Monday was World Kindness day, a day for people around the world to reflect on what kindness means, and ways they’ve received and shown kindness. A lot of people celebrate by practicing “random acts of kindness,” like paying for the person behind you in the toll lane, leaving a hefty tip in your hotel room when you check out, or giving someone your seat on a crowded train. I have joyfully done all of the above, but what about the acts of kindness that aren’t so easy? How willing are we to be truly kind—and how far are we willing to go to create a kinder, more giving/forgiving world?
I don’t know about you, but I find it a lot harder to be kind to certain people in certain situations: the check-out cashier who seems angry that you chose his line, the driver who took the space you had been waiting for in a crowded parking lot or the stranger who is sitting in “your spot” in the pew in church. The aunt who will be at Thanksgiving dinner gossiping mercilessly about your favorite cousin. The friend on Facebook posting political articles that make you wonder how you were ever friends.
These places, people and predicaments are the most difficult when it comes to showing kindness. But they’re our training grounds for kindness, and the opportunities that give us real insight into just how kind we’re willing to be. What I have discovered is that kindness is a nice sentiment, but being kind comes down to what you’re willing to do in the moments when your heart wants to hide and your brain wants to judge, giving you an excuse to act badly or do nothing at all.
Here are some things I try to do to step up my kindness when it’s really really hard.
- Be cool – chill out. (Relax, don’t do it!) Why do we take everything so personally? (As if the guy blocking the intersection is trying to get us fired?) So much of our inability to be kind is thinking that our agenda is more important than everyone else’s. If we could breathe when we get irritated, take ourselves a little less seriously, and understand that another person’s plans are as important as ours, the middle finger could get a rest.
- Know what sets you off, and be prepared. If you’re going into a situation you know you’re going to find frustrating—crowded stores during the holidays, long meetings, family dinners, phone calls with tech support—be prepared. Things aren’t pretty when we’re hungry, cold, tired, or in a hurry. Be self-aware and talk to yourself: “Girl, you know you are tired and hungry, so when you go into this restaurant, be kind.” Decide how you want to handle your frustrations and annoyances, and how you might show kindness instead of contempt. I have a friend who always makes it her business to ask anyone who’s providing service how their day is going. Often, they respond pleasantly surprised that anyone on the other side of the interaction cares about them.
- Connect with compassion. Instead of assuming the reason someone does something that infuriates you is because they’re thoughtless or clueless or cruel, assume it’s not the case. Suspend your judgment and keep your heart open to the possibility that they’re having a terrible day or fighting some battle you don’t know about. The other day, I greeted a receptionist who seemed less than enthusiastic upon my arrival for a meeting, with her her feet up on a chair. My first thoughts were judgments: Lazy. And not very friendly. How did she get this job? But I decided to be kind and consider why she might be acting that way. So, I asked, in sincerity, “Did you hurt your legs?” She responded, “Yes, I was in a bad car accident.” Because I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, I was able to genuinely acknowledge this difficult ordeal and wish her a speedy recovery. Kindness is not about being nice or fake; it’s about finding the compassion for another even when you are insulted or annoyed.
- Watch your mouth. Corollary to #3: Don’t assume you know someone’s whole story. Sometimes keeping your less than generous judgments to yourself is an act of kindness. If I’d made a snarky comment to the receptionist above and then found out about her accident, I’d have felt terrible and made her feel worse. And let’s watch our body language, too: face, fingers, hips, necks, and eyes can be kind or cutting. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is not to grimace, point, gyrate or roll. A smile is a powerful act of kindness especially when it is not expected. So if you feel the need to stare at that mother with the squirming children on the plane, try a smile or share a look with your eyes that says, “Don’t worry about me, I’m good. You good?” That’s the kinder way.
- Drop the negativity. It’s easy to find things to complain about and criticize: Your cousin’s wedding was nice, but the chicken was rubbery and cold—and you feel the need to talk to everyone about it. To be kinder, push beyond the negative, try to find the positive, then share it. Tell people what you like about what they are wearing, doing or saying. You don’t like the fact that your nephew has tattoos all over his body, but the quote on his forearm is profound. Tell him. You completely disagree with your boss on something, but you like the leadership she’s showing by being open and honest with the team. Tell her.
- Reset yourself. If you lose your cool in a situation, don’t be afraid to stop and change gears. I was talking on the phone once to a bank customer service person who had called me several times about the same issue, so on the fourth call with her, I caught an attitude. I could hear it in my voice and feel it in my face. But I thought to myself: “Don’t you pray every day to be kind and helpful to people? Well here’s an opportunity.” So, I owned up to my behavior right there on the phone: “I am so sorry. I’m treating you so badly and you’re just trying to do your job,” I said. “There’s no reason for me to act this way.” And then something happened that I wasn’t prepared for: The customer service rep giggled. Then she said, “That’s okay.” I apologized again and ask if we could start over. The call went better than well: She found more money for me!
- Don’t abuse your power. When we’re in the power position, I notice we have to work harder to be kinder. Whether we’re bosses with subordinates, parents with children, or patrons with wait staff or customer service people, the power can make us nasty, lazy or inconsiderate. The things we say to our children, for example—the venom we throw their way—is sometimes unbelievable. When you take the time to explain to a child a decision that is difficult for them to accept, or ask the opinion of someone you supervise who disagrees with you, it’s a kinder kindness than “because I said so” or “because I can.”
With every move we make toward kindness, we get to check our presumptions and biases—and the people on the other side of the interactions have an opportunity to adjust their preconceived notions as well. And when we move in real time to affirm the humanity of others we meet an evolving version of ourselves that makes us hopeful. Let’s all do our part as often as we can to keep our world spinning toward greater peace and possibility.
I’d love to hear about the times you’ve managed to be kind when it wasn’t easy. Share your stories with the hashtag #KindOfHard