Monday, October 8, 2007

The Courage to Encourage

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2007 at 10:18 PM

“What I need is someone who will make me do what I can.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a way, I think Ralph was right on with that one. It’s easy to say, “Wow, I wish I had someone to keep me on track, to make sure I’m living up to my potential, to keep me on my toes.”

But in reality, if you did have such a person in your life — say it’s your mother or your husband or your wife or your neighbor — you’d probably end up resenting them for “nagging” you or avoiding them just to get a little peace and indulge in a little non-creative loafing. So I think it’s safe to assume that Emerson’s “someone” is really a hypothetical entity. But that was then.

Nonetheless, even a few short decades ago, the job title “life coach” probably sounded about as legitimate as “snake oil salesman.” Today, the life coaching industry is gaining a little more credibility and experiencing tremendous growth. The International Coach Federation says it has more than 12,000 members (professional life coaches) worldwide, double the number it had just five years ago.

Unlike a therapist who might help you delve into your past to trace the roots of your troubles and — eventually — put you on a healthier path, a life coach focuses on the present and the future, helping you set and achieve your goals, in your personal and/or your professional life. A worthwhile investment, I’m sure. But unfortunately, not everyone can afford such a luxury.

I have never had a life coach or even a mentor, and though my mother means well — bless her heart — and has much wisdom to impart, her advice often causes me to automatically regress to my defiant-preteen mode, acutely defeating her purposes. (Sorry, mom.)

That’s why I was intrigued recently when a friend — not someone I talk to every day, but someone I feel close to when we do meet — said something that no one had ever said to me before. He’s one of those people who goes through spurts where he's really into fitness and exercise. He commented that he’d seen me jogging on St. Charles Avenue.

“You really look like you’re keeping a good pace out there,” he said and then asked how long I usually run. About 30 minutes, I said.

“Why don’t you try to work up to 45 minutes?” he suggested. “I know you can do that much, and I think you'll really see results.”

As a person who exercises for mood and maintenance (as opposed to competitive types who run to train for a race), I was a bit puzzled by this unsolicited encouragement. I could see that he was right and that it was probably good advice. (I had been running myself into a comfy little rut.) But, he had no reason to say this and would gain no benefit from seeing me push myself a little bit. The whole conversation struck me as odd. But why?

I had to think about that. It might seem unremarkable at first glance, but when you consider that many people would hesitate to offer up such advice — for fear of seeming pushy, or offending the listener, or more likely, out of pure indifference and lack of real interest in someone else’s quest for self-improvement — my friend’s words start to ring truly rare. Perhaps that’s because, in a time when some of us are disturbingly self-involved, a time when we’re all so concerned with being politically correct and respecting others’ boundaries — we’re less likely to say things that we know, deep down, might just need saying. We stop ourselves from speaking from the heart. We think, "Why would this person even care what I have to say?"

I thought about it some more and realized that I was probably so receptive to my friend’s suggestion because our relationship is uncomplicated.

Sometimes, those who are closest to us are not always the ideal motivators. (Why do you think so many people pay for time with a therapist?) You start to wonder, “Why would my husband say that? Does he think I’m fat? Am I not measuring up to his expectations?”

The whole point of this lengthy posting is to encourage anyone out there who might actually be reading my rambling musings not to be afraid to be an encourager.

There are some pieces of advice, words of encouragement and suggestions for change that are easier to digest when they come from a source that’s not too close to home, someone you don’t necessarily see everyday. (And someone you don’t have to pay to care about what you’re doing with your life.)

So let me encourage you: Be observant, take an interest, give it a little thought and don’t let fear stop you from sharing your insight if there’s a possibility of helping a friend stay motivated or get back on track. (Cushion your suggestion with a compliment, if need be.) Trust yourself. Be sensitive, but bon't let yourself get attached to any one outcome or response. Just say it because you believe it might help. Then let it go.

And so what if one person thinks you’re a busybody? The next person might look back and say your advice was a turning point in his life — exactly what he needed to hear at that moment to make a change for the better.

It may be a little bit of a risk, but I don’t think it’s healthy to look at life as a popularity contest. With a little tact, and your heart in the right place, a few well-placed words of wisdom might make a big difference to someone you know.

Or maybe they won’t. Or maybe you’ll never know.

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