Humans Touch: How I saved my Career as a bus driver

I have to admit I’m not the same man as I was when I started driving the bus almost ten years ago. It’s hard to tell just how much of this is from my experiences as a bus driver, how much is from mellowing with age, or how much is from outside learning, perhaps it’s all three. I tend not to be a person who dwells on the why of how of things, I’m mostly an enjoy the ride kind of guy. I’m not sure when this change happened either, but it has effected me greatly.  Sometimes a change in your life, be it ever so small and invisible to you can, with time, lead to great alterations. Like a slight deviation in a course at the outset of a long sea voyage can lead you someplace completely new.

If you were to have asked me five or even two years ago what was the top most unpleasant things about being a bus driver, I would have put being touched by strangers as one of them. Just the thought of it would send shudders of revulsion down my spine. Sitting at Powell Garage talking with my fellow drivers I found out I was not alone, everyone had the same reaction to being touched, everyone hated it.

I find it a little embarrassing now, so much so I cannot explain the reason why I felt like I did. Sure there was the invasion of privacy and the safety issue, I never like anyone grabbing my arms while I’m moving, I need those arms for driving, but there was more than that. How I felt was because of what I brought to the table, what was in me.  

I cannot think of many people who would prefer to be touched by random strangers. We are hardwired in our heads to resist that. It goes a little farther than that in our culture, we often don’t touch friends and there are those who don’t even like to be touched by family.  You could say we are a non-touching society. There is this fence we erect around us, we do not try to violate the fences of others and prefer that only a precious few come within our own personal touching fences.  

I believe the change in my life started when I read a book by Marshall Rosenberg on nonviolent communications.

I’m a reactive person by nature but this book woke me up. Don’t panic! I’m not here to advertise this book to you. I will say this, this book reached me as few others have. I had to read it three or four times before I really got it, finally it did manage to sink in.

I began thinking about what is communication in the big picture sense. It’s far more than words, it’s everything you do that another can sense. Communication is everything, it’s eye contact, posture, hand movements, tone of voice, facial features, It’s also, yes, touching. As the saying goes “communications is a two way street” and reading this book made me realize something missing in my assessment of communications, it’s realizing what others need. When they are communicating with me what are they saying they need.

That is a scary idea, to look at what other people need, most people see communication as an expression of their own needs not as a tool to open your mind to see others. I think our natural resistance to this idea of communication of what is needed, what makes it scary to people, is the idea that once we perceive the needs of others that we will feel compelled to meet that need. For many, me included, we would rather be that Ostrich most of the time, with our head in a hole oblivious to the needs of others. (Yes I know this is not true of Ostriches but relax this is a bus blog)

Once my awareness of communication increased I felt almost swamped by the needs of others. I almost felt like I was drowning in needs, it made me want to run back to the old ways and stick my head back in the sand. Hey, it’s comfortable back in the sand.

So my communication revelation began to change me in small ways at first.  

As a bus driver you would be surprise just how many people get on your bus hungry, desperately hungry for validation. They don’t need a greeting from you, they as much as demand a greeting. They want conversation often taking the first seat in the bus so as better to talk with you. They are not ringing the bell and slinking off via the back door of the bus with perhaps a “Thank you”, They are coming up to tell you the stop they want, and no matter how bad or difficult the driving they need a little conversation and an interactive goodbye.

This type of riders drove me nuts, even though I more often than not gave them the full ride package with what I called the happy finish, the goodbye at the door. All that time in the back of my head I keep thinking, who on earth want’s validation from random bus drivers?

When I began to look not at what people wanted but what they needed, I began to see this issue as one of perspective and not validation. For me, I interact with perhaps a thousand people each day so this means any one person has a small cut of my communications pie. To the riders they are interacting with a dozen people or so a day and for a few, maybe even one, maybe I was there only interaction that day. This meant that to the rider I could be a large slice of their communications pie for the day or perhaps all of it.

This new awareness fueled a change in my reactions and most of all what I was thinking in my head. Gone was the internal dialogue of “Why do they need the validation of a bus driver.” This poisonous thinking would often undermine my communications efforts but not anymore. Now I was… More my self, more human. I became more, because I did not see the rider as just a person with wants, but a human with needs.

Now we get to the touching.

I used the same newly won wisdom of looking for what people need, to address the issue of touching. Now I’m not talking about aggressive touching or sexualized touching. I’m talking about a hand on your shoulder, a pat on the back, a hand on your arm. This happens often when people are leaving the bus and the better job you do with your customer the more likely they are to touch. If you have a subconscious aversion to touching you can imagine what this equation does in your mind.

Being a good bus operator = More Touching and I hate touching so…

I believe this subconscious math leads to the infamous non reactive bus driver or as I call it “Stone Face Syndrome” Can I tell you something? I was slipping into that without even knowing it.

So I took a deep breath and put myself in their shoes. What do they need when they touch me. I thought about this for a week or so. I watched people who touched me and why. I realized that these are different people all the time. The same person does not always touch. So these were not people with weak social boundaries. My vision started to clear with time.

I began to see that they are touching to say more, more they are not always able to say in words or don’t want to say in front of a bus full of riders. The people who touch have the same social barriers to touching that we all have, they are not people who want to be touched either. What they are doing is an act of courage, they are so compelled to say more, that in an instant without thinking they reach right through those social walls, across the trenches of custom, right over the barbed wire of resistance and they touch. They do this all without realizing what a monumental task their touching represents. Some people even surprise themselves when they touch you, I have seen it in there eyes. They are risking rejection, reaction and maybe revulsion on the driver's part, yet in one fleeting moment they touch. Their need to say more and touch is just another voice in their communications.

So slowly I have changed how I feel about touching and by changing how I feel, I have changed how I think about it, my internal dialogue is all different now. Now I actually keep a score of every touch for every day and try to best my score for the week. Two points for a touch. I don’t solicit them, they have to be the kind of positive touch, not an incidental bump, hostile touch or a grope. Now when I feel a touch, I smile, I look people in the eyes, “TWO POINTS! YAY!” screams my mind. They can see that in my smile and my reaction.

So I changed and guess what?

I have better reactions with almost all customers now. Not perfect… come on this is bus driving a city bus, just far far better.

Really in the end it was in me where the problem existed and in me where the change was made. So to be honest this is not so much about bus driving as what is going on in my head and heart while I drive. Fighting a lifetime of programing in your self is not easy and often I can feel myself slipping back. When I find myself reacting negatively, I have to renew my realizations and rededicate myself to my mission. We are all wonderfully flawed humans and that goes doubly for bus operators, so you have to constantly be aware of yourself, your thoughts, your internal dialogue and reactions.

The bottom line is the changes you have just read may have saved my career because they make bus operating so much more enjoyable. I now cherish each touch no matter how fleeting as it was meant, I understand the deeper implications and I welcome them. After all 2 points is 2 points.

Roll Easy and I hope to see you on my bus soon.