I stood in the coffee shop, staring out of the window, as my co-worker was preparing her tea. I watched as an elderly man stood there with his hand out, begging for change. I wasn’t really watching him but rather the reactions of people as they walked by him.
As people passed by this elderly man on the sidewalk, they quickly adverted making eye contact and pretended he was not there….like he didn’t even exist.
The elderly man was just standing there with his hand out stretched ….not saying anything. To the people that passed by him, he was invisible.
I worked at a homeless shelter for over a year. That experience forever changed the way I see the world around me….. for the better.
I remember one housekeeper who still works there, and has been working there for almost thirty years. If you ask him what he does for a living he will tell you that he helps people.
And he does just that.
He helps keep the shelter clean for the residents. That is helping them.
I helped them too. I helped to hire the right people for the organization, who in turn helped the residents directly.
It was a tough environment to work in. I saw a lot of people with addiction issues and mental health issues. But I also got to celebrate in the success stories….the stories of people finally getting their high school diploma. Or getting their addiction under control and reconnecting with family members after many, many years.
I cried a few times and laughed many other times.
The biggest lesson that I learned working there is that everyone wants to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter their circumstances. Everyone wants to feel valued and know that they matter.
This is a lesson that can apply to any leader, any organization or any individual.
As a leader, you can apply this by acknowledging your employees, say hi to them, smile, say thank you. Make eye contact. Don’t hide in your office all day.
As an employee, you can apply this by smiling and saying hi to your co-workers. Is there a co-worker that appears to be ‘left out’? Invite them to eat lunch with you. Make new friends.
As a human being, you can apply this by not looking away when you come across homeless people on the street. Smile and say hi. Acknowledge their existence… their humanity.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has value.
“Kindness is not an act, it’s a lifestyle.” ~ Anthony Douglas Williams
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons by Pedro Ribeiro Simões
Chantal, Thank you for your heartfelt, relevant insights. This is empathy in action. Most importantly, this is leading with empathy. Grateful, Jon
Thank for your comment Jon. I appreciate it.