When the Kindest Thing To Do Is … Absolutely Nothing

“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”  (Winnie the Pooh)

Yellow RhodieAs I wander around exploring kindness, I’ve been surprised to realize that quite often choosing to do nothing is the kind choice.  That probably flies in the face of any image we might have of the kindest people being ones in tights and a cape, with a big K emblazoned across their chest, leaving a trail of good deeds in their wake.

Over the last week, I’ve had occasion to witness a few episodes where feelings were hurt and tempers were raised as a result of emails that never should have been sent.  That’s one of the problems with email.  It’s just so damn easy to reply immediately—in the heat of the moment—before we’ve really thought through what the sender may have intended, how our reply might be interpreted—or misinterpreted—and what our ultimate goal for the communication is.

Do we want to be right (or righteous), or do we want to keep the peace?  Sometimes, we can’t do both.

I think there was probably a time in my life when being right (or, I admit it, righteous) may have felt more important than keeping the peace or being kind.  Being right doesn’t seem all that important anymore.  I’m reminded of a line from the classic film Harvey, where Elwood P. Dowd, played to perfection by Jimmy Stewart, says, “Years ago my mother used to say to me…. ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’  Well, for years I was smart.  I recommend pleasant.”

This harks back to an earlier post about the power of the pause, and the importance of delaying long enough to decide if the action you’re anticipating will really get the results you want.  Sometimes, when we hit pause, we realize that we should make that pause permanent and simply do nothing, say nothing.

“Silence is sometimes the best answer,” the Dalai Lama wisely said.  It’s harder than it sounds, though—at least for me it can be—especially in verbal interactions.  A derisive comment or sarcastic reply may come to my lips quickly and be spoken before I realize how snarky it sounds.  I’m learning to bite my tongue, but it is not always easy.

Even if my words aren’t snarky, does what I’m saying help?  Maybe somebody in my office brings up an idea that they think is great, but there are ramifications that make it unworkable or unwise.  How I communicate that may mean the difference between their continuing to search for good ideas and their feeling deflated and put down.  Sometimes, the right thing to do or say may be nothing—to let them discover the flaw for themselves or even find a way to make the seemingly unworkable work.  Or maybe the best course is to talk through the issue in hopes that they see the unsoundness, or that I can point it out considerately.  Either way, the knee-jerk response (“No, that will never work”) is not the best choice.

I think back on the four questions Rotarians ask to decide whether and how to act or speak (mentioned in the earlier post on pausing):

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build goodwill and friendship?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If the answer to any is no, don’t say it or do it.  Such good advice, it bears repeating!

Wise and Kind Parenting

I am not a parent, never have been, know nothing about parenting, and would surely have been a dreadful mother.  The closest I’ve come is raising a cat or three, each of whom assumed its rightful place as head of the household in very short order.

I have a few friends whom I consider to be extraordinarily good parents, and it seems that the wisdom to do nothing out of kindness is something great parents learn.  As kids grow, there are times when parents need to let them learn lessons—sometimes painful ones—on their own.  If mom or dad always steps in and clears the path or fixes the problem, the child will never learn independence.  I’m guessing (remember, only guessing, I only know cats) that it’s terribly difficult for a parent to do nothing when they know the lesson their child must learn is accompanied by pain or distress.  And to compound that, the kids—seeking rescue—rarely recognize that the parents’ choice to do nothing is exactly the right one.  But the parents know that the pain is temporary and the lesson will serve the kids for a lifetime.

And here’s the amazing part: these parents also know that there are other times when the exact right thing to do is step in and help solve the problem or avert the pain, and they do that.  How do they know the difference?  That discernment, that wisdom, fills me with awe.

There’s a reason I’ve only had cats.

I suppose, though, that the same wisdom parents have of when and when not to intervene is what good leaders and managers have with their team members.

It may be tempting at times to tell ourselves that we are choosing to do nothing out of kindness, when really our kindness is sorely needed and we are being lazy or apathetic.  Kindness requires both mindfulness and honesty.  If we pay attention, we will know what’s right, and we will respond accordingly….or not.  If kindness were always easy, there’d be a lot more of it….

“When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”  (R.J. Palacio)