Back in the 1980’s when I was a student at Douglass College (part of Rutgers University), Maya Angelou came to speak. She came early that afternoon to attend a reception at the student center. I was just coming from class and was heading to the center, when I ran into one of the staff. As it turned out, Ms. Angelou wanted to meet more of the students prior to the talk that night.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time! I’d already read her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and I was looking forward to hearing her speak that evening.
Meeting her close-up was a whole different experience. My first impression was of how very tall she was. Intimidated into silence, I watched as she greeted another student who’d walked in with me. Then when they’d finished speaking, she turned to me and held out her hand. I have no idea what I said. Right now I don’t remember if anything came out other than, hello.
I’d expected to be tongue-tied to meet a person I admired. But I didn’t expect the warm presence that flowed from her and held me in its embrace. She focused on me and asked what I was studying. Yet again, I can’t remember what I replied. All I remember is that in those moments, it felt like she’d traveled all that way just to meet me. All her attention was focused on me and what I was saying.
That doesn’t happen as often as it should. We’ve all had those situations where the person we’re talking to is focused elsewhere. Either looking around for someone else to talk to, or checking their phone, or just waiting for us to finish so they can start talking again. She didn’t do that. And from what I’ve read of others who had encounters with her over the years, they each had similar experiences.
Each person, no matter how short the exchange, never forgot how she made them feel.
In fact, one of her quotes says just that: “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
So what did I learn?
*Give your full attention to what you’re doing in this moment. Especially when you’re communicating with someone, listen. Really listen to what they’re saying. A conversation should be about give and take, and not just waiting for your chance to talk again.
*Be comfortable in your own skin. As a tall woman, it’s likely she got the message on some occasions that she should slouch, or be uncomfortable about her height. But instead of hiding, she stood tall (literally). Don’t hide who you are. Claim it.
*When you respect yourself, you can also respect others. Though she had a stature and position in the world (check out her books if you want a taste of the many things she accomplished) she was obviously very happy to meet the students and hear what we were doing. She didn’t let cynicism or a self-importance stop her from connecting to people in a down to earth way.
I’m glad I had the chance to meet her, even for a few moments. In that brief time, she taught me a lot about how to communicate with grace.