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What if … we practise the skill of thinking kindly?

A yellow post-it with a drawing of a lightbulb on it is pinned to a cork board with a red pin

My guest blog this month comes from the wonderful Rachel Stewart, a coach for career redesign. It’s a fascinating read of how we can take skills from one area of our life and apply them in a different context – in this case, the skill of thinking kindly.

As a coach, my engagement with my clients is firmly grounded in the principle of ‘unconditional positive regard’. This concept was identified and expressed by humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers as one of three conditions necessary to effect positive therapeutic change in a client. In practice, this means that you meet your client with an entirely open mind, free of preconceptions, prejudice and judgement. You allow them to be their self, even if that self expresses views completely counter to your own or embodies something that you might avoid in any other setting. More than that, you allow them to feel safe to be themselves.

In other words, you look kindly on your client and you act kindly towards them. And you put your own interests and self to one side for the duration of the session.

In my experience, this is a professional skill that one develops to the extent that it becomes part of one’s disposition; it’s my default way of operating and happens fairly effortlessly in the coaching context.

It has struck me recently, though, that I’m less primed to follow the principle of ‘unconditional positive regard’ out in the everyday world; that I don’t necessarily do so instinctively, but more by intent in relation to a given situation. It can require more conscious behaviour.

Reasons why

I could blame this partly on having grown up in a family which was highly judgmental about what other people did, thought, said, wore, ate – you name it! They had a fixed view of what was ok and what wasn’t, all determined by them. And while their judgements were often amusing, it was not a humour that embraced kindness.

I could also argue that, whereas in coaching you create a safe psychological space with your client’s best interests at the core, there is no such psychological contract or protection in one’s non-professional interactions. Thus, there can be a kind of vulnerability in exercising kindness.

Likewise, it is easy to position one’s interests as secondary to those of the other person or people in a professional setting because it’s part of the relationship, part of the deal. But it’s perhaps less easily done where there is no such deal or relationship.

Unconditional positive regard beyond the therapeutic space also takes effort, focus and time. It’s so much easier and quicker to make a snap judgement about what someone is like, what they meant or what they’re likely to do next.

But is any of this a good enough excuse? Or even an explanation?

Let’s look at it another way

It’s interesting, I think, how we so readily associate ‘skills’ with the development of ourselves in a work context, and with our career development and ‘success’. We set them out in our CVs and talk about them in interviews. They are part of both the language and the currency of work, employment and career.

We are sometimes less inclined, though, to reflect on, assess, articulate and develop the skills we use in our lives beyond work.

But what happens when we do? What if, in this instance, we really hone our kindness skills? What if we not only practise giving the benefit of the doubt, but also practise not letting doubt lead the way? That’s essentially what happens in the therapeutic space, so why not beyond? What happens when we’ve chosen to make thinking kind thoughts and doing kind things habitual, through conscious effort and practise?

Once I’d recognised the impact of my upbringing, I worked hard to break those judgemental habits. It felt a bit like stretching a rubber band: as soon as I stopped trying, I easily snapped back to where I’d started. It has taken effort to retrain my brain and to kick my habitual ways of thinking and doing, and to develop new ones, when there has been no framework or requirement for me to do so. But if I can achieve it so successfully and effortlessly within the professional coaching space, then I can do so outside of it, when it is not a requirement but a choice, perhaps a gift – which makes it even better!

I’ll admit that it’s a work in progress, but I have learned to pull myself up short when I notice the old habits creeping in. I have learned to reinforce the new ones. I have learned not to let my instinct to self-protect lead the way. Above all, I am conscious of and deliberate in what I’m doing.

Learning by observation

So, personal skills development is one aspect of the ‘training’. Another part is noticing kindness when you see it and learning by observation. Looking back over the past year alone, I can think of some wonderful examples, that really made a difference to my mood, my experience and indeed my life.

There was the man behind me in the queue at the fish and chip shop, who gave me £1 to help pay for the chips I’d decided to get on a beer-fuelled whim! I have performed similar acts of kindness, but I hadn’t realised the impact that they can have on the beneficiary until it happened to me.

As an habitual walker, there have been numerous times when drivers have stopped to allow me to cross the road safely in heavy traffic, or avoided driving through a large puddle, so as not to soak me on the pavement. Special mention also goes to the bus driver who saw me rushing to catch the bus late at night, after a delayed train, and then waited for me, so I could get home safely.

Make it easy for yourself

And finally, there’s the training ground of putting ourselves in situations where it is easy to exercise our kindness skills. I once listened to someone on a podcast explaining how they loved driving because it presented so many opportunities for acts of kindness. There are such riches to be shared in letting people out into traffic, waiting patiently behind a driver trying to find their turning, or simply giving way. And the speaker was right – it feels good!

Things happen when we’re kind. Where it’s an act of kindness, they happen for the recipient but also for us. But it’s also about creating the space and taking the time to think kindly. Practising thinking kindly pays off for both parties, too:  it makes you better at thinking kindly, and kindness of thought shines through as much as kindness of action.

So, next time someone is kindly towards you, notice it, learn from it, and remember that doing kind things and thinking kind thoughts can take time and effort and some degree of training or habit forming. Their kindness may not be instinctive, but may result from determination and practice. They have truly made time for kindness.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Rachel Stewart coaches clients in or approaching their 50s and 60s to reassess what they want or need from work at this point in their lives. She supports them to redesign their careers to create a future that excites them. You can find out more from her profile on LinkedIn.

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