It was one of those mornings. I had to get up at an inhumane hour to get ready for an early meeting downtown, get dressed, gulp one day old coffee, fight traffic, find parking… You get the picture. I got there on time, thank goodness. Just as I was entering the building, I received a text from my client saying that she’s running a few minutes behind. By the time I got to the front desk to have the security guard call up to announce me, I was done!
“He’s just a grumpy old man” I thought to myself as I gave the security guard a quick once over.
“Mon nom est Dominique Dennery pour Mme Saint-Cyr, s’il vous plait!”
He picked up the phone, matter-of-factly, and called up to my client’s office. After putting down the receiver, he looked passed me and said: “She’ll be down in a few minutes.”
“Why did you speak to me in English when I addressed you in French?” I shot back. I had heard him speak French to the person in front of me. I thought I was being courteous by engaging him in his first language, which also happens to be mine.
I’m not sure why this irritated me so much. Was he assuming I spoke English because of my skin color? Did he not hear me?
“So should I address you in German?!” He quipped with irritability of his own.
“You speak German?”
“Yes, I do. I learned it in Germany with the United Nations after WWII.”
That stopped me in my tracks.
“I notice you have medals on your jacket.”
“Yes!” he exclaimed beaming with pride, “I received those for my service.“ He then proceeded to explain the significance of each medal. Riveted, I listened to his story. He recounted a time in North Africa when he was part of a UN peacekeeping mission. At one point he stopped, his voice catching in his throat as he was recalling this particularly difficult assignment to protect the poorest of the poor. I wondered about the amount of trauma he must have witnessed, and how it still affected him more than 50 years later.
We talked for about 10 minutes before my client appeared. By that time I wanted to stay with my ‘grumpy old man’ and listen to more of his storied life, but duty called.
How curiosity saved the day
I honestly don’t know where my questions for him were coming from. What made me ask about the fact that he spoke German as opposed to giving in further to my irritation and fight with him? It was that kind of day after all!
By some stroke of luck, I chose the former and benefited from a rich encounter. What a humbling opportunity, not only to meet someone so special in a rather average situation, but to create common ground with a person with whom I perhaps have little in common, except for the fact that we are both born on this earth. Clearly, that’s enough.
When I got upstairs for the meeting with my client and her staff, I mentioned the elder security guard. Ironically they all had the same reaction I initially had: “Oh he’s just a grumpy old man, ignore him.” “No” I replied, still reflecting on what just transpired downstairs, “He’s not. Ask him about his service after WWII next time you see him.” They didn’t know his history.
A lesson learned and (gladly) re-learned
I’m grateful to this wonderful elder, dressed up as an ordinary security guard. By snapping me out of my bad mood with his quick retort, he reminded me of how important it is to release any assumptions I may hold about anyone. He also reminded me of the power of curiosity.
As a coach and facilitator, I talk with many people every day. Most are thrilled to share their ideas, their thoughts, and their life experiences.
So next time you experience an impasse with a colleague, an acquaintance, or even a stranger, get curious. Ask genuine questions about him, about her. You never know with whom you’re actually talking, and how they can enrich your life in unexpected ways.