Perfume or Poison?

by Karen Keller, Ph.D.

Being a person who has the capacity to influence others is big stuff. Sometimes we forget how much of an impact our actions or words can have.  I like to think about our influence as either perfume or poison. One is uplifting and pleasing. The other is toxic and hurtful.

Here’s an example. When I was 16 I landed my first office job. I was an assistant to the office manager for a water well drilling company. Everything was a bit scary – telephones, field radios, typewriter, accounting ledgers, 10-key calculator, and the men that came to the office from the field. Being a quick learner, it only took me a few days to master most of my duties.

However, the 10-key was a challenge for me. The office manager was an older woman who had little patience for a girl that lacked total and absolute perfection. She huffed and puffed, sighed and rolled her eyes. I could handle that. What I will never forget is that she saved my most glaring mistakes for when one of the men came to the office.  One of the guys might come for help with a payroll question or need a form for a bid. While I was providing assistance, the office manager would announce some accounting error or another slip-up I’d made. Not only did it humiliate me, it made the entire office uncomfortable.

Poison. That’s what she was. She was an angry woman and she spread her malcontent to everyone around her. Knowing her personal situation, it was legitimate. However, her words and actions had a very real and lasting impact. I held this job over 30 years ago and I still feel the injustice of the situation.

When I returned to school that fall, I was fortunate to have a delightful language arts teacher. This woman was bright and sunny. My teacher dressed in pretty, pastel colored dresses and had an endless supply of encouraging words. She did everything in her power to facilitate the creative process of writing for her students, even those that were not so talented.

I will always remember her encouragement one afternoon. I was struggling with an assignment. She said not to worry too much, because I had a wonderful way with words. I’d never been told that before, so I asked her why she said this. She said, “Well, every time you write, I just feel like I’m there!”

Perfume. Yes, that’s right, she was perfume to me. She lifted my spirits and gave me confidence. While I had always loved words and read voraciously, to that point I hadn’t considered myself to have much talent. Her words and actions, like my old supervisor, had a lasting influence. Fortunately, in this case, it was positive and up-lifting.

Over the years there have been numerous others who have impacted me to a greater or lesser degree. Teachers, parents, bosses, pastors, and many more have affected me for the good or not so good. Their collective influence has helped shape who I am today.

I think about the many opportunities we have to influence others: mother’s with our children, professionals with our clients, managers with our staff, even co-worker to co-worker.  Influence is a powerful thing! Is it going to be a noxious poison or will it be a sweet perfume?

Shelley Hepler publishes Mermaids of the Lake, an e-zine for women. She brings decades  of practical experience in leadership and inspiration in the workplace to her readers. She  is committed to living a creative life, bringing an imaginative spirit to motherhood,  innovation to her work, and a passion for adventure in her play. You can contact her at shelley@mermaidsofthelake.com

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