Brief Encounters

A brief encounter is a meeting with a person or thing, especially casually or unexpectedly …

In the early 1970s movie of the same name, based on Noel Coward’s 1936 play – Still Life, a couple have a chance encounter and later fall in love … causing all kinds of potential complications as they are both married.

This does happen of course, however, how often do we pay attention to the brief encounters we experience? And especially how often do we align those brief encounters with our [childhood] story work? If the protagonists in the film hadn’t noticed or paid attention – well, there wouldn’t have been a movie …

Working with Dr Sarah Hill (Author of Where Did You Learn to Behave Like That? and Dare to …) and Tony Melville on the practice of childhood story in my professional work has also (as one might expect) led to me working on my own childhood story.

In deepening my practice, I attended a group session this week during which we uncovered the significance of brief encounters. It was presented as a theme for the day’s discussion, exploration and learning and I have to be honest, at first, I wasn’t sure how to engage with it as a topic. I told a story that immediately came to mind of a situation with a coachee, in unplanned childhood story work. It was a significant conversation that seemed to make a big difference. I recalled that in that moment, I learned of how powerful the questions we ask can be, how, when we listen intently, we can find the thing that will unlock, even unleash, possibility for ourselves and/or our clients. In this instance I was the Story-guide, my client the generous Story-sharer.

Throughout the course of the facilitated day, I began to connect differently to brief encounters. The stories I tell myself as an adult of big, fierce and fearsome things that happened when I was a child, and that have shaped how I am in the world today, seem as if they went on continuously and yet, in truth each momentous memory was probably a fleeting thing, a short (even if repeated pattern) experience.

So, how can something so seemingly insignificant in terms of the passage of time be so monumental for us in our behaviours in later life? Storytelling … is the short answer (that, and chemical reactions and neural pathways that get burnt into our patterning). The more I tell the Story, the more I embellish it. The further away from the reality of the ‘happening’, the vaguer the actual facts, the more I rely on my memory to help me retell the detail. And my memory can be imperfect, a little bit like the love I received as a child. While my Story is true, it’s not necessarily THE truth.

I was engaged in some one to one exploration with one of my co-learners, and told of an experience I had thirty plus years before – I recounted it like it happened yesterday and as I gave voice to the Story I saw exactly where I was, the colours and the lighting of my old home (which I’ve not lived in since 1996) – just like it was yesterday. I’m fairly certain I told the Story with accuracy – I probably didn’t though. Too much time has passed. The important question was, why now? What was it about this situation, which lasted no more than 10minutes and filled me with remorse, regret and fear – one of millions of brief encounters I have experienced in my life – that urged it out of my memory in this exercise on this day? Another simple answer (not that there really are any simple answers) – it was time to learn more from it. I was ready. And there was much to learn. In those learnings, I can be kinder to myself, see that I have value and that I matter, I can forgive myself for my behaviour and I can rest easy knowing that while I behaved appallingly, I caused no harm to another (except for perhaps a hurt ego). It told me it is time to step up and own who I am in all my glory, be sure and proud, to state what’s acceptable and not for me, and, importantly, to be seen and treated as an equal.

So, these brief encounters – they’re actually VERY important. And they slip by quite quickly, so we have to be fast and furious to catch them. As Sarah [Hill] said so poetically “… Story-work is a tapestry of brief encounters that we have the opportunity to join up and connect …” which would of course allow us to build a fuller and more complete picture of and for ourselves.

What’s crucial though is to catch them as they happen and allow ourselves time to reflect on the gifts they present to us, so they are not lost encounters … it’s like doing a dance with life … following the moves, leaning into the Story, allowing our bodies and minds to sway between affect and meaning – to feel and to understand.

Every day will present us with brief encounters – the best we can do is to expect the unexpected … how will you engage with your next one?

Tania Watson, Creative Coaching Ltd.