I had a dream last night about waiting tables, which makes sense, because the last time I waited tables was *checks notes* 13 years ago. It was a dream familiar to most of us who have served at restaurants.
In my dream, I was nodding along and chatting to a gentleman who was waxing eloquent between the virtues of scotch vs irish whiskey, but I was feeling increasingly stressed as I watched the host seat table after table around us. I began trying to step away from the table without interrupting the conversation, so I could get to the other tables that were waiting to be greeted, and I could tell my manager was upset that I didn’t try to up-sell the woman at the table from her house red wine to a Chilean red that was triple the cost.
The dream was real enough that I felt the tension in the pit of my stomach as I woke up.
It occurred to me that the decade or more I spent waiting tables actually prepared me for the kind of work I do today.
Customer service is, at its best, all about what the customer wants, within reason and within the mission and capabilities of what the customer service provider can offer. Greeting the table is the beginning step to helping someone feel that what they want is paramount. Even a disheveled server can make a guest feel important by the kind of attention they give to the guest. Offering someone a chance to be seen and heard as they are welcomed into this space is a gift.
Coaching and spiritual direction is a type of excavation of what a client actually desires. Unearthing what someone wants is integral to the process. In my practice, I get to help normalize their desires for wholeness, healthy relationships, growing business, and more.
Coaching is a meandering, step-by-step process to help them make a plan to achieve what they want, while spiritual direction is focused on the present reality of their relationship to desire, the feelings they might have, the unmet longings and the frustrations they live in. But both focus on the agenda of the client.
In my dream, I was living an amalgamation of a couple dozen days, probably holidays and special events like Valentines Day, where the onslaught of guests arriving meant that the normal measured approach to seating a guest in a server’s section was thrown out the window. The tension I felt in my dream was a ghost echo of tension I felt many times before, albeit years and years ago.
Part of learning to be a great server is learning to hold the growing tension of the chaos while making eye contact with someone who is wanting to be noticed. Learning to quiet the stress of the surroundings for a few moments is an act of hospitality. Resisting the urge to run, to cut off people as they talk, to let the fury of a busy dinner rush take over is an outrageous generosity. Offering that unharried hospitality in the midst of the inner tension was a practice that great servers engage in every day.
Although there are almost no situations where I feel like jumping up and rushing around the room when I am meeting with someone in coaching and spiritual direction, there is certainly inner tension building often. The practice of holding that tension carefully, so that the person across from me doesn’t feel its impact, is important to the process. When someone is sharing about griefs that threaten to overwhelm, when they aren’t feeling settled yet and are jumping from one potential topic to the next, when someone’s trauma reminds me of my own - holding the tension and calmly offering peaceful presence is part of my training. Attuning to them in that moment is critical, and a good spiritual practice to engage in often. Attuning to the needs of others is a healthy part of humanity, and one in which great servers practice daily.
This might feel ridiculous, but hope undergirds almost every restaurant-goer’s experience. You don’t visit the steakhouse or smoothie shop expecting to pay big money for a lousy product. Even if the day has gotten away from you, as I felt in the dream, the crush of expectations, the burgeoning crowd of people needing my attention - even through it all, the trained response is that this will still be a good experience for the customer. And if it goes really poorly, where the food was burned, the kitchen got the food wrong, the server forgot the drinks… there’s still hope that next time it will be good. You only get a chance or two to prove to people that it won’t always be bad, so even if it’s going poorly, you can still offer hope that things can turn around in the moment, or in the next visit.
I smiled when I woke up today, realizing that I don’t feel the burden of trying to turn a disaster into a fun experience for a number of tables at a restaurant any more, until I realized that I missed that challenge. A few moments of reflection led me to another realization: I am challenged with this almost every day. Someone is experiencing a disaster, or will be if they don’t make a plan to turn things around. And the hope that I get to cultivate is that even if things are going really poorly, that I’m there with them, and that they are seen and heard.
In spiritual direction this is a ministry of presence, an honoring of the disasters and fears, a holding together of hope that it won’t always be like this. And in coaching, it’s the hope we begin building together in our deliberation of what kind of obstacles the client is experiencing, and how we can turn those into stepping stones towards what they’re really hoping for.
It’s been 13 years since I asked a table what they’d like, but I’ve been practicing the skills of serving and attunement to honor the desires and hopes of my clients ever since.