So, you don’t ask, what’s the big trick to being a great nurturer, be it nurturing growing children or nurturing talent in others?
All you have to do is know the person you are nurturing better than they know themselves.
For children, this is a straightforward process. Since you already know yourself, can make connections and insights from your experience, since you have the emotional intelligence and language to understand and express feelings that they are just beginning to explore, it’s not really that difficult to stay a few steps ahead of a child.
Where it gets difficult, though, is when your own stuff gets in the way of their own stuff. If you feel like you have needs they should be fulfilling, if you believe that they should be the ones understanding you and attending to your feelings, if you just don’t have time to be present for them because you are stressed with all the demands of your life, well, then understanding and being there for them is just too hard a task.
When children push back and need to claim ownership, a deep understanding of their needs lets you play the parts they need you to play in their development. For example, you can understand that “I hate you!” usually means that they are frustrated with their limits rather than actually indicating hatred.
Nurturing adults gets more difficult for a number of reasons. First, their needs and motivations are deeper and more complex, and second, we really want them to take responsibility for their own life and their own choices, want them to be there for us rather than just our being there for them. For an adult, responsibility goes two ways and when we run into someone who doesn’t fulfill their own responsibilities, who doesn’t do their own work, we often get frustrated, angry or just want to cut them loose.
The first obligation in taking care of someone is to make them feel cared for, to make them feel that you care about them. This is the essence of the Hawthorne Effect, where the very act of having someone pay attention to you is enough to boost your own motivation.
I know that my sister was very glad to see me at her arts showcase over the weekend because she knew that I would understand the stories she had to tell, that I would engage them and draw them out, offering useful insights and affirmations. She also knew that I was taking care of her, down to silly blinking dollar-store ring that I told her marked her as the “featured artist.”
The last decade with my parents had many “one more good days” because I had a model of who they were and what they felt that was deeper and more useful than their own understanding. I knew when to challenge and when to delight, when to stimulate and when to comfort, knew how to offer them context about medical status or theology, and even knew what they liked to eat.
From Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend:
[Maureen] O’Hara pointed to her oft-told anecdote about [John] Ford shooting a close-up of O’Hara’s hair lashing her face on the beach [during the filming of The Quiet Man].
The average director would have put the fan in front of me and blown the hair back from my face, but he put it off to the side so that the hair was lashing my eyeballs. Then he started yelling at me to keep my hands down and let the hair go across my face.
And I put my hands down and said, “What would a baldheaded old son of a bitch know about hair lashing across his eyeballs?” And I immediately thought, “Oh, God, what have I done. I’m going to be killed.”
And in the flash of a second, I could see him check every face on the crew, up in the lights. And I saw him make his decision about whether to kill me or laugh. And he laughed. And the whole crew was relieved. So people laughed for five minutes. But there was that split second when he took everything in and made his decision about how to handle it. And I thought, “That’s a great director.”
Ford had to go to his mental model of his actors and make a choice in the moment that nurtured the process. Did he push back, or did he laugh?
“A therapist is someone who sees something in you that you do not yet see in yourself.” In other words, they hold a model of you that is beyond your blocks and limits, beyond your current understanding, but holds open the space for you to grow into a more actualized viewpoint.
Finding someone who can hold your own self knowledge, who has a model of you that reflects your truth, well, that is a rare and special thing.
A friend is one to whom
you can pour out the contents of your heart,
chaff and grain alike.
Knowing that the gentlest of hands
will take and sift it,
keep what is worth keeping,
and with a breath of kindness,
blow the rest away.
— George Eliot
To be a great nurturer, you first have to be a great understander, beyond your own emotional triggers.
To be a great understander, you have to have an open heart, full of empathy and compassion that allows you be inside the feelings of another.
To have an open and vulnerable heart, you first have to know yourself, know how to to listen to your own feelings and open to your own fears and passions.
That’s all it takes to have the foundation to be a great nurturer. Just that.