Seek the eyes

The discomfort feels too much. You may avert your eyes.

From the angry customer kept waiting.

From the exasperated neighbor.

From the disappointed child.

So long as you keep your eyes fixed and gazing out there somewhere, it’ll still be a problem whether you move past the other or turn away from them. There’s no getting around the discomfort of it.

The missing part, the step towards repair, is something the eyes can deliver in an instant: acknowledgement. I see you.

To acknowledge with the eyes instantly sends the message that the other matters. To be seen feels good, no doubt. To not be seen can feel awful.

So when a young restaurant host repeatedly moves in and around me and a waiting throng of would-be diners, avoiding eye contact and pretending deafness, I imagine he’s filling in for someone in a pinch. Surely this busy of a restaurant knows better.

But then a manager arrives to aid the host and similarly keeps her gaze away from waiting customers’ eyes. As groups turn out the door in dismay, the manager speaks to the host disparagingly about ‘people’ who don’t understand….

She’s trying to calm the inexperienced host. Her words are meant to help, as is her hustle to seat people at tables. But in colluding with the host, she compounds the problem. It’s something I’ve done before under stress.

The problem is this: we disparagingly distinguish between us versus them, the staff versus the customers. We talk amongst ourselves about ‘we’ who understand (insert the technicalities of your business here) versus those who don’t.

Caught up in the rush, the manager is absolving the host of his anguish. But she’s not doing the simple but harder thing: meeting my eyes.

A leader demonstrates how its to be done, in the moment if necessary. This comes before absolving failure, and instead of drawing distinctions between us and them.

Acknowledge the person before you who keenly feels the problem. Customers, neighbors, kids, all the same.

Acknowledgement takes courage. It is easier said than done. And it can start as simply as a meeting of the eyes.