responded with some words of encouragement. Mind you, it was a far cry from a “Remember the Titans” or “Rudy” style of motivational speech; instead, it was just a few sentences off the cuff as I responded to the person before me.
After that, Jonathan sent me a quick email to thank me for the encouragement. He kept me posted on his progress when we connected every month or so, and continued to thank me for my encouragement. Naturally, I responded by continuing to encourage him regarding whatever new hurdle was coming his way. The way that he responded to me impacted the way that I continued to respond to him, and thus a positive cycle was born. Had he not been so grateful or appreciative of what those few words meant to him, I doubt I would have been as expressive with future encouragement.
Or take the student that came into my office a few weeks ago. Ms. Schools is a lovely lady in her early sixties with a big billowing dress, perfectly coiffed hair, and a strong desire to finish her associate’s degree. As we walked to my office, I asked her how she was doing.
“Wonderful!” she responded. Mind you, it was about 9:30 in the morning, a time when most students’ responses are barely legible. Even from the beginning, she was showing herself to be outside of the norm.
“Are you always wonderful or has there been something special about today?” I asked her, genuinely curious.
“Oh honey, every day is wonderful!” she exclaimed.
As I we began talking and I started to answer some of her questions, she was so effusive in her praise. “Oh, thank you for showing me this!” she would say with such authenticity. “This is exactly what I needed!” Or a few moments later, “Oh my, this is just so helpful! Thank you!” As she continued to shower me with warmth and enthusiasm, I found myself responding in kind. I try my best to treat all my students with respect and to go beyond what they might expect, but with Ms. Schools, that was taken to a whole new level.
My encounters with Jonathan and Ms. Schools got me thinking about this again recently. If we do have the ability to impact the moods and actions of others, this turns every interaction we have into a powerful tool. No longer is the person before us just the cashier, just the waiter, or just a coworker. Instead, they become someone whose day we have the power to improve. They become an individual who is just as complex as us, and someone who, more likely than not, would be appreciative of some encouragement or inspiration. In short, each moment we spend with someone else can become a challenge: what can you do to make this person’s day better?
The gauntlet has been thrown. It’s up to each of us to decide if we’d like to accept the challenge.