One of my greatest pleasures is when random, supposedly meaningless events of day-to-day life accidently lead to insights that turn my world upside down. It has just happened again: I asked at school if I can come pick my kids up a little earlier than usual and accidentally discovered that asking people things that bother them is a must for thriving relationships.
To be clear, I had no idea my request would annoy anyone. If I had known, I wouldn’t have asked in the first place. I thought I’m asking something super casual and super uncomplicated. My kids’ school isn’t the University of Oxford. It’s kindergarten and they basically spend their days dumping mud from one corner of the schoolyard into the other. I asked politely and with the tact I’m known for if I could come 30 minutes before the end of class as I’ve made a mistake scheduling a pediatrician’s appointment too early. I don’t know what I was thinking… I guess I had forgotten that schedules are schedules in France or whatever cliché may serve here, but my request was condemned as highly inconvenient, by both teachers independently.
I negotiated both times. After embarrassing minutes of weighing up constraints, my son finally got permission to leave at the requested time, but I left certain of having spoiled his teacher‘s day, if not month; my 3 years old daughter wasn‘t allowed to leave earlier than 5 minutes before the official end of class – 5 minutes that shed their shadow on that teacher’s mood, too.
I don’t like to ask people whatsoever – even convenient.
When I left school, I was feeling bad. It would all get very messy and we’d run late for the appointment; but it wasn’t so much about the result of my negotiations. I was feeling sorry for the mere fact of having asked something that caused inconvenience.
I don’t like to ask people whatsoever – even convenient, even when it’s no act at all or even when I pay money for it. I’m the person who cleans the house before the cleaning lady arrives. I’m embarrassed that my hair isn’t done when I go get my hair done. When I‘m asking a favor to a friend, it sounds like: “Heyyyyyy – there is this thing I’d really need your help with. Just so you know: you can totally say no and I‘ll absolutely understand. You probably should say no. You know what? I‘m actually fine. I’ll figure this out. Are you mad at me?“
The next day when bringing my kids to school, my 3 year old‘s teacher who had never really looked at us before welcomed us with unexpected attention, to say the truth: warmly. She smiled (they wear masks, but I could tell by the movement of her ears), accompanied my daughter into the classroom putting a hand on her shoulder (this had never happened before) and calling her by the nickname I usually call her when I say goodbye (this has never happened before either). “Now that was nice,” I said to myself and left uplifted. Later that day my son told me with excitement that his teacher had taken him aside to ask questions such as if he spoke other languages than French. That was a premiere, too and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because his teacher might have noticed for the first time that my French had an accent while I was talking to him the day before. Something felt really good here. My daughter was called by her nickname and welcomed warmly; my son was asked about his background. For the first time since school had started this year, I actually felt seen.
Context creates compassion.
Now isn’t that interesting? My inconvenient request hadn’t just spoiled everyone’s day, it also created a tiny little bit of connection. If I had asked something super casual and super uncomplicated, I’d have stayed a ghost at school.
The thing about making inconvenient requests is that we need to give context. We can’t just ask, we have to explain. And there is something magic about that: Context creates compassion. Our whys make others relate. Easy requests don’t make anyone relate to anything; they go in one ear and out the other. Embarrassing requests embarrass, but they have people acknowledge us and our whys.
I hate to ask people things, and I know I’m not alone with that. I like to show up for others, be of service, but otherwise stay self-sufficient and easy to live with. It feels safer. I don’t risk a no like that, I don’t risk displeasing, I don’t risk taking up too much space, I don’t risk being a burden, I don’t risk being vulnerable. But I’m wondering if I’m not risking something much more significant by not risking these things. I’m asking myself if what’s mostly at stake is being really seen by others. Because after all, our convenient side is the one that goes in one ear and out the other.
This is not a plea for being as annoying as we can possibly be. But I’m wondering: what if each time we’d habitually suppose we’re spoiling someone’s week or risking a no, would instead suppose that our request, no matter the answer or reaction, no matter how annoying, cannot but create more connection, greater visibility, deeper knowing of one another? I don’t know for you, but I haven’t thought about this before and it sounds really promising to me.
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Image: Patrick Hendry // Unsplash