Any quality left in isolation tends to devolve into tyranny. Life is made of dynamic tension, of diverse forces influencing each other – of a dialectical process.
When I worked for four years as an organizational consultant at AT&T, teams I would consult to often made the mistake of saying to their external customer some version of “Customer service is our most important priority.” Good customer service is obviously a good thing – all of us have suffered enough from bad customer service that we naturally are in favor of customer service being good. But my teams that tried to really implement this – that tried to actually make customer service “the most important priority” almost always got in trouble.
If customer service is the top value that trumps every conflict, then what happens to staff well-being, to work-life balance, to workforce morale? Those qualities go to hell, because the workers aren’t being valued equally to the customer. The outward-facing quality of customer service must live in dialectical tension with the inward-facing quality of work-life balance – or, as many writers would say, service to your “internal customers”…your staff.
Similar with an obviously positive quality like kindness. It was never meant to be the king of all qualities. It needs to be held in dynamic tension with another quality that does not come from the same soft or “nice” end of the continuum, but something a little harder like toughness or grounding and inner strength or sometimes-painful straight talk. These maybe are just different words for what really is the same tough quality.
When somebody is behaving like a fool – and especially when their foolish behavior is hurting somebody else – it may not be “unkind” to call them a fool. It may be just telling the truth. Others in the room may respond not with horror that someone is being treated badly, but with a sigh of relief. “Finally someone named what is really going on – got in his way, tried to stop his unfair behavior.”
Rather than creating unsafety, to name the elephant in the room – to talk about a dynamic that the group has been stepping around – to stop someone from continuing in a destructive behavior – can actually make the situation healthier, cleaner, even really safer for most of the members of the group. You could even say that you are being kind to the whole group, not just protecting one bad actor.
The great teacher and social science researcher Brene Brown says that the personal quality that most directly relates to emotional health and happiness is “open-heartedness”. And the quality that most correlates with open-heartedness is not another soft quality like “niceness” or “kindness” – but rather “solid boundaries”. It takes a tough quality to make the loving quality really work. If you know that you can be really strong – even ferocious – in protecting yourself, then you feel safe enough to open your heart.
About thirty years ago, long before the term “empowerment” had become so desperately over-used and even empty, I used my clinical psychology background to be approved to teach a course called “Empowerment Training” at a community college. In that course, I taught “nice” middle class white suburban folks how to say “Fuck you.” If you are backed into a corner, if someone is assaulting your integrity or your self-esteem or your good name – and you can’t, in the heat of battle, come up with some more subtle or measured or intelligent or responsible or “assertive” response – you need to be able still to protect yourself. You need to have access to the “nuclear option”. You need to know how to get right in the offenders face and – with all the strength and ferocity at your command – say or yell “Fuck you!!” You need to know how to back the motherfucker off. To allow them to harm you is bad karma for both of you. The responsible thing is to stop them in their tracks. Punching their lights out may be excessive. Using potent, strong words and an authoritative “I mean it” tone of voice may be just right.
I find that since I have slipped out of the trap of being a “nice person” – since I no longer feel that I have to in all situations be (or be perceived as) “kind” – my loving side has gained tremendously power. Since I am no longer trapped in self-consciousness (“Do I look nice?””Am I being kind enough?”) – since I much, much more trust my own instincts and give much less of a shit what anybody else thinks – I am much more free to genuinely show up for people, am more “there” for them.
On Monday I was at the DMV. I carry some stereotypes from previous bad experiences at the DMV that their employees are (to put it kindly) not driven by customer service. But that stereotype was softened when a woman employee (who I later learned had the name Kim) came over to me – way off in a corner dictating a voice-to-text text message – and in the nicest way told me that I was not allowed to use my phone inside, but would have to step out the door. “But how will I know when they call my number.” “The screen just inside the door shows what numbers are being served.” “Oh – OK, great.”
Then I did something that some people may have judged as being pushy or even rude, but to me felt just assertive enough: I went over to the booth where Kim was now serving a customer and interrupted them to yell over the customer’s shoulder, “You told me to leave so gently – that was great customer service.” I think Kim is maybe not used to getting appreciations from customers, because she really lit up.
When my number finally did come up, out of the seven or so agents I happily got Kim. “Wow, I got the one who isn’t mean!” “Nobody here is mean.” “What? Did they fire everybody?” Kim clearly knows how it used to be there. She responded with just a cute little smile.
She was extremely friendly and competent and even funny in kidding with me – we had a great little time together. When she was letting me go, I said, “Kim, you were great! Who can I tell how good you are?” “I don’t really have a supervisor here. I guess you could just shout it out to the whole room here.” (Maybe 50 people, in various states of boredom or frustration, in a very big room.) I knew she didn’t really mean for me to do it, but I really am very unconstrained by convention or self-consciousness these days. I trusted my bold instincts and turned to the room and bellowed “Kim is awesome!!” – and turned back very contentedly to Kim, who said, “i didn’t mean for you to really do it”, but was clearly tickled pink to be so acknowledged and made special.
To the extent that I am willing to not give a shit what others think, that I am willing to say things that the “kindness police” might say are “mean” – I find that, to that same extent, I am ready and willing and able to affirm others with a power that was never available to me when I was a “nice person”.