“The greatest act of love, is to pay attention.”
Lately I’ve been realizing how much different I am at this age compared to when I was very young in my career. My first job after leaving the military was running a boot camp for criminal offenders and it was mostly focused on controlling other people. Part of that job required training in reading body language which I became skillful in, but it was intended for use in manipulating the behaviors of others. Reading someone’s body language to control their thinking or behaviors can be very effective, but over time I realized it wasn’t a very nice way to interact with people. I didn’t stick with that job too terribly long thankfully as I think if I had it would have hardened who I would later become.
So, while I left that prison job, I did take some of those skills with me into my next job which was in hospital management, and I remember still using some of those skills to manage the outcomes I wanted with subordinates or with anyone really. I was intentional with bigger things like how I placed office furniture, paying attention to what would provide a superior or subordinate position in a discussion, and I was intentional with little things too. I remember developing the skill to stop nodding my head in a conversation if I wanted it to end sooner than the speaker would consciously intend to save myself time or to avoid conversation if I found it annoying. Again, this was not a pleasant way to interact with others and it was a carryover from things I had learned in both the military and in working with criminals.
Where I was in my life and career and who I had become to that point was quite a contrast to the psychotherapist and Clinical Social Worker I would later work hard over many more years to become. It might not be a surprise to know that my wife was a bit shocked when I first announced my next career intention because she thought (rightly so!) that I was greatly lacking in important skills like empathy and sincerity which would be required if I ever wanted to become an effective therapist.
The journey to become a psychotherapist required me to evolve much I had learned about reading body language to control others into ways to help people feel more comfortable or psychologically safer to talk about personal parts of their lives and to trust me as someone who could help them with the things they were struggling with. I learned about the importance of engagement in really paying attention to not only what someone was saying, but also to the way they were saying it, and how they looked as they were saying it, because as humans we actually do the majority of our communication with our faces and bodies far more than we do with our words. This changed me from thinking how I can control to how can I better help.
Along the way I came to learn more about and to develop a deep respect for the late Fred Rogers of children’s television fame. What I find profoundly impressive about how Fred lived and worked in both his professional and personal lives, was that he sincerely considered it an honor to meet someone for the first time, or to simply get to talk to someone he came across day to day. It didn’t matter whether that was with a young child on a television set, or with his wife, his sons, his colleagues, or new acquaintances, Fred gave his entire attention to each person, each and every time he engaged with them.
When you really think about it, that’s an amazing accomplishment - to have paid such attention to everyone he ever spoke with over the years of his entire lifetime. It could be hard to believe really, and there were plenty of skeptics who tried over time to reveal what they thought was the “real” Fred as it was hard to imagine that anyone could ever be THAT kind. But there are thousands of people alive today who can witness to those interactions with Fred and they will tell you that he was the same kind and caring man whether he was working on camera or just chatting with someone he happened to meet along life’s journey.
I think about how Fred could do that and how intentional he had to have been to have engaged with people all his life the way he did. People are unanimous in saying that they could truly feel Fred’s sincerity, they could tell he actually cared and was interested, and if he ever met them again it was true joy he expressed at the delight to have time with them again. Imagine what an honor that is and how much love for humanity it would take to make each person you meet feel that from you? I’m amazed by it, and I’m also inspired by it and I hope eventually to develop even a portion of that ability and commitment because I know it will make me a better person, a better husband, a better father, and a better psychotherapist.
I have made strides in this direction. Therapy sessions are no longer just about "reading" someone else, about dissecting their words or analyzing their body language to uncover hidden truths. It's about being present, being empathetic, and offering support in a time of need. It's about creating a space where someone feels safe enough to bare their soul, to share their fears, hopes, joys, and sorrows.
It's not just my professional life that has changed either. The way I interact with my family and friends, acquaintances, and strangers, has undergone a transformation as well. I’m striving to truly listen, to give people the space and the respect to express themselves without fear of judgement or dismissal.
And while I’m still far from perfect and continue to work on improving my empathy and sincerity, the difference in the connections I have with people now versus in the past is polar opposites. The deeper and more meaningful relationships I've cultivated since my shift in perspective have brought joy and fulfillment I hadn’t thought possible in my younger years.
Sure, there are still times when I find myself falling back into old habits, trying to control a conversation or steer an interaction towards a certain outcome. But I quickly remind myself that every person I meet, every conversation I have, is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to better understand the vast tapestry of human experience.
I can't claim to have achieved the level of genuine kindness and attention Fred Rogers did, but that's okay. I believe in the power of continuous growth and learning. I may never reach the same level as Fred, but his legacy has set a standard that I strive for every day. I am committed to improving myself, not only as a psychotherapist but as a human being.
My journey from controlling others to understanding and empathizing with them has been long and often challenging. But it has also been the most rewarding journey of my life. Today, I see the world from a gentler, more compassionate perspective. I have learned the value of listening, of sincere engagement, and of treating every interaction as an opportunity for growth and connection. I may have started out intentionally manipulating through body language, but I have grown into someone who uses that knowledge to foster understanding and empathy. And for that, I am eternally grateful.
Life is a continuous process of learning and evolving. And I firmly believe that we are all capable of change, capable of growing into kinder, more empathetic individuals. Just like Fred Rogers, we all have the capacity to touch the lives of those around us in a profoundly positive way. It just takes intention, commitment, and a willingness to step outside of our comfort zones. That's the journey I’m on, and it’s a journey I hope to inspire others to embark on as well.
So who will you engage today or this week and how can you give them more of your attention and more of yourself?