What's in a Name?

The incredible impact of a warm greeting

As a huge fan of yoga, I practice regularly at a popular studio near my house. Each time I go, I scan my membership card and my name pops up on their screen. It's safe to say that the people working there have seen my face and name together more than a hundred times; yet, there is only one woman who greets me by name when I walk through the door. And I really appreciate it. It makes me feel like I belong, like I am a part of a fellowship of yoga practitioners.

This was especially important to me when I first started to practice. I tend to feel apprehensive and self-conscious in new settings. I would deliberately attend her class, knowing that I would be greeted with a smile and I would hear my name.

The longing for connection and belonging is a universal human need that so many of us struggle with. It's easy to forget that something as simple as learning (and using) a person's name can promote a feeling of fellowship within a group.

I haven’t always appreciated this in my professional life.

Early in my career, a wise mentor stressed to me that there was nothing more important than a warm greeting. All other work was to be set aside when clients walked through the door.

Our groups were often large, and it was rare that any of us had met all the people we were working with by that first day. Regardless of this fact, counselors were to have made an effort to learn the names of both children and caregivers and greet them appropriately.

I did as I was told (since my mentor was also my boss), but felt the good work we were doing once group got started mattered most. I would learn names as I went along, so his concern was inconsequential.

How wrong I was. I'll never forget the group I facilitated where this message finally hit home.

On the first morning of a four-day children’s program, five kids arrived together with their mothers. These moms had all been in prison due to crimes committed while in the throes of addiction. Newly paroled, they were all living in the same halfway house with their children whom they had been recently reunited with.

The group walked through the door reluctantly. Other families were also arriving, and the nervousness was palpable. Although I had never met any of these folks, I had spoken with them on the phone and reviewed names, ages and relationships. This put me in a great position to figure out who they were the minute they walked through the door.

When these children came in to our group room, accompanied by their moms, I immediately held out my hand and greeted them each by name - guessing correctly. I did the same with their mothers. The day began and I thought nothing more about it.

At the end of the group session parents arrived to pick up their children. One of the moms from the halfway house approached me. She took me aside and I noticed she was crying. In my head, I jumped to the worst-case scenario, thinking that perhaps she was struggling to stay sober. That was not the case. With tears in her eyes she said the following:

"I want to thank you for this morning. We walked in and you knew who we were, without ever having met us. My daughter was so pleased and felt so important. It made me feel good too. I was scared to come. I always feel judged, but when I came here, I felt like I belonged. You have no idea what using our names meant to us."

What she said was true. I didn't have any idea what it meant. But I could tell by the look in her eyes that it was huge. I had learned a lesson that I would never take for granted again.

What I discovered over the next three days was that these particular families had all spent most of their lives in "the system." The kids had been in and out of foster care, as had their parents when they were growing up. These moms were used to being treated like "less than" because of their addiction and the time they had spent in prison. They were accustomed to seeing other people as adversaries. On the final program evaluation, all three of the mothers made a note of the fact that our staff knew and used their names and that they felt welcomed and respected throughout the process.

I shouldn't have been surprised at what an impact this had. It only makes sense. Kids (and parents) walk into group that first day feeling so scared and nervous. Anything that can be done to ease the tension makes a difference.

The simple action of a welcoming greeting sent this message to vulnerable group participants: You matter. You belong. We are in this together.

You Matter. This is the most important message that anyone in your group will ever walk away with. After years of working with children and families, it is the one thing that I want them to feel above all else.

Take the time and do what you can to get that message across to the people you work with. Create belonging. Promote connection. Encourage a feeling of fellowship. The small touches, such as knowing a name, make the biggest difference. Don’t take them for granted.
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