Being Kind To People We Don’t Like

“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you – not because they are nice, but because you are.” (Author Unknown) 

Attribution: Donna CameronTry as we might, there are probably still going to be people we just don’t like and probably never will. I’m not talking about the crooks, criminals, and psychopaths whom we wisely disdain and avoid, but the everyday disagreeable creatures, nuisances, and scalawags who populate our lives and challenge us in unwelcome ways.

We encounter them occasionally—the ornery neighbor, the obstinate board member, the know-it-all acquaintance, the perpetually petulant client. We can ignore them to the degree possible, but even then they’re still present, a plaguing irritation that brings clouds to otherwise sunshiny days.

Radical Kindness

What if we engage in radical kindness to not only tolerate our encounters with taxing people, but to learn to see them as likable and even admirable? To feel gratitude for these people in our lives?

If we approach our encounters with the irritants in our lives with a spirit of inquiry and openness, we may be surprised to learn that the everyday jerks we encounter have some pretty good qualities. We may also recognize that there are likely to be people who see us as the everyday jerks in their lives.

I have noted many times before that I am a firm believer in the notion that what we look for is generally what we see. So those people who spend their days looking for things to criticize find them everywhere, and people who look for the good find good at every turn.

What would happen if instead of avoiding or grudgingly accepting the annoying people in our lives—the ones we’ve never learned to like—we deliberately look for their kindness? Maybe it’s not evident on the surface, but if we look deeper, we’re going to find it. Maybe that board or committee member who sets everyone’s teeth on edge with their negativity and self-promotion does pro-bono work in underserved communities. Or maybe we can appreciate their commitment to the organization even if we struggle to appreciate their methods. Maybe that neighbor who complains about everything and yells at kids for making too much noise loves animals and takes care of wounded birds. And maybe his kindness is masked by shyness, fear, or social ineptitude.

What if, knowing our path is going to cross with a person we have not been able to like, we determine that we will look for their kindness and find a way for their kindness and ours to intersect? We will go beyond merely gritting our teeth and tolerating the person to recognizing their kindness and welcoming them into our lives.

I’m lucky that there are very few people in my life whom I dislike. Over the years I’ve seen that people I may initially feel some aversion toward become quite likable once I get to know them. They didn’t change, I did. Everything changes once I turn off that judge-y part of me and recognize that a behavior I find displeasing may be the result of fear, uncertainty, or clumsiness. We’re all just doing the best we can, and for most of us our best will always be imperfect, since we are a work-in-progress until the day we die.

To overcome any dislike I may feel, I’ve been trying to look for the kindness in those few objectionable people I encounter. Kindness is there—in nearly everyone—and it’s surprisingly easy to find. What I’m learning is that I am better able to separate the person from their behaviors. So I can say now I appreciate that person, even if I don’t like or understand some of their actions. There are exceptions to every rule and I am finding Donald Trump to be that exception. I’m sure he has likable qualities—he’d be the first to say so—but appreciation for him has not been easy to muster.

There are bound to be some people who seem to defy all efforts to be seen as likable. They’re in our lives for a reason, and an important one. From them, we learn tolerance, or perhaps patience, or perhaps we recognize some quality of our own which in them is magnified to a degree that is instantly offensive. If nothing else, perhaps we can appreciate them for their role as being a warning to others to not behave this way (thanks, Donald!). With these few individuals our choice then becomes whether to let them negatively influence our behaviors and beliefs, or to look harder for their kindness, and to extend kindness as best we can and be grateful for what we have learned from them.

We never go wrong if we look for the kindness.

“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind.” (Khalil Gibran)

Kindness Report Card

 “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong.  Because someday in your life, you will have been all of these.”  (George Washington Carver)

gradesThe first three months of my year of living kindly have passed like a kid on a skateboard.  Since the end of a quarter seems like an appropriate time for a report card, I will indulge in some self-evaluation.

Am I kinder than I was three months ago?  I think so, but my husband says he hasn’t noticed any difference.

Admittedly, Bill sees me at my worst.  He’s also quick to alert me when I fall short of my intent.  After an apple-green Fiat pulls out right in front of our car from a side street causing me to mash down my brakes, and then slows to a crawl ahead of me, I say, “Oh, come on, lady, really, how about looking both ways?”

Bill’s response: “Was that kind?”  No, probably not.

[Note to self for next time I embark on anything of this nature: do not share intentions with husband—assuming same husband; do not invite him to follow blog.]

As I review the concepts I’ve explored over the last three months, I see that there are some areas where I have taken my ideas to heart, and some where I may not have picked up my own gauntlet.

Overall, I guess I’d give myself about a C+.  Just looking at that grade makes me shudder.  When I was in school (back in the days of crinoline and manual typewriters), anything less than an A was terribly upsetting, and anything lower than a B—well—other than a C in penmanship in 4th grade—I never got any grades lower than B’s (and very few of those).  So giving myself a C+ in kindness feels like failing a test in a favorite subject.

In our office, we’ve been talking a lot about evaluations, and we decided there’s a lot to be said for a simple “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” method.  Thumbs up indicates that one’s on the right track, and thumbs down indicates the need for a lot more work.

thumbs downUnder the “needs a lot of work” area of my report card, I would list the following:

Kindness awareness – My tendency toward obliviousness throughout most areas of my life extends to kindness.  I am missing opportunities to be kind by simply not seeing them.  Just as I step over piles of clutter in my office and totally don’t see dirty dishes on the kitchen counter, I am often oblivious to situations where I could offer a kind word or deed.  It is not intentional, it is my own failure to be present and mindful.  I think it’s called GAD (general awareness disorder), and there’s undoubtedly a pharmaceutical company looking into it, or a support group for us somewhere, but, well, who’s paying attention…?

Being judge-y – I think I am doing better here, but I still catch myself with unkind or critical thoughts.  I am, however, far less likely to voice them and more able to brush them aside.  I still find myself wondering, though, about the people who allow their screaming kids to run around the restaurant, or the ones who leave their carts blocking the grocery aisle while they talk on their phones.  I guess they are oblivious in their own ways, too.  Someone told me that it’s okay to think snarky thoughts if I keep them to myself.  I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll take a pass whenever offered.

Risking rejection or looking foolish – At times, I am still hesitant to extend a kindness if I fear it will be rejected.  Likewise, I have passed on opportunities to be kind if I feared they would draw unwanted attention or if I might appear incompetent or foolish.  I play it too safe.  I am incompetent and foolish in so many areas of my life—might as well admit it, get over it, and plough through.

thumbs downMy report card might classify these as “on the right track”:

Patience – While still a long way to go, I am more patient.  I am taking to heart my own perspective that if my #1 job is to be kind, then it’s much easier to be patient when someone or something gets in my way or slows me down.  If being kind supersedes all else, the time it takes shouldn’t bother me—and, more and more, it doesn’t.

Kindness expectations – I am making an effort to expect kindness and smooth sailing in all my interactions, and with very few exceptions that is what I am experiencing.  It does appear that given a chance most people’s default setting is kindness.  The downside to this is that I have had almost no opportunities to see how I do at expressing kindness in the face of unkindness or rudeness.  People are all just so nice.

Kindness awareness – Yes, this was also on my “needs work” list, but there are areas of progress.  I have gotten in the habit of frequently asking myself before I say or do something: Is this the kindest action?  Is this the kind response?  And there have been times when that pause has enabled me to adjust my course or choose differently or more wisely.  A couple of weeks ago, I was stopped for speeding—first time in 35 years.  As the policeman walked up to my car, I reminded myself to be kind and friendly—that this part of his job was not always pleasant.  Are you thinking that I charmed him out of writing me a ticket?  No, that didn’t happen, but he very kindly wrote me up for only five miles above the speed limit, instead of the thirteen I was actually going, which saved me about $70 on the ticket.  I thanked him very sincerely.  Now, on my way home from work, when I see him parked in that same hidden driveway, I am tempted to wave, but I fear he may misinterpret the sign.

Expressing appreciation – Going back to that oblivious thing, I know I am still missing a lot of opportunities to express appreciation, but I am also doing it more: commending people for their work, notes of appreciation, sincere thanks.

So, as a new quarter starts, I see that I have some work to do: I want to extend kindness more even when it may be out of my way or inconvenient—always mindful that it’s my #1 job.  I want to take some risk and be kind even if it might not be comfortable.  I want to overcome inertia and obliviousness and expand my kindness radar.  I want to continue to pause, to express thanks, and look for the kind response.  I also want to get at least a B next quarter, or find a teacher who grades easier….

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”  (Tom Bodett)

Hurry Up! Hurry Up! … Impatience as a Barrier to Kindness

The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others(Erik Erikson)

Attribution: Donna CameronWe’ve looked at fear as a barrier to kindness, and the previous post explored time—or our lack of it—as a major obstacle to being kind.  With lives that are overflowing with obligations, deadlines, and activities, making time to be kind may not always be a priority.  Today, I want to ponder a subset of the time conundrum: impatience.

Sometimes impatience is the result of feeling one doesn’t have time for the chit-chat, or time to be kept on hold.  And sometimes, we may have all the time in the world, but we don’t have much tolerance for the circumstances we find ourselves in.

When Time Is the Problem

If I am in a hurry, taking time to say kind words, offer assistance, or extend myself will just slow me down more.  I’ll fall further behind.  Sometimes it feels like the more rushed I am, the more things seem to be conspiring to get in my way: the slowest checker in the market, the driver who is stuck in first gear, the acquaintance who wants to tell me in great detail how she selected the yarn for the sweaters she is knitting for her dogs.  Yikes, I don’t have time for this!  I’m sure they’ll understand if I blow them off … after all, I’m busy!

But what is it I’m rushing to?  Often, it’s my job, a meeting, the next obligation on my never-ending list.  How many of us are so important or so overscheduled that we really haven’t time to be kind?  And if we are that important or overscheduled, is it by our choice, or someone else’s, or maybe nobody’s—we just think that’s the way it’s supposed to be?

Perhaps if I change my perspective.  Instead of allowing myself to get impatient because I have to go do my job, what if I decide my number one job is to be kind?

If being kind is my most important job, won’t it be easier to stand in line at the grocery story while the person in front of me fumbles for her checkbook and questions the cashier about the price of broccoli?  Won’t it be easier to follow the car going 25 when the speed limit is 45? Won’t it be easier to wait through 15 minutes on hold for the next customer service representative?  It’s all part of the job.

When Time Isn’t the Issue

Sometimes we may have the time we need to extend a kindness, but we may not have the tolerance.

I’m going to make a confession here:  I was really late in learning to tie my shoes, really late.  Most of my friends had that skill down when they were 4 or 5.  I was still struggling at 7.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn, but my parents quickly discovered that teaching me wasn’t easy and it was a lot easier just to tie my shoes for me, or to buy me shoes that didn’t need tying.  The problem was that I was left-handed and everyone else in my family was right-handed.  They’d show me how they did it, but I couldn’t make my hands do what theirs did.  Then they’d try to figure out how to do it from a left-handed perspective and they couldn’t do it.  So, the hell with it, just tie the kid’s shoes for her and send her on her way.

Finally, my mom or my dad found someone who was left-handed and asked them to show me.  Happily for all, the learning came easily and I’ve been tying my own shoes quite successfully for many decades.

My point here is that regardless of time issues, patience is required when it comes to teaching and to learning.  The best parents, teachers, and managers know that they need to allow the learner to stumble, fumble, or even just sit and think about it—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.  My husband tutors kids in math and I see this patient kindness in his teaching.  If one explanation doesn’t do the trick, Bill finds another, or asks just the right questions until the students get it themselves.  He never rushes them, and when they finally get a concept, they own it.

Sometimes, we may think we’re being kind when we rush in to help, or to fix, or to get it just right, but what we may be doing is disempowering the person we think we’re helping.  The truly kind response may be to stand by silently while they figure it out, or explain a concept again in a different way, or to be willing to show someone something for the tenth time.  And that requires patience.

It takes patience to be kind and kindness to be patient.  But if I can view being kind as my job, it will be much easier to patiently teach a child, or instruct a new employee in an unfamiliar skill, or refrain from jumping in and doing something myself, thus denying someone else a valuable growth lesson.

“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul.” (Simone Weil)

The Fundamental Things Apply … As Time Goes By

“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)

By User:S Sepp (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:S Sepp  via Wikimedia Commons

Time seems to be our most precious resource these days.  We all have the same 24 hours, but for most of us, it’s never enough.  There’s rarely enough time to do everything we want to do.  And using some of that precious time to extend kindness may not be a priority.

Last February on Forbes.com, contributor Tim Maurer wrote a thoughtful article entitled, “Time Is More Precious Than Money.”  That’s right, Forbes, not High Times.

Maurer, a financial advisor, is part of a group of advisors that is deliberately asking new questions of themselves and their clients—questions that are intended to go beyond portfolios and financial investments to explore the values that make our lives richer in every sense, not just ka-ching.  When he explores asset allocation with his clients, he wants to probe beyond securities and talk about how they allocate their time, their lives, and their love.  Maurer states:  “We have the choice to order our loves, to acknowledge the limited nature of time and our own capacity, and to prioritize our work and life.”

As we allocate our time, are we creating space for kindness?  If it’s a priority, we will.  But, it’s a choice we need to make consciously, otherwise it may be squeezed out by the myriad other things clamoring for our time and attention.

It takes time to be kind.

  • It takes time to pause and think about what is the kind response.
  • It takes time to step out of our routine and enter into a genuine conversation, or provide assistance when doing so might delay us from our appointed rounds.
  • It takes time to be patient—to allow someone to fumble, stumble, and learn—without jumping in to fix, show them how to “do it right,” or do it for them.
  • It takes time to reach into our pocket and find a dollar that might help someone make it through another day and then to look that person in the eye and say a kind word as we hand it to them.
  • It takes time even to be kind to ourselves—to stop and think about whether what we need most is to slow down, take a walk, relax….

When I was working 60+ hours a week, and also trying to maintain some sort of a life outside of work, I think I often blew off opportunities to be kind.  The few moments it would take to drop someone a note, or to go out of my way to pick up a small gift, or to invite a friend to lunch or bake a treat for a neighbor…all were just too much, like dumping a bathtub full of water into an already sinking rowboat.

I have friends and colleagues whose workloads were as crazy as mine who nonetheless often went out of their way to be kind.  Their kindness, and their priorities put me to shame.  What great examples they are.  These are people who are just naturally kind and who would probably think it ridiculous to set an intention of kindness, or to spend time pondering the nature of kindness.  To them, kindness is like breathing, it requires no thought.

Kindness isn’t something we do only when we have time for it.  Kindness is how we choose to live.  I’m reminded of Robert Corin Morris’ lovely quote:

“The way we live our life is our spiritual practice—no more, no less, nothing but, nothing else.”

Now that I’ve cut my workload by half, I’m trying to look for those opportunities I used to overlook, and I’m also seeing that fitting them into my previous life might have been just what I needed—for kindness is energizing.  Isn’t it curious how many great lessons we learn through our rear-view mirrors?

It may not always be a good time to extend kindness, but it’s almost always the right time.

There are so many barriers to kindness.  I suspect, though, that once I can make kindness a natural, first response, the barriers begin to crumble.  Once I no longer have to tell myself to pause, to engage, to connect, kindness will become second-nature … at least that’s my hope.  For now, time and I are still skirmishing.  And I remind myself daily that taking time for kindness is what gives meaning to life.

“When I am constantly running there is no time for being. When there is no time for being there is no time for listening.” (Madeleine L’Engle)