I have known meanness in my life.
But I have never known anything like this year’s epidemic of meanness, rudeness, and ugliness.
Never before have I seen it rain down like arrows for as hard or as long as it has this year.
Pandemic stress, politics, and polemic attitudes have made it a difficult moment for those seeking to pierce the noise with a healthy message or a kind word. It has been, and continues to be, a challenge.
But it is a challenge that we must accept.
Here at LEAD we pride ourselves on fostering a relentlessly positive attitude, both individually and as a culture for our team. This idea permeates our interactions, be they internal or external, and helps us to cultivate a space where ideas can be freely shared, dissected, discussed, and implemented.
And it isn’t easy.
“Just be positive” is, without a doubt, one of the silliest pieces of advice ever thrown around.
Being positive is work. Hard work. And it requires specific actions, habits, workflows, and techniques when troubleshooting our way through life’s inevitable frustrations, stresses, opposing forces, and potential hazards.
We like to refer to these habits and techniques, collectively, as our Shield of Kindness: An instrument designed to deflect and defend against those arrows of meanness, rudeness, and ugliness that, as mentioned earlier, rain down upon us from time to time.
It isn’t an invincible instrument. (Mine in particular shows the dents and bruises of 2021’s battles.) It is, however, reliable and protective, as it affirms our decision to meet anger not with anger, ugliness not with ugliness, but the unhealthy with the healthy, the negative with the positive, and the bad with the good.
The Shield is Composed of Several Elements.
There are hundreds of different tactics and techniques that go into building up one’s capability and capacity for kindness, but let’s take a moment to look at a few that are always included in the basic design:
1. Emotional Management:
Getting Off Path A. Getting On Path B.
It is easy to be kind when cradled in kindness. It is altogether difficult to be kind when confronted with anger. In such moments, the natural reaction is to feel anger ourselves, and the most common reaction to that feeling is to let that anger guide our response.
That’s what we call Path A.
Our partner complains about our behavior, and we take out our own list of grievances.
Our child lashes out, and we yell right back before sending them to their room.
Someone cuts us off at the intersection, and we throw them a one-fingered salute.
Path A is made up of unhealthy and well-worn scripts that we’ve read and re-read aloud a thousand times. The way is well-trodden and well-known, and it is made up of disappointments and regrets.
In such moments, the trick is to somehow get on Path B: The path less traveled by. The path of kindness.
One of the greatest keys to taking Path B over Path A is to quickly move through what psychiatrist Mark Goulston humorously refers to as ‘The “Oh F#@& To OK” Process.’ Made up of several phases, this process encourages us to confront our own negative feelings, manage them, and get back to the task at hand.
A brief description:
- The Reaction Phase. Something upsets you. Acknowledge your own feelings rather than denying them or pushing through with them hanging alongside your words. Define those feeling. Own them.
- The Release Phase. Let go of those feelings. Recognize that they are real, and likely justified, but that they will not feed the solution. If you are feeling a particularly strong moment of anxiety, try a quick and simple Box Breathing technique to move your mind and your body from red alert to yellow alert.
- The Recenter Phase. Remember who you are in this moment. A parent trying to love and help your child. A partner speaking with a stressed-out spouse. A friend working through a problem with a colleague. The conversation is not about your feelings. The conversation is about theirs.
- The Refocus Phase. What have I been hearing so far from the person in front of me? What queues has she been giving me? Anger comes from fear and vulnerability. What is she afraid of about the situation and/or herself? In what ways is she vulnerable in this moment? What do I need to do or say (or to not do or not say) to address this?
- The Re-Engage Phase. Return to the conversation ready to get answers to those questions and to help her find said answers.
Our ability to transition quickly between these phases comes only after years of practice, but the better we become at it the better we become at managing our emotions: An essential requirement for building out this shield of ours.
2. Train In the Art of Listening
While hearing is a sense that the majority of us have been gifted with from birth, listening is something else entirely. Rather than an innate talent, listening requires quite a bit of work and self-management to master.
That said, it is a key component of kindness and understanding. There can be no moving forward, within a relationship, within a community, or within a society, without it. We don’t need to agree. We don’t need to see things the same way. We do, however, need to grant one another space and time for sharing thoughts, feelings, and ways of seeing.
3. Pay Less Attention to ‘Your Here’ & More Attention To ‘Their There.’
Often, even when we are trying to help, we make mistakes. We interpret wrong. We try to influence another person positively, but we do it without recognizing their view of the situation.
When you enter the conversation focused on your position, your facts, or your intentions, you are stuck in ‘Your Here.’And while your position might be just, your facts correct, and your intentions good, if they are shared without consideration for where the other person is in that moment, they will fall on deaf ears.
Instead, you must concentrate on ‘Their There.’ That is, to successfully influence another person, you must communicate with a focus on their position, their facts, and their intentions.
This is a simple concept we often fail to acknowledge. We see the effects of this amongst friends and family when political lines are drawn. Fallacies and fictions are bandied about, conspiracy theories intimated, and defensive rage expressed, but no attempt is made to bridge the divide. Our own positions, Your Here, blinds us to what rational, emotional, and or situational causes might have placed the other person in Their There.
Another concept borrowed from the psychiatrist Mark Goulston, and interestingly articulated in his book Real Influence, becoming attentive to your own blind spots allows for a more reliable and effective form of kindness.
4. Tell Yourself “I Always Have a Choice.”
I can hear the push back already: But I don’t always have a choice!
And perhaps you’re right. I can’t speak for you.
For me, however, telling myself “I always have a choice” is the most liberating statement I can make. It allows me to avoid defining myself as a victim of other people’s actions or behavior, and forces me to own my reactions. Whenever I am faced with a series of challenges and the potential consequences of those challenges, I follow this line of thought.
I step off the train late at night and on the walk home I get mugged. Am I “victim” of a mugging? No. Does it stir in me a great many emotions? Yes. And I own those emotions. Fear. Anger. Emasculation. They’re natural, and I let them come. That said, I choose not to let this event change how I see strangers. I choose not to let this event change my habits. I choose not to let these feelings define me. I choose not to be a “victim.”
I always have a choice.
Similarly, when I receive an angry phone call or a particularly nasty email, I choose not to let that single communication define the day. Am I hurt? Yes. But I choose instead to focus on the day’s positive communications, and to weigh the potential lessons that can be learned from someone else’s complaints. About them or about myself.
I always have a choice.
And I choose to react kindly.
5. Tell Yourself “I Don’t Know If He, She, or They Always Have a Choice.”
I can say that I always have a choice because I live with myself. I know my own capacities and capabilities. I know the privileges that my life has been afforded. I know what is in my circle of control.
What I can’t say, however, is that everyone else always has a choice.
I can’t say that another person’s poor mental health is their choice.
I can’t say that another person’s drug use is their choice.
I can’t say that another person’s identification as a victim is their choice.
I can’t say that you always have a choice.
I can’t say because I don’t know.
And entering into conversations with others, loaded down with the subconscious belief that they could be choosing a different path, cripples my capacity for compassion and hamstrings my ability to be kind.
On the other hand, telling myself “I don’t know that he, she, or they have a choice” liberates me from my own prejudices, allowing me to respond to the situation at hand without fetters.
It allows me to be of better help and service: A prerequisite for kindness.
6. Avoid “But…”
How many times have you heard the following type of sentence?
You’re a hard worker, and everyone here really appreciates the efforts you’ve been putting in, but the quality of the work itself just isn’t up to par.
Now, what portion of that sentence gets highlighted by the brain?
You guessed it. Everything after “but.”
The quality of the work itself just isn’t up to par.
The qualifier at the beginning might as well have never been said.
Just as an exercise, what would happen if we simply replaced the “but” with “and” instead?
You’re a hard worker, and everyone here really appreciates the efforts you’ve been putting in, and the quality of the work itself just isn’t up to par.
For some strange reason it seems softer, doesn’t it? It is still a bit of negative feedback, but the change in conjunction gives the positive clause in the sentence about as much weight as the negative one.
We know we’re well thought of, we know we’re appreciated, and we know something still needs fixing.
However silly this may seem, consider making this small semantic change. Particularly when dealing with children. Remove the “buts” from your sentences. If you need to give critical feedback, balance it by acknowledging positive attributes with equal weight.
7. Say Thank You & Celebrate the Good
With our friends, family, partner, children, and colleagues, we are always deeply involved in the crisis moments. When we have a complaint, we are quick to vocalize it to either the object of said complaint or to ourselves or to anyone else who will listen.
Externally or internally, the negative is always given plenty of room for expression.
The positive often gets the short shrift.
“Thanks,” we say as we’re on our way out the door. “Greatly appreciated.”
Thanks and appreciation don’t get half the time commitment that we’re prepared to give a good argument.
Make a habit of pausing, recognizing the good being done by those around, on your behalf or for others, and make the time to give thanks.
Gratitude, given with direct eye contact and more than a second’s measure, has a far more lasting impact than we give it credit for.
8. Look For Opportunities To Help
Don’t wait to be asked.
Don’t wait until a moment of immediate need.
Don’t wait until the proverbial poop hits the fan.
Look for areas where your partner, friend, family, or colleague could use some help, and then extend your hand. And, if you can make the time, do the same for your community. paint a fence. Sweep a sidewalk. Pull some weeds.
Make your form of kindness proactive rather than reactive.
9. Be a Connector. Link Efforts.
You might have noticed that LEAD’s motto, and indeed its domain name, is “Linking Efforts.” This isn’t just a slogan. It’s a mantra.
Our goal is to bring together parents, teens, schools, community stakeholders, companies, and other prevention organizations in multiple ways so as to promote youth mental health and wellness.
We don’t see other non-profits as competitors for funds. We see them as potential collaborators in our shared efforts. And we look for opportunities where we can bring them together with parties most in need of their services.
Try to practice this in your own life amongst your network of friends and associates.
Know a friend who could have an excellent impact on the life of a colleague? Find a way to put them in the same room.
Have you come across an organization that could be of assistance to an acquaintance in need? Drop a brochure in their mailbox.
Find ways to build the collective strength within your circles by looking for and making opportunities to help those around you fill their gaps with one another.
Linking efforts makes for more powerful results.
10. Look After Yourself.
“Wait,” I hear you ask, “isn’t kindness and altruism supposed to be self-sacrificing?”
Yes. And no.
Yes, kindness requires a great deal of sacrifice.
You often have to put your ego aside.
You are often forced to give up short-term personal advantages for long-term relationship health.
Sometimes just hearing out a partner’s complaint, listening kindly and patiently in order to truly understand what is being said, can be exhausting.
Time and energy are quantifiable elements, and kindness requires quite a bit of both.
Yes. Kindness does indeed require sacrifice.
But the Self…well…you can’t sacrifice that.
In order to be an effective tool for kindness, you have to make certain that your own physical, mental, and emotional health is always of primary consideration. You can’t help anyone if you’re physically exhausted and/or mentally and emotionally drained.
The Shield of Kindness has to be oiled and mended from time to time. The dents have to be hammered out. The exterior polished and the interior re-rigged for better bearing.
Take a brief moment each day to reflect on how you’re doing, and make certain that part of your weekly practice involves examining yourself for damage. If something is becoming difficult to endure, if there is a particular weight or strain pulling you down, or if you simply find that you need a helping hand, get what help or recuperation you need.
Take the moments you need to cultivate the Self and you will have everything you need to aid others.
Building a Shield of Kindness requires commitment. The suggestions outlined above are but the beginning of a life-long process of habit-building. The good news is that it can be shaped and made lasting by consistent repetition. The more you work at it, the easier it and more naturally it comes.
And it helps to have someone to practice with.
Find a friend or a loved one who you’d like to build a better relationship with, discuss some of the positive habits outlined above, and make a commitment to one another to adopt them in your own relationship and in your relationships with others. Hold each other accountable, and check in from time to time on your progress.
Like any shield, the Shield of Kindness works best when coupled with other shields.
A phalanx of like-minded shield-bearers make for a considerable force.
So arm yourself, and I promise you:
Whatever the slings and arrows lobbed in your direction in the coming year, you and those you love will be better prepared to take up the challenge.