As a licensed mental health professional whose field of expertise is helping doctors, clinicians, family members and friends communicate with the seriously or terminally ill, with honesty and compassion, Kathleen Taylor sometimes has to go out of her way to put joy in her own life.
She does this as a member of the improvisational comedy corps at American Stage (she also teaches the craft of improv). And, Taylor is quick to point out, her two “occupations” aren’t the polar opposites they might appear.
“All conversations are improvised,” Taylor said following her talk at Friday’s CreativeMornings meetup, at Station House in downtown St. Pete. “When you think about it, you don’t know what the other person’s going to say. You don’t know their point of view and their perspective. Improv is the same way – you don’t know what’s going to emerge. You have to pay attention to the other person, and let something happen, instead of trying to make something happen.
“It’s letting something happen between people, which is what the best communication skills are all about. So to me, they’re very aligned. In the study of improv, you learn a lot of these little principles that line up really well with communication skills.”
It was her 25-year career as a counselor, coach and trainer for those whose deal with the dying, however, that brought her to Station House. The October theme for Creative Mornings chapters all over the world was “Honesty,” and Taylor’s message was carefully crafted to reflect that subject.
“My entire career – half my life, literally – has been around death and dying and end-of-life care,” she told the audience of approximately 200. “Which is a real conversation-stopper.”
Taylor explained that she first worked in hospice, as a counselor for patients and families. “I did that job for a little over seven years,” she said, “and those experiences with people at the end of their lives became the foundation for everything that I do, everything I’ve ever done in a whole professional career. And it changed the way I see honesty.”
The terminally ill, Taylor continued, “are the most honest people you’re going to meet. People are sometimes at their most authentic when they’re looking at the end of their lives. Because when that stuff is real, people don’t have any time or energy for anything less than that.”
She referenced The Four Things That Matter Most, a book by Dr. Ira Byock, an international leader in palliative care. Byock, said Taylor, points to four things he heard over and over from those who were dying: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you.”
At the end, she said, “it tends to be about gratitude and forgiveness. And expressions of love.”
Taylor advised the audience: “You can do these things today. It’s not that hard. If you can do it on the last day, you can do it today.”
After looking more closely at her own life choices, she said, she left organized hospice programs after 20 years and opened her own practice, KT Coaching and Consulting. “I did it against the advice of most of the people I know,” she said. But office politics, the bureaucracy and the baggage, were weighing on her.
“So when you align your life with some authenticity, unexpected and wonderful opportunities can show up. Because now they have room to.”
On the advice of a friend, she signed up for an improv class at American Stage. “And I could not have known the amount of bliss that I would find in that,” Taylor told the Station House crowd. “I think what happened was, I got honest with myself and I cleared a path for that to come to me.”