“We are too much in the habit of judging ourselves by our intentions, and our neighbours by their actions.”
In 1892, the London journal The Leisure Hour
printed the above saying
, attributed to a writer known only as J.M.S.M.
In 2015 in Erie, PA, I was walking downtown at 6 a.m. and passed a pedestrian who I’d seen the day before. She seemed to recognize me, and returned my friendly “Hello” with an equally friendly “Good morning.”
I spent the rest of that block marveling about how good people are.
Two blocks later, I was nearly hit by a car that ran a red light to turn right.
After marveling at my ability to quickly jump out of the way with two large coffees in my hand (and not spill a drop!), I proceeded to spend a lot of time grumbling to myself about how people are careless jerks.
And before all this, I was asked to write this post about kindness, empathy, and compassion.
But even as I was grumbling to myself, it occurred to me that—at that very moment—I was far from living any of those attributes. I was taking more time to grumble than I had taken to feel good about the well wishes I’d received just before.
And then the quote above popped into my head.
What happens when you look at things differently
So, perhaps at the same 6 a.m. when I’d been exchanging a happy greeting with a stranger, the person who’d taken that fast right turn on red was late for work. Perhaps at 6 a.m., they didn’t expect to see a pedestrian along their regular route.
Now, I’m not excusing reckless driving. But, truth be told, I have also had a few close calls similar to that of the car driver. Of course, in my case, I was late, I was lost, I was trying to get to the hospital . . . most of us have such reasonable excuses.
But, to whoever had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of my mistakes, I was the careless jerk.
Are we all just jerks?
Back when I started contemplating this blog post, I asked for inspiration from my coworkers, because the focus was on kindness, empathy, and compassion in the workplace. (We certainly spend a lot of time in the workplace! So we all need all the help we can get.)
I was expecting warm and fuzzy stories. Until I received a reply that made me sad—and made me think.
Here’s the nutshell version of that person’s thoughts:
To be truly kind, compassionate, and empathetic, we need to make ourselves vulnerable enough to share—and receive—those qualities with others.
Yet how do we even start in such an emotionally dangerous, cut-throat world? It can seem better—or certainly safer—to not
care about others and just mind your own business.
Can we change this?
I often ask myself, how did we get like this? Or have humans always behaved this way?
But much more importantly: Can we change it?
Can we let go of the fear of vulnerability to be more kind, more empathetic, and more compassionate?
We talk about understanding the circumstances that exist behind behaviors
, and a quick look at social media suggests that people want—even need
—others to at least realize that there are
circumstances behind a forgotten greeting, a comment that was a little too short, a forgotten reply to an email, even if what those circumstances are isn’t known.
But instead, we get all caught up in taking these perceived wrongs personally. We hold grudges. We make comments such as, “Oh, she’s rude to everyone.”
All because we are too . . . what? Busy, impatient, intolerant? Too something
to pause, take a mental step back, and ask ourselves: What’s going on behind this behavior?
One solution might be: Communication.
I often tell people this fact about myself:
There are times when I’m pretty sure I drive my supervisor nuts, because I’m a “Why?” person. If there’s a change to a policy, my job, etc., I want to know the rationale, even if it’s inconvenient to tell me, even if there’s a rush to get moving with the changes.
That doesn’t mean I’ll always agree, but if I’m given the rationale, then at least I can understand
I used to be afraid to ask “Why?” because I didn’t want to create conflict.
But then I realized that it created more conflict when I didn’t ask why. Because when people don’t know, they tend to create their own (often misguided) assumptions. A little extra communication can help prevent this.
Why it works
So in my efforts to consider the place of kindness, empathy, and compassion in the workplace, I have come to this conclusion:
We need to practice better communication with our coworkers, our clients, our students, patients, customers, service users . . . everyone we come across.
Because then there won’t be assumptions about the intentions of others. Instead, each of us will have a more accurate understanding.
And doesn’t understanding others’ messages inspire and cultivate kindness, empathy, and compassion?