Picture this: You've just enjoyed an invigorating, productive morning on an out-of-state trip to plant CharacterStrong seeds of inspiration, but when it comes time for you to leave, you're told that there’s severe weather en route to the airport. Proceeding with caution, you are fortunate to follow the storm and arrive with lots of time to spare. You turn in your rental and head toward the terminal. You check in and print your boarding pass, but as you walk toward your security checkpoint, you see that your flight home has just been cancelled.
In that moment, how do you feel? What do you want? What do you need? What would make the fact that you’re probably going to be spending the night at the airport more palpable?
For me, that would be the terrific three: Empathy. Compassion. Kindness.
Nervous and frustrated, I do an about-face and head to the ticket counter. The customer-care agent didn’t seem to feel the same urgency in problem-solving my situation as I did. Nor did her tone carry much kindness when she told me matter-of-factly that nobody was getting into Houston tonight because both airports there were closed because of storms. She offered to send me through Georgia, South Carolina, Denver even, but was quick to add that wherever she sent me, I wasn’t getting home tonight.
As she’s glibly going through my options for travel the next day, it occurs to me that I’m in need of lodging. Hopeful that she could assist me with that, she curtly informs me that when flights are cancelled due to weather, you’re on your own.
On my own was not the empathy I was hoping to experience; couldn’t she see that in my eyes?
When I didn’t jump on her offer to take the 6 am flight through Denver to try to get home tomorrow, she asked me to step aside while I decided so she could assist the customer behind me.
Step aside? Not the compassion I craved; couldn’t she feel what my heart needed?
I couldn’t help but wonder: What would she want from me if she were in my shoes?
I also tried to switch places and walk in her shoes as we searched through my options; maybe she’d had a hard day. What did she need from me?
With her airline’s options exhausted, she ended up reserving the only spot she could find on another airline, one that would take me through Dallas and have me home in time for dinner the next day. Just before we finished, I asked if there were a hotel nearby and she said yes, that there was one just upstairs.
I booked it up the flight of stairs to book a room, and that’s where I found the empathy, compassion, and kindness I needed.
Carina: Can I help you with a reservation?
Me: Do you have any rooms left for tonight?
Carina: Yes, and we have a distressed passenger rate of $89.
Wait, did she see in my eyes and feel from my heart that I was a distressed passenger? Today must be Shoesday at that airport hotel.
By that, I mean that someone has clearly put themselves into the shoes of those distressed travelers to think through how we might be feeling and imagine exactly what we might want and need:
A friendly reservation specialist. A comfortable room. A fair price. A free bottle of water. A caring waitress at dinner. A custom-made omelet at the breakfast buffet. A noon check-out time.
In stark contrast to my aforementioned airport experience, I felt heard, valued, understood. And it felt like my story mattered.
Were they able to change my circumstances? Not at all. But with every caring interaction, they totally changed how I felt about my weather-dependent schedule change.
The experience left me wondering how this customer care might transfer to our character building.
Children and adults alike come to us distressed, probably more often than we care to admit. Some questions to consider as we model mattering:
What is our distressed-passenger policy as we help our learners take flight, even on those days when their personal weather is stormy at best? Are we getting an emotional barometer at the door every day?
How much better do we serve them when we’re willing to step into their shoes to figure out where they are so that we can meet their needs and get them where they’re going? Do we go the extra mile by connecting personally?
How do we make sure that no one goes it alone or gets sidelined as we create a culture of character and climate of caring? What’s our best practice for moving from me to WE with intention?
How do we show our students empathy, compassion, and kindness, especially on those days when the detour they didn’t want to take becomes the path they have to travel now? How do you provide a forum for allowing them to share what’s going on in their world beyond the school day?
How do we extend this stranded-traveler policy to our colleagues, to our students’ caregivers, and to the stakeholders in our community to make sure that every day is a Shoesday for everyone at our school? How do people know that they matter in your schoolhouse?
As we work with intention to teach and model stepping into another’s shoes and walking for a spell, let’s elevate empathy with our every interaction by listening to understand, by extending unconditional positive regard to everyone, and by asking ourselves this question from the picture book, Hey, Little Ant, by father-daughter duo, Phillip and Hannah Hoose:
If you were me and I were you, what would you want me to do?
It’ll make a world of difference to the weary travelers we’re walking alongside of in our school family, to understand, feel, and know how much they matter to us.
Barbara Gruener thrives on positively influencing change, passionately helping people create caring connections, and intentionally improving a school's climate and culture. Her innovative and inspirational ideas are sparked by 34 years as a Spanish teacher and school counselor growing alongside students from every age and stage, Pre-K through 12th grade. A connected educator, Barbara loves leading supercharged character-development growth sessions with students, parents, teachers and administrators. Her book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, earned a Mom's Choice Gold Award for supporting caregivers with stories and strategies to use as they help develop character strengths in young people in school and at home. Though she grew up on a dairy farm in WI, Barbara and her family now call Friendswood, TX, home.