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To Do Lists

My eyes scanned the coffee shop for empty seats. It was a busy Monday morning, and lots of people apparently had the same idea of starting off the week with 20 ounces of coffee and a goal of getting things done. The only seat available was at a large community table along the wall. I sat down with my latte and wrote out my to do list, craving the satisfaction of checking things off one by one. A woman came in with her laptop and a huge stack of papers and sat at the table next to me.

A few minutes later a man, dressed in a dark suit, walked in and sat down across from the woman. He stood out, because he didn’t have any laptop or book. Not even a phone. “What kind of person just sits—without anything—terrifying,” I thought with a little shudder.

The man continued to sit, sipping his coffee. He attempted to engage the woman sitting next to me in conversation, offering gentle conversation starters like “Looks like you are really busy today.” Out of the corner of my eye I watched, thinking to myself “Sorry, lady—you’re on your own with this electronics-free potentially crazy man.” Much to my surprise, the woman closed her laptop and put her head up, making eye contact with him “Oh, she’s going to tell him to stop bothering her or get up and move seats,” I thought, waiting for the drama to unfold.

Instead she gently offered “You’re having a rough day.” I looked up to see that the man had tears in his eyes. Over the next 20 minutes, I was an observer to some of the most focused, listening presence I’ve ever witnessed. The man told the woman that he had just come from his father’s funeral service. He shared how much his dad meant to him and what it felt like to realize he was no longer there. The woman didn’t speak much or even ask many questions. She recognized that the story and the experience was his and gave him the space to share and the gift of focused sustained attention. Then the man said it was nice talking with her and walked out. She pulled her laptop toward her and started working diligently again.

I am completely certain that in 20 minutes she accomplished more than I did that entire day.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.