Monday, May 19, 2014

Service With ... A Sense of Presence

I’m in love.

Okay, before anyone sends me little heart icons with enquiring-minds-want-to-know messages, I am in love with my dentist. There. Said it.

And why have I professed my heart to a professional who’s job inspired Steve Martin’s Little Shop of Horrors’ persona? 

He listened to me. 

He listened to me tell my tale, didn’t placate or disregard me. He heard my fears and limitations; then pragmatically (and compassionately) worked out a feasible plan. I love him.

And isn’t that sad.

Sad that when a health professional, let alone anyone in the service industry, is truly present for their client—actually listens to their needs and responds accordingly—is considered ├╝ber special.

Several years ago I walked into a hardware store in the midst of a very stressful day. Can’t remember what I needed but I was so flummoxed I could barely speak. My words came out in a demanding yet almost insensible mixture of irritation and confusion. The clerk did not openly judge me or walk away; she did not berate my seemingly rudeness or interrupt—she just waited me out, giving me space to take a breath, collect my thoughts and state my needs. An hour later, much calmer, I walked back in and thanked her for her compassion. I never forgot her.

As a member of the retail industry (my part-time job), I know how hard it is to be present to customers. I try and, although I wish I could say otherwise, I do not always succeed. Some days are better than others. Some days shall not be mentioned. What tires me about customer service and what makes me most resentful is a misinterpretation of what service actually is.

It is not, for example, bending over backwards to every desire, acting servile or being a sycophant.

When I am in service—real service, that is—whether as a clerk, a friend, a writer or bodyworker, I am present. For the time it takes for the other to tell their story, I am there in mind and spirit. I am not secretly judging their thoughts, wishing I was anywhere else, or figuring out how I am going to respond, I am actively listening to what they are saying. That is service. I cannot always be this present. It is much easier with friends, while interviewing someone for an article, or doing therapeutic sessions but as a store clerk? … some days it just feels nigh on impossible.

It is not hard to figure out why. Most of the time it is because I choose not be present. I am like a little kid who crosses her arms and says she hates peas without even trying them. It somehow feels good to rebel and stick it in the others' ears. That goodness, however, is short-lived. It is like eating candy floss where all you achieve is the desire to eat more sugar, a mouth full of bad teeth and a stomach ache.

I know this for a fact. I eat too much metaphoric candy floss at work and, as a result, dislike the job. But I also know that when I am present—when I set aside the inanities of management, the subtle (and not so subtle) putdowns of customers; the inadequate wage, and the foolish looking uniforms—I enjoy the job. I love my interactions with people: the impromptu jokes; the quasi-philosophical discussions; the laughter.

Being present at work is acknowledging our interdependence: that regardless of where we are, and whether we are conscious about it or not, we affect others. Even if it’s just the fact that they have to physically move out of our way when traversing a narrow aisle… we change someone’s thoughts, actions and feeling with every encounter. And that means something. What it means to us at the time, however, is how present we are.

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