Kindness Requires Presence

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Blue Moon at Storm Lake, July 2015

Remember how annoying it was as a child or adolescent to hear teachers repeatedly admonish their students to “Pay attention”? Sometimes it was code for “this will be on the test.” Other times, it was said over and over because the teacher had lost the students’ interest and instructing them to “pay attention” was probably easier than exploring new ways of making geometry or 18th century European history exciting. The best teachers rarely said “pay attention”—they didn’t need to.

All these years later, I keep a little slip of paper bearing the words “Pay Attention” taped next to my desk. I think it’s one of the secrets of a good life.

I’ve also come to see that it’s one of the requirements of a consistently kind life. If we are unaware of what’s going on around us, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to be kind. It might be something simple like holding a door for a stranger, making eye-contact and smiling, or offering to help someone who is struggling with heavy packages. Or it may not be so simple—it might be recognizing despair on a friend’s face and taking time to listen to their story, or thinking about just the right words to say to help a child deal with disappointment or rejection. If we’re oblivious, we miss all these opportunities to make a difference.

Opportunities to extend kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. And these days we’re all so distracted by technology that we lose awareness of what is going on around us.

Choosing Presence

people textingMeetings are a major component of my profession: educational seminars, conferences, board meetings, committee meetings, breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings. It’s how we learn, how we network, how we get the business of our non-profit organizations done.

It used to be that during breaks at meetings and conferences, people would help themselves to a cup of coffee and chat with others attending the meeting. Now, people still grab the coffee, but then they stand in solitude at a distance of about four feet from one another and they stare intently into their devices. They check email, they text, they surf the net. What they do very little of is connect with other people in the room. I’ve had people admit to me that sometimes they pretend to check emails because it’s what everyone else is doing and they feel self-conscious just standing there with no one to talk to. If I’m going to be completely honest, I’ll admit that I’ve done it myself.

That person-to-person networking of days gone by was often as valuable as the formal education of the meetings. It’s where practical, informal learning took place, not to mention cultivating business connections and making friends. Have we all really become so important and indispensable that we can’t disconnect for two or three hours? And if it’s true that we are expected to be constantly connected, is that a good thing? I don’t consider myself a Luddite—though some may call me one after reading this—but I do think we’ve become too connected to our electronic devices—to the detriment of connection with our fellow humans.

I think we’ve lost sight of our own capacity to set boundaries. We’ve let the devices rule us, when it should be the other way around.

At the park near our house I see parents absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to their children’s exuberant cartwheels or triumphant heights on the swings. I wonder whose loss is greater here….

I see couples in restaurants, apparently on a date, but both of them repeatedly checking their phones and responding to texts or emails. I see people walking along busy streets and sidewalks, oblivious to everything but the phone in their hands. At the symphony, I saw the glow of many hand-held devices—their operators oblivious to the magnificence of a Sibelius concerto. What are we missing when we choose not to be fully present to our lives?

When I lead groups in strategic planning I remind them that everything they say “yes” to means there is something else they must say “no” to—so they need to think hard about what is most important to them. It’s the same for us as individuals: what are we saying “no” to as we say “yes” to perpetual connectivity?

Mindfulness Fosters Compassion

There is research from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others that mindfulness cultivates compassion and altruism. Experiments have shown that mindfulness training makes people more likely to recognize and help others—even strangers—in need. It doesn’t seem like rocket science: if we’re present for our lives—paying attention—we’re going to recognize when our gifts are needed: a smile, a word of kindness, a proffered hand.

I suspect it works for self-kindness, too. If we are aware and awake to our lives, we are more likely to recognize that we are tired and we need to rest, or we are stressed and need to pause. As we cultivate awareness of our own lives, we will be better able to recognize and respond to the needs of others. We can’t live a life of kindness toward others if we are not kind to ourselves.

And it all begins with the simple act of choosing to be present, and choosing again and again what we will pay attention to.

“Every day, we are given countless opportunities to offer our gifts to those at work, in our families, our relationships…. If you give less than what you are, you dishonor the gift of your own precious life.” (Wayne Muller)

Kindness in the Workplace

“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.”  (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Cloudy Sunrise at Storm LakeOver the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of books about business, management, and leadership.  A lot.  Probably enough to fill a good-sized bookcase.  Many I purchased; many were given to me by authors who wanted to introduce me to their ideas in hopes that I would hire them to speak at a client conference.  I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read quite a few, and I’ve started many more but never gotten past the first few chapters.

I’ve been leafing through them over the last few weeks and have been disappointed—though though not surprised—to see that words like kindness and compassion are mostly absent.  Even the books that approach leadership in refreshing and enlightened ways: The Art of Supportive Leadership, Love and Profit—The Art of Caring Leadership, Leadership Jazz, Leading Change, Leading with Soul….  They’re all good books with good ideas, and good intentions, but the authors don’t seem to see kindness as an important element of leadership.  It baffles me.

It’s as if kindness is too weak and nebulous a concept to be put forth in a serious book about business.  There were a few exceptions and those books happened to be not only the ones that I read all the way through, but often they were the ones that I have read several times and highlighted extensively.  Notable among these were Lance Secretan’s excellent books, Reclaiming Higher Ground and Inspirational Leadership.

I can’t think of many places more in need of kindness than the business world and the American workplace.  Or many places where kindness would make such a difference.  I have to assume that there are business books that address the importance of kindness in the workplace, and I just haven’t come across them yet.  I hope someone will point them out to me.

Several years ago, one of our company’s long-time employees retired.  At the retirement party we held for her, she said the word she would use to describe the company if she were asked was “kind.” I remember thinking at the time that I could think of no word I would rather hear used to describe our company.

Oh, sure, I want us to be daringly innovative and wildly profitable, but even above these qualities, I want us to be kind.  Since that day when Margaret labeled our company’s defining trait, I think we have been more conscious of that value and more committed to it.  Kindness was always modeled by our company’s founder, Lynn Melby, and as each subsequent partner joined the ownership team, we implicitly accepted kindness as one of our personal values, and we continued to cultivate kindness along the way.  That’s not to say we haven’t slipped occasionally.  We’re human, after all, and the business world can, at times, challenge the kindest intentions.

It isn’t easy to always be kind in business, and there may be times when kindness is well-disguised, but if the underlying culture is kind, the intention generally shines through.  Whether we are interviewing, training, correcting, or even terminating an employee, we do our utmost to approach it kindly—using empathy and compassion.  In client or vendor situations, likewise, when problems arise we look for solutions that are fair and respectful to all.  Where we have perhaps failed is in keeping clients too long that don’t share our values.  Clients who don’t practice kindness themselves.  Clients that don’t want to pay for the services they receive, or who put the blame on others for mistakes they make, or who ask us to bend our integrity on their behalf.

Choosing Integrity

A few years ago, after a large conference, a couple of our staff noticed that the hotel had missed a sizable food and beverage charge on the bill.  The client’s convention chair directed them to pay the bill quickly and not point out the error.  Our staff followed their consciences rather than his instructions.  They pointed out the error to the hotel and asked for a corrected bill.  The chairman was not happy.

In doing this, our team not only did the right thing, but also modeled our values to our client and to their office colleagues.  The longer I am in business, the more certain I am that success lies in working with people—employees, clients, suppliers, business partners—who share our values.

Unkind people can learn to be kind, just as dishonest people can learn to be honest.  But if they choose not to value those traits it is probably because beneath it all they believe that others are just as unkind or dishonest as they are.  Our job, then, is to decide whether to work with such people.  If they are likely to change, we should give them that chance, but if they are unlikely to, we should seek our business partners elsewhere.

There’s so much more to be said about kindness in business and in the workplace.  What has been your experience of kindness (or its absence) in business?  Please share your thoughts below.  Maybe we can start a dialogue.

“We live under the illusion that organizations are ‘them’ when, in reality, they are ‘us.’  If we wish to work in evolved organizations, we must each be the first to start the journey.” (Lance Secretan)

Great Expectations

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronI look at this year as an opportunity for me to practice kindness and to learn to extend kindness more often and more naturally.  It is also an opportunity for me to expand my kindness awareness, to see others acting kindly and recognize the act for what it is.

While I will undoubtedly observe many incidents of unkindness or of kindness opportunities missed—and many will surely be my own—I don’t want to spend my time looking for or focused on those negative examples.  As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

It has been my experience that for the most part, in our day-to-day lives we get what we expect.  If I expect to be treated with courtesy and respect, I generally am, and am greatly surprised when not treated thusly.  Of course, I am saying this as a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman.  I am not so naïve that I don’t realize I could be treated very differently if I were of a different age, race, gender, background, or circumstances.  Far too many people still react out of prejudice, fear, and ignorance.  That brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s words in the intro to his classic song, National Brotherhood Week: “There are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that.” Still, I want to be a person who expects the best—of myself and others.

When What We Do Gets in the Way of Who We Are

There are a lot of people—smart, generous, and kind—whose professions have trained them to look for what’s wrong and rewarded them for their efforts.  We saw this with certain clients in our company over the years.  If success in their profession requires that they be good at finding mistakes, aberrations, or imprecision—as building inspectors, clinical diagnosticians, or auditors, for example—they sometimes extend that ability to other parts of their lives, often completely unaware that it may not be appropriate or appreciated.  They are always the ones to point out the typo in the newsletter … they find fault with the way the hedge was clipped or the lawn was mowed … they feel the need to inform their waitress in the Thai restaurant that “Wellcome” is misspelled on the menu (let’s you and I move to Bangkok and open a restaurant and see if we get everything right)….

Sadly, they listen for the missed note rather than for the music.

Sometimes, with only a few words, they can suck the life and joy out of an encounter.  They’re “just trying to help” by pointing out a flaw, but the person they’ve pointed it out to can be annoyed, demoralized, and even demotivated.  We saw the damage such behaviors wreak in a board room; I can only imagine what having such a critical person as a spouse or parent might be like.

The lesson here may be that what makes someone good at their job may not be the same skills that make them a good parent, board member, or friend.  Sometimes, the kindest thing we can do is overlook the unimportant blunder, the mispronunciation, the misstatement.  It’s hard, though, if you’ve been trained to seek out flaws, or if it’s important to you that everyone knows how smart you are.  I think it sometimes comes down to would you rather be right or happy? because you can’t always be both.  This is one of those lessons we learn and relearn, and choices we choose and rechoose.

An editor friend of mine once told me he finds it hard at times to read for pleasure, because he can’t turn off the editor in his head.  He finds himself looking for errors or better ways to craft a sentence rather than enjoying the author’s passion or the story.

Wayne Muller, in one of my favorite books of all time, How, Then, Shall We Live? elegantly describes the dangers of honing our critical skills to the exclusion of others:

“All we are is a result of what we have thought.  If we focus the lion’s share of our energy on what we believe is wrong…, we gradually grow into people who are good at seeing what is wrong….  Instead of creating a life of beauty and meaning, we may simply become better and better at seeing only what is broken.”