By Joanne Padley
As a painfully shy child growing up, I rarely had the confidence to speak out loud, to express opinions (really, to even have opinions) or to engage in conversation with strangers or acquaintances on more than very basic levels. I was able to get through most of my formative years this way, and managed to mask much of it in school, trying to stay under the radar in situations that involved speaking.
Once I reached my 20s, I became aware that more was expected of someone that age, and I decided to start with learning how to master “small talk,” a skill I struggled with. My focus turned to observing others, and practicing what seemed to work for them. When I’d hear small talk that seemed to facilitate conversation, I’d tuck it away in my mind for future use and practice it when I could.
My mother was someone I observed a lot. People gravitated toward her and unburdened their souls to her. She was accepting, open, kind and a good listener. I tried to model her behavior, and learned a few things along the way, one being that a smile and a twinkle in your eye can go a long way toward making someone feel comfortable and breaking down communication barriers.
My mother used to tell the story of what started as a quick trip to the mall to pick up a few items. She was approached by a woman around her age who asked her for advice on a purchase she was considering for her husband. My mother’s easy, friendly manner led to a full-blown conversation with the woman, followed by her new friend’s question, “So where are we going next?” They spent the afternoon together, and although their paths never crossed again, I know the experience was rewarding for them both.
My mother simply chalked it up to the other woman being lonely, but I knew better because I’d seen it so many times before. My mother was truly a pied piper for lost souls. She turned away from no one, and was an includer, always drawing in the ones she sensed needed a friend or someone to listen.
Another thing I picked up was the way in which my mother expressed genuine interest in what others had to say. She focused solely on the speaker, and did not feel compelled to try to insert her own personal experiences into the conversation, choosing instead to sit back and listen. This appealed to me because listening and observing was something I did well, and it kept the focus off me. Even as an adult, I still struggled with accepting any attention on myself. I learned from my mother that she, too, had been a painfully shy child, so I knew there was hope for me.
I had a teacher in high school, in my Great Books class, who had the uncanny ability to see right through to my soul. He utilized the Socratic method of questioning, and was very adept at this. Each day, he would seek out one student to subject to what seemed to me to be an incredibly painful, agonizing “conversation” that would last the full class length. He would pose his original question and would then continue to ask nothing but, “Why?” to every answer the student came up with. I dreaded being the one in the spotlight and would cast my eyes down to the floor each day, not daring to look up. Still, it did not prevent me from being the chosen one occasionally.
That being said, Mr. Pliss was the best teacher I have ever had in my life. He understood me; he saw right through me; he was one of the few who cared enough about what I was thinking to not let me keep my voice to myself.
At my age, generally considered “over the hill,” I have spent years taking all of these lessons and observations in stride and have become far more vocal and conversational than I ever would have dreamed. Mom and Mr. Pliss, you would be proud of me! You taught me how to stand up and find my voice when I didn’t think I had one.