Braving the polite distance

My colleague has been going through a hard time. I don’t know all the details; I only know that a professional setback has thrown her for a serious loop.

This woman is phenomenal – smart, funny, wise, generous, kickass in so many ways. But, while we are friendly, our relationship is fundamentally a professional one. So it felt a little funny to reach out to her on a personal level.

I didn’t want to pry or blunder through boundaries I ought to respect. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to oblige her to reassure me that she is fine, at a time when she doesn’t need to take on anyone else’s worries.

Yet I wanted to support her. So I took a chance and reached out.

I told her, I don’t need to know the details, but I want you to know I am rooting for you.

I told her, I know you will continue to do great things, because you are great.

I told her, I am so grateful that I get to work with and learn from you. Because of you, I am learning and growing so much.

None of this changed her situation, of course. But she did say she was deeply grateful I spoke up, that my support meant a lot to her. I hope knowing that I am in her corner is some small comfort.

When my mother died last year, so many people offered kind words, hugs, emails, phone calls, dinners. Some were completely unexpected. And yes, I did feel a moment of embarrassment when I saw someone with a casserole at my front door. Sometimes I didn’t feel like talking about it. But mostly I felt their warmth and compassion and friendship.

I admit, I sometimes freeze when faced with someone else’s pain, especially someone I don’t know that well. It’s not that I don’t care. But awkwardness and uncertainty overtake me, and I send a card instead of call. Call instead of stop by with dinner or to take care of the kids. I regret the times I haven’t been brave enough to bridge the polite distance with a stronger gesture of kindness.

I’m glad I reached out to my colleague, glad I didn’t let uncertainty get the best of me. It reminded me that it’s possible to reach out without prying, to reveal myself as a friend without asking for reassurance (or anything else), and that while showing a little support doesn’t necessarily solve anything, it certainly can’t hurt.

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11 Responses to Braving the polite distance

  1. We have this in common. I always err on the side of distance in situations like that one, and I always feel a little uneasy about it. Authentic warmth and genuine kindness are such a gift. Puzzling that it’s such an awkward gift to give.

  2. notquiteold says:

    A little while back, I hugged a co-worker who was crying. I felt extremely awkward. I’m not a hugger. I think she felt awkward too, as she didn’t hug me back. But maybe later, she’ll feel a little better remembering it. Maybe I will too.

  3. kaliesthoughts says:

    WE all need support sometimes!

  4. bigsheepcommunications says:

    I bet she’ll remember that for a very long time and it’s a great reminder to all of us that a small step out of our comfort zones can make a big difference to someone else. Thanks for sharing that.

  5. As a society, I don’t think we talk enough about empathy, ways to show it, and why it’s so important, so I was glad to read this post. It reminded me of situations I’ve been in from both sides, situations that really shouldn’t be so difficult to navigate, but are. I like your writing style, too, the clarity and construction. Nice to meet you.

  6. Sharon says:

    You did the right thing. It’s always worth it.

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