Killing with kindness sounds fierce and contradictory. It’s like extinguishing a fire with a cool glass of mountain water or the flapping of a butterfly’s wings.
This approach to conflict is strong and grounded because it transmits your value as a human being and recognises the same in the other person. It recognises that we all have bad days, we all get angry and we all lash out in frustration, grief or irritation.
I love this strategy because it’s effect is so powerful. If you approach conflict with kindness, the receiver could feel empowered for the first time because they feel listened to. They could realise that not everybody is out to get them. They could see that kindness is an alternative to violence and aggression and that can change lives. The repercussions of kindness can ripple out across communities, countries and hopefully the world.
Kindness is more of a practice than a strategy. You need to first be aware of your emotional triggers and then realise when you are about to react in anger to the person with whom you are in conflict. Stepping back from your ego, and instead choosing to offer a gesture of kindness in the face of anger, is a strength that needs to be cultivated every day.
This blog post is about how you kill conflict with kindness and how to get it right. As always, you have multiple ways to engage in conflict and this is the least destructive of all.
What is kindness?
Kindness is putting into action the intention to treat everyone in a friendly way, despite your emotional reaction to them. It could mean doing something for somebody because you genuinely want them to benefit from this action and knowing that you probably won’t benefit at all from it.
In conflict terms, you behave in a way that doesn’t so much placate the other person but makes conflict appear totally pointless because your reaction is actually benefitting them. Kindness is not a weakness. You are not allowing your boundaries to be trampled on in order to avoid conflict. Instead, you are showing the other person that you are not a threat and there is no need to act aggressively or violently.
Companies do this when you complain about their product. They may offer you vouchers or some other gesture that signifies that they recognise your complaint and that they are sorry that you are not happy. This happened recently, when I complained to a furniture company that the reclining chair they had supplied was unsuitable for my terminally ill father. I was desperate for them to change it quickly because I wanted my father to be comfortable in his last few months. My bitter complaints were met with little empathy until my parents received some flowers, an apology and a refund. Legally, all they were required to reimburse the cost of the chair and to collect it, however, it’s hard to write a scathing review or take a complaint further after receiving their good will.
I’ve also seen poignant examples of this strategy as forms of peaceful protest. During a protest in the Mexican city of Oaxaca, an indigenous woman performed a traditional ritual of blessing and protection on a soldier sent to disband the protestors. There had been periods of violence between the two sides but this act of kindness instantly transformed the “enemy” into a human being, capable of feelings and compassion.
Offering kind words of understanding or an offering to make them see that you are not a threat is often irresistible. Robert Cialdini argues in his brilliant book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, that we are influenced by people that we like. This can include paying compliments, using friendly body language, being similar to you or attractive to you and simply being nice to you. It’s the same principle in conflict resolution and it’s why your approach is more persuasive if you argue in a polite and respectful manner.
Here are some do’s and don’ts for effectively implementing this response to conflict:
Before being able to act kindly to your enemy, you need to recognise what triggers your emotional responses.Once you become aware of them, you have emotional options. You can stand back from your feelings and choose how you wish to respond, remembering that the other person might simply be having a bad day or it may just be your own perception of what’s going on that is the problem and not their behaviour.
Is This The Appropriate Response?
Sometimes kindness means allowing the person you are in conflict with to continue behaving as they are. This is particularly the case if their behaviour may irritate you but has no real detrimental effect on you or your interests. If, for example, you know your sister can’t resist turning into a control freak when it comes to organising a family lunch but is otherwise pleasant, is it really worth expressing your anger to her? The kindest and most effective way to deal with this may be to let her continue as she is. There is, after all the benefit that it means you do less work! However, if you need to physically defend yourself from an axe wielding maniac, a gesture of kindness may not protect you from harm. Take time to review your conflict considerations to answer this question.
Kindness Can Be Creative
Communicating constructively, acknowledging the emotions of the other person and expressing a will to cooperate are all active ways of being kind to the person you are in conflict with. There are hundreds of ways that you can demonstrate that you are not a threat to the other side. A smile is a great starting point, as is open body language, a gentle tone of voice and a willingness to listen. I recently managed to diffuse an argument with a friend by offering to share a chocolate bar with her. I took it out of my pocket, told her I knew how much she loved this brand, snapped it in two and we laughed over how silly our misunderstanding had been.
This isn’t a technique to manipulate the emotions of the other person. It is genuinely meant to show the other person that there is no need for conflict, that you are capable of working things out in a reasonable and trustworthy way. If it appears to be manipulative or disingenuous, prepare for trust to be shattered and relationships to be badly damaged. It is likely to make conflict worse.
Don’t Worry If It Doesn’t Work
As with all strategies, it may not work. Kindness is a great strength in this context but it is sometimes seen as a weakness. If you feel that the other person has interpreted it in this way then reconsider what you are doing and how you are communicating it. Assertive communication allows you to show that you have boundaries that must not be disrespected but that you are also able to act with kindness. The great thing about this approach is that extending kindness to others benefits you too, irrespective of how the other reacts. It’s a less stressful, less toxic and less damaging to relate to others.
I can’t tell you how many times I fail to practice what I preach. It has taken me years of meditation and self-reflect to become slightly more aware of my patterns and behaviours and I still make mistakes. The important thing is that you recognise your failings and commit to putting them right.
As always, I’d love to know what you think about this. Please feel free to leave a comment!