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What does it mean to be kind? Getting permission to act kindly is the key

Before moving onto Part II of my series "Why is it so hard to be kind," I thought it might be helpful to take a sidestep and consider what it means to be kind. We might all benefit from having a common understanding of what a kind act really is.

When you get right down to it kindness is very qualitative in nature. It's quite personal and based on the sum of our lived experience. What I believe to be a kindness may not be what you believe to be kind at all. In fact, I might offend you by acting in a way that I believe is acting on my beliefs and values and never taking yours into consideration. This is really me doing a kindness "to you" rather than "with you."

The key to being kind is to be perceived as being kind. Kindness is only kindness if the receiver of the kind act believes it to be kind based on their values, culture and lived experience. Asking permission to act kindly is crucial.

In its most basic form a kind act is the sum of three components: an agent + an intention to be kind + an action. Seems pretty straight forward. Yet have you ever been an agent with the intention to act kindly only to have it backfire? I know I have. Let me give you an example.

I’m walking into a store. In front of me there is a gentleman in a wheelchair who is trying to open the door and he seems like he’s having some trouble. I jump in and help him open the door for him. All seems well until he looks up at me and says, “Thanks. I appreciate that but I’ve only been in this wheelchair for 2 weeks and I have to learn to do this for myself.”

And now I don't feel so kind anymore. In fact, I'm a bit embarrassed.

I ask myself what could I have done differently? I could have asked if he needed help opening the door. What difference does this make? Asking allows him to make a decision about whether or not he wants to be helped base on his culture, his values, and his lived experience. This allows him the chance to either “opt in” to receive the kindness I want to extend… or to decline it. It takes courage to ask permission to perform an act of kindness and humility to accept your kindness might not be accepted.

So, the key to offering a kindness and being perceived being kind by the receiver is "The Ask." Getting permission to act kindly is the key to kindness.

It takes courage to ask for permission to perform an act of kindness and humility to accept permission may not be granted.

Part I of this series identified one reason why it's hard to be kind: We feel we don't have what it takes to help. We don't ask permission to be kind because we feel incompetent to help at that moment. But just think about this for a moment: To feel incompetent means I have already figured out what the other needs (based on my perceptions and values) and made the assumption I cannot provide that at this time. Essentially I have transported myself in time and space, put myself in the other's shoes, and concluded I can't do what I believe to be necessary. That's a lot of assumptions! And I did that in a nanosecond. I have to remind myself it takes courage to get permission to act especially when I think I don't have what it takes to help.

Well, maybe I don't have what the other needs. But maybe I do. I just have to remember to ask.

Keep calm and be kind


Dr. Lorraine A. Dickey, MD MBA

Founder & CEO, The Narrative Initiative LLC

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