Awkward eye-contact in my therapist’s waiting room made me a better co-worker

I see you.
I see you.
Image: Unsplash/Soroush Karimi
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The therapy waiting room is one of my favorite places.

True, it can be awkward to sit in a holding pen for people who have issues (though that’s essentially every room ever). If you’re lucky, the waiting area at your therapist’s office is filled with plants, cloth-covered Ikea lamps, and zen bird sounds. If you’re unlucky, you make eye-contact with someone else—literally anyone else—in the room.

I see the same three or four people in the waiting room every week. There’s the couple who arrive separately, but always leave their sessions giggling and hugging. Knowing that their nuptial bliss is imperfect gives me joy. Then there’s the younger woman with straightened hair, endlessly scrolling through Instagram and looking like she came out of a Madewell catalogue. She annoys me the most, probably because she could be my twin. My favorite is the befuddled business man, probably mid-40s, who usually spends at least five minutes signing checks and then reads Love in the Time of Cholera. I’ll be sad when he finishes the book.

Quietly judging people is something of a pastime for me, wherever I am. But there’s something different about the way I judge, and see, my therapy waiting-room cohort. I have nothing to forgive them for, but I forgive them—for tapping their feet; for turning their earphones up too loud; for being genuinely happy; for being unapologetically sad. I do not know their lives, but I have true empathy for them—for their broken relationships; for their loneliness; for the harm they’ve endured; for their fears, anxieties, and attempts to feel better, all communicated through that glance we share as they exit the room, and I enter.

Lately I’ve been trying to bring a similar approach to how I see people at work.

Many of us spend more time with our professional colleagues than nearly anyone else in our lives. Yet we often avoid asking or even thinking about our colleagues’ personal lives, whether because it feels awkward, invasive, inappropriate, or maybe we just don’t care. Instead, we focus on their business outputs, relative professional stature, mentorship capacity, or that email they still haven’t responded to. It’s a selfish mindset.

With co-workers who’ve become friends (i.e. the people to whom I attribute much of my day-to-day sanity) quick judgments are easily replaced by patience and love. Too often, though, when colleagues are snippy in a meeting, or brash with a comment, we’re quick to chalk up their bad mood to a personality flaw or professional incapability. We fail to consider whether they may be fighting with their partner, dealing with a sick child, unable to foot a bill, or any number of personal issues that, with friends or therapy peers, we instinctively consider.

But when we enter the therapy waiting room—if you never have, it’s easy enough to imagine—the context of our meeting forces us to see the people around us as multidimensional and imperfect, and to accept and respect them for that complexity. Seeing the people we work with similarly is perhaps a simple thought experiment, but it’s one that might quickly and easily dissolve workplace annoyances and potential conflict, while bolstering respect through the recognition of the reality that, at the end of the day, we’re all just doing our best to make it through.