“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.” (Maya Angelou)
[In part one, we looked at the epidemic of incivility that surrounds us and promises to get worse in the weeks ahead. We talked about the need for kindness and the courage it takes to be a kind person. In part two, we looked at how to exercise that ferocious kindness in service to the world. In this final part, we look at some of the biggest challenges to our commitment and the pledge we must make daily if we are to change the world. Here’s part three.]
There are people who are deliberately unkind and intentionally provocative. They are fueled by name-calling and inciting conflict. Often, they make outrageous claims—denying the Holocaust, saying Sandy Hook was a hoax, claiming masks only spread COVID-19. Engaging with such people just fuels them. You’re not going to change their minds with reason, data, or facts. Their minds are closed.
Do yourself and the world a favor and don’t engage with them. Don’t argue, don’t debate, and don’t give them a moment of your attention. Withholding interaction is like removing oxygen from a fire. It will sputter out and die. Just as oxygen feeds fire, attention is fuel for bigots, bullies, and fanatics. If enough of us withhold our attention, those people will lose any power they may have. They will wither and be seen only for the pathetic creatures they are.
What about the people I simply cannot avoid?
There are people we can’t escape. They may be family members, a close friend’s irritating spouse, or one of your company’s top clients. If the person is rational and open to civil discourse, see if you can engage thoughtfully, preferably by employing your curiosity:
“Hmmm, that hasn’t been my experience at all. Why do you think that?”
“I wonder how solid that evidence is. Here’s what my research has shown….”
Focus less on changing their views as on understanding them. If it’s clear that you can’t have a respectful conversation, look for a safe subject: “Let’s talk about something else. Did you see the [weather report, latest epic movie, basketball game…]? If you can’t avoid a truly disagreeable person, look for some common ground that you can share whenever you have to be in their company. Puppies are always good, so is vegetable gardening. When all else fails, silence can be golden.
How do I deal with someone whose politics sicken me?
The same strategies apply. Engage your curiosity. Try to understand where they’re coming from. Disengage from anyone who’s clearly not open to a civil conversation or who gets off on baiting you. You’re not going to change their way of thinking.
Avoid name-calling or blanket assertions: Anyone who voted for X is an idiot. All Y supporters are racists. Name-calling just makes people defensive. Defensive minds are not open minds.
A good test is to say something like, “Help me understand why you feel ABC [ABC being a person or policy] is good for our country.”
If their response is cogent and thoughtful—even if you disagree one hundred percent—you may have the beginnings of an invigorating conversation (if you want it). If their response is a string of slogans and partisan catchphrases, put your energy elsewhere.
Another question to ask yourself: Are this person’s words intended to heal or harm? If the latter, don’t help them spread their malice.
If you do choose to engage, don’t start with the most rancorous issues. Look for topics where you can find some agreement—perhaps a local initiative or a shared interest in family safety. Start there. Listen without judgment. Listen to understand. Share your own stories. After some trust has developed, you may be able to have a respectful conversation about the election, climate change, or immigration.
If there’s clearly no point of agreement, conclude the conversation by saying something like, “I hope when this is all over, we can agree to come together and work on healing our country.”
It all comes down to…
Bemoaning incivility and yet succumbing to it ourselves only incites more discourtesy. If we want to see civil behaviors, we need to model them. This goes for our virtual interactions as well as our face-to-face ones. It means communicating with civility on social media and refusing to click on, engage with, or forward the messages of those who don’t. This takes resolve and practice.
Modeling the world as we would like it to be means approaching each day with the intention of spreading kindness. And entering each encounter with the question, “How can I offer my kindness here?” And it means recognizing and accepting kindnesses as they are given to us, and knowing when we need to give kindness to ourselves.
None of us is ever going to become perfect at kindness. There will always be times when we fall short of our best self. Still, each time we choose kindness, we strengthen that superpower in us and we move closer to making kindness our default setting. When enough of us have done that, one day we will look around and see a changed world.
Let’s start today to change the world.
“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” (L.R. Knost)