Tag Archives: empathy

Cruel to be Kind?

I was asked to speak on the subject of kindness this week.  To do so, I realized I had to first wrestle with the meaning of kindness. How can it be applied not just to those easy moments when a friend calls in need of compassion, but when you are maneuvering through a working day? 

I used to see kindness as simple and fun. It was bringing soup to the neighbor with the cold or buying lottery tickets from the 8th grader raising money for a school trip.  As I dig deeper, I realize that kindness requires courage and often a ferocity that feels antithetical to a trait that seems soft and sweet.

Here’s a common example, a business colleague makes continued interpersonal errors. What’s the kindest action? By keeping noble silence, am I being kind? Or, telling him what I am witnessing, would that be kinder? Kindness in this instance is not simple and it may not be remotely fun especially if there can be negative repercussions for whatever action you take.

To ferret out an answer to this polemic question, I look to the practices of full-court empathy, looking for the bigger picture and how to tell the truth.

Finding the kindest action is clearer when I can drop into another’s shoes while standing at the same time in my own. An act of kindness needs to support both the other person and me. If I forget either of us in the equation, I am being unkind.  Kindness is the resolution of what appears to be irreconcilable opposites of competing needs. What will truly support us both…not to make everyone smile, but truly improve our situations?

Focusing on the bigger picture also creates clarity. I see this with parenting. Teaching our children to be responsible citizens may involve some tough feedback as they grow. Is it kind to discipline a child after she have been caught trying to steal candy? For the whole, the tears and internal struggles are ultimately compassionate as the child learns how to navigate society’s rules.  So, to find the answer to “what’s the kindest action?” also involves thinking of our larger context.

Last, counsel on how to tell the truth cuts a path through my brain thicket. Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien says to “tell the truth without blame or judgment.” Another cross-cultural rule of thumb is to tell the truth from a place of “I.”  So, “You are offensive and cause problems with your peers,” in the above example is not fully true nor very kind. That’s just my opinion.  Using a non-judgmental I statement like “I am picking up discord in our interactions and am not sure how to proceed,” could be kinder and more truthful.

Kindness is not easy, yet when it comes my way it is a balm for the soul. How can we each bring more kindness into the weeks ahead?