What Are We All So Afraid Of?

“Be not afraid.  A kind life, a life of spirit, is fundamentally a life of courage—the courage simply to bring what you have, to bring who you are.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronAs I continue to re-examine some of the key ideas that emerged during my initial year of living kindly, I note how often fear emerges as a barrier to kindness—both to our expressing it and to our receiving it. And beyond inhibiting kindness, fear is also very often at the root of unkindness and incivility.

Why is fear such a big factor in keeping us from being our best selves?

Extending Kindness

We’re often hesitant to extend a kindness because we fear the result. Is it the right thing? Will I say the wrong words? Is it enough? Is it too much? Will it be rejected? Will I be rejected? If I offer assistance to someone, will they take offense that I perceived them as incapable? Fear can be paralyzing and our opportunity to express it passes by swiftly.

We also fear embarrassment. Kindness may take us out of our comfort zone; it may ask us to do something new. Perhaps we’ll be clumsy or awkward, or we’ll call attention to ourselves in an unwelcome way. If I stop to hand a couple of dollars to someone in need, will my companion scold me and call me a bleeding heart?

The question we all too often fail to ask is, “Could my kindness here make a positive difference?”

Receiving Kindness

On the receiving end of kindness, we may fear being perceived as weak or needy. Or perhaps we want to maintain a distance between ourselves and the giver; we fear strings may be attached to the proffered kindness. Receiving can be just as awkward and clumsy as giving—maybe we fear we don’t deserve the kindness, or it is out of proportion to our own smaller generosity. Maybe we’ll embarrass the giver, or ourselves. Accepting the kindness of others with grace and appreciation is itself an act of kindness. And a pretty easy one, at that. But it takes practice. Whether you are offered a material gift, assistance, or a compliment, do your best to receive it courteously and savor the kindness.

Perhaps the question to ask here is, “What’s the most gracious response I can offer?”

Behaving Unkindly

When we see unkindness, at its root is often fear. When someone lashes out at another person, it may not be for anything the person has or hasn’t done. They are simply the nearest individual on whom to deflect blame, embarrassment, or anger. Not so long ago at a downtown hotel parking lot, a number of people were in line at the payment kiosk. The person who was trying to pay could not get his credit card to work. He turned it one way, then the next, he inserted it slowly, then quickly. He tried a different card with the same result. People behind him were beginning to get impatient, though they tried not to show it. Finally, someone suggested pushing the button that would summon an attendant. When the attendant arrived, he helped the fellow process his payment in less than 30 seconds. Instead of being grateful, the man just got angrier. He berated the attendant for the machine’s poor quality, and for the exorbitant price of the parking, and finally for the inconvenience he was subjected to. Perhaps he was angered over the inconvenience, but it appeared more likely that he was embarrassed and feared the judgment of people waiting behind him to pay. Were they thinking he was incompetent? After all, none of the people ahead of him had experienced any problem with the machine.

Many of the things we fear are threats to our pride, to the image we have of ourselves. When our pride is threatened, when we fear that others—or even ourselves—will see that we are not as strong, smart, capable, or lovable as we believe ourselves to be, we often strike out or strike back. We act unkindly.

The question to ask here is, “What am I afraid of?”

I think one of the best moments of our lives is when we stop worrying about what other people think of us or how we are being judged. The truth is that most people are far too concerned with themselves to spend much time appraising others. And those who do want to belittle, snicker, and sneer simply aren’t worth worrying about!

Change the Question

When I first wrote about how fear inhibits our kindness, I suggested that the question we often ask ourselves in the face of fear, “What’s the worst that could happen?” is the wrong question to ask. I still believe that’s true. Much better is to ask, “What’s the best that could happen?” Focusing on best enables us to see the potential our kindness holds—to brighten a life, to alter the tone of an encounter, to change the world. We need to remember that kindness has ripples far beyond our awareness. A seemingly small action could trigger others, which trigger still more, and, ultimately, might be the tipping point that transforms the world.

Focusing on best diminishes our fear and also keeps our desired goal front-and-center in our mind. If we focus on worst, our subconscious points toward it. If we focus on best, all our capacities conspire to make that happen. All it takes is practice and confidence that the path of kindness will lead us where we want to go.

The Power of Kindness

Many people still choose to see kindness as a sign of weakness. They erroneously equate it with being wishy-washy or a pushover. If I exhibit kindness, I’ll be inviting others to take advantage of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kindness takes strength, it takes resolve and courage, and the willingness to be vulnerable.

When fear threatens to deter our kindness, or to incite unkindness, we need to remember that kindness has the ability and power to vanquish our fears. Then, step past the fear and claim our kindness.

“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees.” (Amelia Earhart)

Choosing to Be For or Against … Redux

“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 CameronOne of the things I learned during my year of living kindly was to be better at pausing when I saw unkindness and look for an interpretation that might explain it. I’m not always successful but the act of pausing also reminds me that we often respond reflexively to external stimuli—and our first response is sometimes not the best response, and is, in fact, often regretted.

So, when I heard that members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church were protesting vocally and viciously outside funerals and memorial services for some of the victims of the Orlando shooting, I paused and tried to think of some way to interpret their actions that humanized them. I couldn’t and I can’t.

Like the shooter himself, these people are haters and the God they purport to serve is a hating god. I went to their website to try to understand. It sickened me. I won’t insert a link—it’s that offensive. These are the same people who protested and disrupted the funeral of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard nearly 20 years ago. These are not people who are interested in kindness or compassion, or in listening to other views, and the God they portray is just like them. The best I can muster for them is pity.

It may be that some of them are kind to their families, or to people who share their distorted views, or perhaps they show compassion to stray puppies and kittens. But they are not kind people, and, as far as I can tell, kindness is not a behavior they would ever have regard for.

What sort of life is it that is so focused on hate?

I find I keep thinking about a post I wrote a year ago—one that explored the idea that we create our world by what we choose to pay attention to. If we choose positive over negative, good over bad, kindness over apathy or disrespect, we move toward manifesting the world we want to live in, and that future generations will appreciate. If we choose to hate, to repress, or to banish those who think or act differently from ourselves, we build a world of mistrust, intolerance, and hostility. Such a world is small and colorless, and devoid of joy.

The whole of last year’s post can be viewed here, but I want to retell a story I included. It’s a small story of a woman who is not famous and doesn’t want to be. In the wake of Orlando, and during Pride month it resonates with me, perhaps it will with you, as well:

[from June 2015]

Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

I was reminded of that quote when I read Jerry Large’s column in The Seattle Times. He wrote about a woman in the nearby town of Snohomish who was being removed as a volunteer leader in Young Life, a well-established Christian organization for high-school students. Pam Elliott’s “crime” was participating with other mothers in making decorations for the Seattle Pride Parade later this month, and posting the pictures on her Facebook page. She did it in support of a friend and the friend’s gay son, and because she believes in equality for everyone.

“Love is love,” Elliott said. “I am not a big activist, I’m supporting my friend. This is what we do for each other, we love each other’s kids like our own.”

The Young Life people gave her a choice. Ms. Elliott can continue her work as a volunteer leader—work which she loves—if she retracts her Facebook posting and stops aligning herself with the gay rights movement. The choice she made was to continue to support her friend and her friend’s son … and what she knows to be right. I’m not comparing Pam Elliott with Mother Teresa, but, like Mother Teresa, Ms. Elliott chose to stand for something, rather than against something else.


This has been a year of such divisiveness, and with the November elections still several months away we can anticipate even more rancor and animosity. Perhaps if we pause to remind ourselves occasionally that we can choose to stand for something rather than against something else we might contribute real and lasting value to our social fabric.

Every day, every hour, we choose who we are going to be, and in making that choice, we choose the world we want to live in, and want our children and theirs to live in. We must choose wisely … and kindly.

“A tree is known by its fruit; a man by his deeds. A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.” (Saint Basil, Bishop of Cesarea)

My Biggest Kindness Lessons

“We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” (Max De Pree)

Attribution: Donna CameronIn my last post, I looked at the quieter ahas that I’ve encountered in this year of living kindly. No less important than the loud ones, they have tended to tap me on my shoulder lightly or whisper their secrets in my ear. Today, the lessons are a bit less subtle—they whumped me upside my head—often multiple times—or bellowed to me from the tree-tops. Here are my biggest lessons in kindness:

Pay attention. A huge aha is the role of mindfulness in kindness. All I need to do is pay attention and I see that opportunities to extend kindness are everywhere (as are examples of kindness). So often, we operate on automatic-pilot, oblivious to the people and circumstances around us, and the difference a word, a smile, or an act of kindness could make. I’ve come to see that the simple reminder to “pay attention” may be one of the universal secrets to a good life. And like so many other things related to kindness, it’s simple, but it isn’t easy. 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.

Pause. I would put the power of the pause up against the power of the Hoover Dam. It’s that big. Instead of speaking or acting in instant response to a situation, taking the time to pause and think about what I want my response to activate—and why—has been transformative. In the space of that brief pause, I might totally change my reaction, or perhaps decide not to respond at all. That pause has always guided me to a better place.

Let go of judgment. It so easy when we see people behaving inconsiderately to judge them—especially in settings where we are thrown together to navigate crowded spaces, such as congested streets and highways or teeming markets. In such settings, it often seems that strangers are there just to get in our way or slow us down. We judge them for their aberrant driving, for being oblivious obstructions, and sometimes just for taking up too much space on the planet. We do it to strangers and often we do it to friends and loved ones, too—especially when we’re feeling tired or depleted. Instead of attributing a silence or an ill-chosen word to malice or resentment, we can assume good intent. We can just as easily say to ourselves, “I’m sure she didn’t mean that the way it sounded.” Why wouldn’t we want to believe the best rather than the worst? Suspending judgment is hard, but it’s one of the first big steps in behaving kindly.

Kindness has no ending. It just keeps reverberating outward and serving life in ways we may never know. Every once in a while, you hear a story about someone who was at the end of their tether—about to explode or self-destruct—and an unexpected kindness arrived to lessen the pain and show them a more positive alternative. We can never know if even the tiniest kindness we extend might ripple out to eventually change the world. What a great reason to send out all the ripples we can!

Being kind is more important than being right. Another transformative aha. So many of us were raised to be smart—and rewarded for being smart—that we have often tended to value smart over kind, and being right over … well, just about anything. It’s not that we can’t be both kind and smart or kind and right, but on those occasions when we have to choose between them, choosing kind is also our path to peace.

What we think about is what we become. And what we look for is what we are most likely to see. We can spend our time pursuing life’s broken bits and catching others’ mistakes, and the more we do it, the better we’ll get at it. But where’s the satisfaction in always playing “gotcha,” and who will want to play with us? If we invest that energy, instead, in looking for what’s right and what’s good, and recognizing the special qualities of the people we encounter, life will be richer in every way. If we look for goodness and for kindness, we’ll find them.

Kindness requires courage. Fear is probably the biggest reason we don’t extend kindness. We fear rejection, being judged, looking foolish, or becoming vulnerable. We fear venturing into unexplored territory and being seen as weak or clumsy. Sometimes these fears are paralyzing. But the more we tap into and exercise our courage in the face of those fears, the less power they will have over us. Our courage grows the more we use it.

We can always choose kindness. We have control over both our perceptions and our reactions. We can choose the path that leads us to peace. It takes practice, but it’s within our capabilities.

Kindness isn’t a destination; it’s a path. Kindness isn’t something that I can adopt for a single year and then move on. My #1 job is kindness. That’s what I’m here for.

These certainly aren’t all the lessons of kindness. But over this year of trying to live a kind life, these were often consistent and recurring themes. It seems to me that the most important lessons in life are ones that we learn, and relearn, and learn some more. I hope to go on learning these lessons … I still have so much to learn about kindness—enough to last a lifetime.

Or maybe I’m just a slow learner. 

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” (Aesop)

 

Oh, The Stories We Tell!

“The beginning of personal transformation is absurdly easy. We have only to pay attention to the flow of attention itself.” (Marilyn Ferguson) 

Attribution: Donna CameronWe learned in drivers’ training that everyone has a blind spot, or scotoma. Because of the way the eye is constructed, every human being has one. It is a location with no photoreceptor cells, where the retinal ganglion cell axons that compose the optic nerve exit the retina (the biology lesson ends here, I promise).

We may never be aware of our blind spots, though, because we’re really good at compensating—our brains are able to fill in the gap so the surrounding picture appears absolutely complete.

Beyond the physical level, we have blind spots on a psychological level, too, and our brains also attempt to explain the unknown data—with mixed results. We’ve all been there: when we lack information our brains make up stories to fill in the gaps—often the stories are both erroneous and damaging.

Perhaps two co-workers whom you often lunch with head out at noon without asking if you’d like to join them. Bewildered, you make up a story: You offended Carrie when you said you didn’t have time to check the figures on the budget she was working on, or you ticked Erika off by not stopping to chat when you came in this morning. They probably think you’re mad at them, and now they’re mad at you. They’re at lunch talking about you and saying nasty things about you.

By the time they return from lunch 30 minutes later, you’ve woven such a tale of perfidy that you’ve convinced yourself they no longer want to be your friend and nobody else in the office wants to be either. Why should they, after all, you’re a terrible, horrible, very bad person…?

When Carrie and Erika walk in, carrying fast-food take-out bags, you learn that Erika dropped her car off for servicing and Carrie followed to pick her up and drive her back to the office. As they’d feared, it took so long that they only had time to stop for some mediocre take-out, which they’ll now have to eat at their desks.

The story you constructed was entirely false—nobody was mad, nobody was offended, nobody was saying terrible things about you behind your back, and you are not a terrible, worthless person.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we do it all the time. We don’t know the reason someone acted the way they did and we make up a motive that has no basis in reality. It might suit our mood, or our current level of insecurity, or maybe our flair for the dramatic.

How many times has your spouse or significant other seemed a bit distant and you’ve attributed it to anger, lack of interest, or smoldering resentment because you failed to wash your lunch dishes? When the truth is that he is just trying to remember the name of his 8th grade math teacher—and it’s driving him crazy that he can’t.

Many, many years ago, I learned that the board of directors of an organization I served as executive director for held a board meeting without telling me. I stewed for 24 hours. Why would they meet without me? Did I do something terrible they needed to talk about without me present? Are they going to fire me? Finally, I picked up the phone and called the board president. I explained that association boards should never meet without the knowledge and presence of their executive director. It was my job to make sure they never violated any antitrust regulations or nonprofit laws. What, I asked, could possibly have motivated them to hold a meeting without me? There was a long pause at the other end of the line. A very long pause. Finally Doug said, “We do know that, Donna, and ordinarily we’d never meet without telling you, but our conference is coming up and we wanted to honor you for great job you are doing for us. We were talking about the best time to have a special ceremony and what we could buy you for a thank-you gift.”

I felt like bug spit.

Ever since that embarrassing moment, I’ve tried to imagine positive reasons for inexplicable actions rather than—or at least in addition to—negative ones. My positive stories are generally just as erroneous as my negative ones, but while I’m in that suspended limbo of not-knowing, why not enjoy my imaginings rather than agonize and fret over them?

Kindness Lessons

There are some great kindness lessons for us if we take time to think about how we feel and what we do when we have gaps in our knowledge:

Lesson #1: It’s not always about us … in fact, it’s usually not about us. Just because we’re the center of our own universe, it’s very unlikely we hold that exalted position in many other minds. I find this reminder immensely freeing: “Forget what everyone else thinks of you; chances are, they aren’t thinking about you at all.”

Lesson #2: Yield to the curiosity triggered by not-knowing. As we talked about in an earlier post, “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.” Employ curiosity to seek kind and compassionate answers to gaps in our knowledge.

Lesson #3: We can assume one another’s good intent. Instead of attributing a silence or an ill-chosen word to malice or resentment, we can just as easily say to ourselves, “That didn’t come out the way she meant it to … I know her intention was positive.” Why wouldn’t we want to believe the best rather than the worst?

Lesson #4: We always have a choice about the stories we make up. Even if we are drama queens and kings, we can make up stories based on positive assumptions. All it takes is some awareness on our part.

Lesson #5: We can always choose peace. We have control over both our perceptions and our reactions. We can choose the path that leads us to peace. It takes practice, but it’s within our capabilities.

The stories we tell ourselves have power—power to change the world. When was the last time you made up a story to fill a gap in your knowledge? Was it a positive story or a negative one? What are you going to do next time?

“We do not actually know other people; we only know our judgments.” (Bryant McGill)

Bippidi-Boppidi-Boo: The Magic of Kindness

“When you open a door for others, you sometimes open doors for yourself.” (Donald L. Hicks)

CinderellaImagine if Cinderella had been too shy to go to the ball. It would have been a very different story, or, in fact, no story at all. Had she demurred when her fairy godmother offered her a shimmering gown, glass slippers, and a golden coach, her fate would have been to continue as servant and drudge to her demanding stepmother and selfish stepsisters. Years later, tired and worn down by life, she might have thought regretfully about the night she said no because she was too afraid to say yes. So much for happily ever after.

Fortunately for her—and for six-year-old girls everywhere—Cindy was confident and eager to suit up and ride her pimped-out pumpkin to the palace where she became belle of the ball.

But there are thousands of people who face Cindy’s choice daily—though on a smaller and less-Disneyesque scale—and they hold back, out of fear and social anxiety. They feel a paralyzing dread at the thought of entering a social situation—be it attending a party, meeting new people, or speaking out at a meeting. Help is at hand, though, in the form of new research from our friends to the north, showing that kindness alleviates social anxiety.

Social anxiety is more than shyness. According to the Social Anxiety Institute: ”Social anxiety is the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance, … feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.” It is a debilitating condition, isolating the sufferer and often preventing them from developing intimacy or close relationships.

A study recently published in the Journal of Motivation and Emotion by researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in acts of kindness reduced levels of social anxiety and social avoidance.

The study divided college students with social anxiety issues into three groups. One was directed to simply keep a diary of their experiences and emotions, another was exposed to different socialization situations, and the third was instructed to perform acts of kindness—three acts of kindness a day for two days a week over the course of four weeks. The kindnesses could be as simple as mowing a neighbor’s lawn, donating to charity, or washing a roommate’s dishes, and were defined as “acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to oneself.”

After a month, the group tasked with performing acts of kindness reported lower levels of discomfort and anxiety about social interaction than either of the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that “acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions (and expectations) of the social environment. This is likely to occur early in the intervention as participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness, decreasing the perceived need to avoid negative social outcomes.”

So… we feel better about ourselves and our environment when we extend kindness, and we also expect better reactions and results. Thus, we are less fearful. Makes sense.

I suspect, also, that when we are engaged in kind acts, our attention is on the act or the object of it, and we are less aware of our own worries. While this study didn’t specifically look at people performing kindnesses in the social situations that frighten them, I imagine entering such situations with the intent of finding opportunities to be kind would go far to alleviate the fear. It would divert us from feeling self-conscious and worrying about how we are being judged.

While most of us don’t suffer from debilitating social anxiety, this study of kindness can likely be extrapolated to anyone who experiences discomfort in social situations—whether a cocktail party, public speaking, weddings, funerals, or the dating scene. If we replace worrying with looking for opportunities to be kind, we may very well discover that the event we dreaded was enjoyable and painless. And perhaps we’ll be the proverbial belle of the ball.

As Cinderella might, say, “If the shoe fits….”

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  (Dalai Lama)

Choosing to Be For or Against…

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

EagleThese days, when I read the newspaper or listen to the news, I find myself looking or listening for stories about kindness. I like to think that I’m developing a radar of sorts—an inner honing device that seeks and recognizes kindness. I’m a firm believer in the idea that we tend to see whatever it is we’re looking for. If we spend our days looking for what’s wrong, we will become skilled at finding what’s broken, insufficient, or flawed. And if we look for what’s good and right, that’s we will find.

For a couple of decades I’ve had pinned to my bulletin board an old Ashleigh Brilliant postcard that says, “If you look hard enough for what doesn’t exist, eventually it may appear.” A few years ago, a friend noticed it and asked me why that was on my wall, when all my other quotes and cartoons were so positive. I was baffled.

I told her, “But that is positive. It tells me to keep believing, even when I don’t yet see what I’m seeking. It’s all about the power of belief. How do you see it?”

Quite differently, it would seem. She told me, “If I think my husband is cheating on me and I look hard enough, I’ll find out it’s true.”

Well, I guess that is one way of looking at it. [Spoiler alert: the marriage didn’t last much longer.]

To a large degree, I think we do make our own reality. I’ve known people who have had more than their share of loss, illness, and misfortunes, yet they maintain a positive outlook and still manage to find something good in every mishap. They are a joy to be around.

I’ve also known people who see every loss and every misfortune as proof that the world is against them and life’s not fair. More of the same is pretty much all they expect of life, and that pervading gloom is what they convey to others. Spending time with such people can be draining—I’ve heard them referred to as energy vampires.

I’m not advocating being a Pollyanna. Perpetual and mindless cheerfulness can be as tiresome as the persistent pessimist. Each of us needs to be an activist in our own life. When we see unkindness, injustice or prejudice, we must speak out and stand up for what’s right. But if our radar is focused like a heat-seeking missile on finding mistakes and shortcomings, then life is probably pretty bleak. It’s the old glass-half-full or glass-half-empty conundrum.

Mother Teresa is reported to have said, “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”

I was reminded of that quote when I read Jerry Large’s column in The Seattle Times the other day. He wrote about a woman in the nearby town of Snohomish who was being removed as a volunteer leader in Young Life, a well-established Christian organization for high-school students. Pam Elliott’s “crime” was participating with other mothers in making decorations for the Seattle Pride Parade later this month, and posting the pictures on her Facebook page. She did it in support of a friend and the friend’s gay son, and because she believes in equality for everyone.

“Love is love,” Elliott said. “I am not a big activist, I’m supporting my friend. This is what we do for each other, we love each other’s kids like our own.”

The Young Life people gave her a choice. Ms. Elliott can continue her work as a volunteer leader—work which she loves—if she retracts her Facebook posting and stops aligning herself with the gay rights movement. The choice she made was to continue to support her friend and her friend’s son … and what she knows to be right. I’m not comparing Pam Elliott with Mother Teresa, but, like Mother Teresa, Ms. Elliott chose to stand for something, rather than against something else.

The more we choose positive over negative, good over bad, kindness over apathy or unkindness, the closer we all move toward manifesting the world we want to live in, and want future generations to know without question.

That’s what I look for when I read the news…

“What we choose to love is very important for what we love leads our eyes, ears, and hearts on a pilgrimage that shapes the texture of our lives.” (Wayne Muller)

Kindness and Curiosity

“Curiosity is the single most important attribute with which humans are born. More than a simple desire to discover or know things, curiosity is a powerful tool, like a scalpel or a searchlight. Curiosity changes us. It is also a way to effect change, perhaps even on a global level.” (Loren Rhoads)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” (Albert Einstein)

Twice in the last week I’ve seen kindness equated with curiosity.  That made me curious. I’ve always thought curiosity is an important quality to have if one wants a rich and insightful life, but I hadn’t directly connected curiosity with the value I hold dear: kindness.

In an article entitled “Kindness and Curiosity in Coaching” that recently appeared in the Huffington Post, business consultant and executive coach Ruth Henderson described how her mother would posit a kind explanation for other people’s behavior: after being cut off by a speeder, Ruth’s mom speculated, “Maybe his wife’s having a baby and he’s trying to get to the hospital.”

Later, when Ruth was a business professional, her own coach encouraged her to approach difficult or frustrating situations with an inquisitive mind.  She told Ruth:  “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.”

I think it’s true.  If I ponder a work situation where a colleague did something that seemed terribly inappropriate, or a client blew up and offended everyone within earshot, it’s easy to get angry or judge that person harshly.  But if I tap into my curiosity first, I have a very different response.  What made that colleague choose to act inappropriately?  Was she acting out of fear?  Was there a misunderstanding? Did she somehow not realize the nature of her action?  Was something else going on that I’m not seeing?

And what made that client blow up?  Fear is often behind many such outbursts—what might he be afraid of?  Or maybe he’s not feeling appreciated, or perhaps there’s a personal calamity in his life that has stretched him to his limits?  What don’t I know that might explain his behavior?

As soon as I yield to curiosity and allow for the possibility that there may be something going on that is beyond my awareness, I can replace my reflex response of anger or disgust with a desire to understand and even a desire to help.  Curiosity leads to kindness.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” (Kirsten Siggins)

Curiosity vs. Discipline

In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review—one that I think should be required reading for anyone who manages or supervises other people, or who wants to—Stanford University research psychologist Emma Sepppala, PhD, describes how compassion and curiosity are more effective than frustration and reprimand in responding to an underperforming employee or one who has made a serious mistake.

Traditional, authoritarian management approaches tend to focus on reprimanding, criticizing, even frightening the employee—the rationale being that fear and embarrassment might teach the individual the error of his/her ways.  Instead, the research shows, it serves mostly to erode loyalty and trust and to impede creativity and innovation.

A more effective response to an employee’s error or underperformance is to first get our own emotions in control, and then view the situation from the employee’s eyes.  Here’s where curiosity comes into play.  What caused the mistake or what might be the reason for the poor performance?  What is the employee feeling about the error that he made?  Chances are he is horrified, embarrassed, and frightened.  A kind response—this doesn’t mean overlooking the error, but using it as a teaching or coaching opportunity and doing it compassionately—will engender loyalty, trust, and even devotion.  It will also be far more effective than reprimand or punishment in helping the employee avoid such mistakes in the future.

The loyalty engendered by the kind response extends beyond the particular employee you may be dealing with.  Seppala notes that “If you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you.”

It makes sense.  Everyone makes mistakes, and if our employees see their boss or manager respond kindly to a coworker’s blunder, they can feel secure in the knowledge that when they make a mistake, the response is likely to be similarly compassionate.  This fosters a culture of safety, one that encourages innovation, creativity, productivity, and loyalty—these are the qualities that the best and the brightest are seeking for their career homes.

Whoever said “curiosity killed the cat,” had it wrong.  Curiosity is one of the most beneficial qualities we can cultivate.  Combine it with kindness and magic happens!

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” (Tony Schwartz)

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)

Choosing Peace

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

Attribution: Donna CameronIf someone would just be rude to me I could test out my kindness resolve.  Everyone’s just been so damn nice.  In the first two weeks of my “year of living kindly,” I have encountered nothing but courtesy, friendliness, and, yes, kindness—lots of it.  I’m feeling like a researcher of a disease that has already been eradicated.

In her book, Grace (Eventually)—Thoughts on Faith, the devoutly irreverent and hilarious Anne Lamott describes having been swindled by a carpet salesman.  After days of increasingly rancorous back-and-forth to recover her $50, Lamott decides to choose peace over victory.  She returns his bad check with a note of apology and a bouquet of daisies.  Even then, the “carpet guy” gets in one last jab and, rather than resume arguing with him, she lets go.

It’s a charming and provocative story—told as only Anne Lamott can tell a tale—and it caused me to wonder how I would behave in the same circumstances.  Would I relinquish the notion that someone (me) has to be right and someone (the other guy) has to be wrong?  Would I give up the satisfaction of having the last word?  Would I surrender $50—or $5—that was rightfully mine to gain peace of mind and perspective?  Would I trade righteousness for harmony?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I am likely to respond when sharp words, criticism or belittling comments are directed at me—assuming someone in mellow Seattle gets cranky and takes it out on me.  I know I have choices, but which I will choose remains to be seen:

  • I can respond in kind (“tit for tat”); I can be equally sharp or critical: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” There’s a good chance this would escalate the situation.
  • Or I can respond in such a way that indicates my superiority (“I’m above your petty criticism”): “What a shame that you have to resort to name-calling.” Implied here is I feel sorry for you, you under-evolved oaf. That may not further escalate the situation, but the other person will still feel like I’ve dropped a warm turd in his hand.
  • I can completely ignore the person and their words or actions. It may be a safe response—especially if the other person is psychotic or deranged—but it does little to improve things. The message I send is another of superiority: “I can’t be bothered acknowledging your existence.” Yeah, that’s going to improve things!
  • I can also acknowledge my fear and my pride and think about how I might connect with the other person where their fear and pride reside. I can say,   “I’m sorry you feel that way, and sorry if I did anything to annoy you. I’ll try to be more aware next time.” The thing is, I have to mean it. This can be where confrontation ends and reconciliation begins. However, if I say it with a tone that conveys sarcasm or superiority, or insincerity, we’re right back in turd territory.

This takes practice and can be clumsy and awkward at first, sometimes resulting in all the things we hope to avoid.  But, just like playing the piano or hitting a golf ball, it takes some practice before we start seeing skill development.  I comfort myself with the quote from Julia Cameron: “It’s impossible to get better and look good at the same time.”

I don’t recall instances in recent years when someone verbally “attacked” me and I attacked back.  That’s just not my style.  I’m too “nice” for that.  But I confess that there have been times where I have acted with indifference, disdain, and even superiority.  Generally, my response has been in answer to what I perceived from the other person—be they family, friend, colleague, service-worker, or complete stranger.  Perceptions aren’t always accurate, and I have control over both my perceptions and my reactions. This is where kindness resides.

Surrender doesn’t necessarily mean giving up or letting go.  I think it can mean opening up or letting something in.  That’s what Anne Lamott did with her shady carpet guy.  My time will come.  I’ll let you know.

And if it doesn’t and no one is rude or unpleasant to me … I can always call Comcast.

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.  Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them….  Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.  Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”  (Rainier Maria Rilke)