In the process of executive coaching, I often ask clients, “Who was your favorite aunt or uncle?”
I am always thrilled with the varying answers and attentively listen. I hear some very common themes, many of which parallel my own experiences with my Aunt Maggie. She was actually my Great Aunt. And that she was – just plain great. So much made her one of the most memorable parts of my youth. So much so, that whenever I think about Aunt Maggie, I smile.
Maggie played the horses her whole life and went to the racetrack whenever she could get there. She taught me to handicap “the ponies” to assess their odds at winning, and I never ride a horse or even see one without thinking of Aunt Maggie’s ink-black eyes lighting up with a twinkle as she explained the magic of the four-legged objects of her affection.
But the love of horses she passed on to me isn’t the most important thing that I remember. Mostly I recall kindness and humor that was devoid of judgment.
And I remember this the most: Aunt Maggie was always curious about my personal journey and always supportive of how I traversed life’s joys and challenges. She would listen attentively to what I had to say, seldom offering advice, and merely continuing gentle inquiry, allowing me to talk things out and come to the conclusions that Maggie knew were there. And she would help me reflect on those conversations and invite me to appreciate just how important it was to cement those learnings into my life. Hers was an approach filled with grace and spiced with humor.
I have heard clients say, “My uncle was there for me when I needed him,” or “My aunt was the one who would withhold advice unless asked, from whom I felt no judgment – she was my confidante and my friend.” Of course, other relatives and adult friends come to mind for clients as they speak.
I ask clients what they learned from their favorite person. I use questions like, “What was it exactly that they did that made you feel the way you did about them?” and “What conversational tools did they use – how did they connect with you?”
From those questions emerge answers like: “She was curious and always wanted to know what I was doing,” or “He sometimes just sat and listened, watching my facial expressions, smiling from time to time.” And almost universally: “They were always there for me.”
And then my last question: “And how do you try to model that behavior in your personal and professional life?”
That’s when the light bulb comes on for clients. A smile or knowing look is often followed quickly by either a confession or realization that they benefited from a behavior that they have not yet realized how they can “pay forward.” From there ensues many a powerful conversation as I hear the way of being they want to incorporate and the tools that will allow them to do it.
Not every one of us can be like our favorite aunt, uncle, or friend that had such an effect upon us. But by taking the time to recall how that person made us feel, how they attended to us and seemed to understand us, we can be more like them and make a difference for everyone whose lives we touch.
I can never be completely like Aunt Maggie, but her spirit lives inside of me, and each time I interact with another person – be it a client, friend, or young relative – I remember her face and I do my best to be as attentive and non-judgmental as her. And then I secretly smile and think about horses.