With the improbable means of kindness, we can improve the quality of our
communication and develop opportunities to collaborate.
Originally published on Medium.com.
As a lawyer and mediator over the last 35-plus years, I have discovered that kindness is the
“secret sauce” in the recipe for managing conflict and improving the milieu in which
we live. We can’t eliminate conflict. However, with the improbable means of kindness,
we can improve the quality of our communication and develop opportunities to
collaborate instead of oppress and kill.
Our political leaders have not been able to find solutions to economic inequality, the oppression
of discrimination, racism and bias, intolerant belief systems, manipulation of those who are
afraid for their survival, and exploitation of others for self-gain. A message is emerging,
however. Small voices (some quite loud) are teaching us the power of kindness. We can
substantially increase our chances of survival if we begin to listen, adopt an approach of
“replacing judgment with curiosity,” and open ourselves, without sacrificing our values, to be
interested and accepting.
While kindness seems to be effortless for some people, the rest of us can learn to be kind. This
requires attention and intention.
WHAT IS KINDNESS?
Kindness is one of those sensibilities that are recognizable, but difficult to define. It is a universal
virtue that many agree has practical utility for our future.
A Scientific Perspective
Kindness is such a powerful force that an entire body of science is evolving to study it; the goal
is to develop insights with practical applications that will solve real-world problems and enable
people to build more humane societies. In the fall of 2019, philanthropists Jennifer and
Matthew Harris established the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute with a $20,000,000 gift.[i]
The Kindness Institute’s inaugural director, evolutionary anthropologist Dan Fessler, explains
that the interdisciplinary program is not soft stuff. Instead, he says “It is critical to make clear
that we are engaged in a serious scientific enterprise, and we have a rigorous definition of what
we mean by kindness . . . We are defining kindness as the thoughts, feelings and beliefs that
motivate action intended to benefit another individual or party where that other individual’s
welfare is an end in itself, not a means to an end.”[ii]
But how can we change our thoughts, feelings, and actions when that change will benefit
us only if our true intention is to benefit someone else?
The first official Kindness Institute scientific paper was published on December 4, 2019. Based
on 15 empirical studies, it reaches two conclusions. First, the study extended prior research to
confirm that “elevation,” that uplifting emotion that can create a lump in your throat or bring
tears to your eyes when you see others’ altruistic actions,[iii] is elicited by exposure to
cooperative behavior. Second, the study proved that people experience a stronger sense of
elevation when they have an idealistic attitude and expect others to be kind and cooperative. The
emotional state of elevation then motivates positive and cooperative behavior. Variation in
idealistic attitudes (the expectations that others are cooperative) explains individual differences
in the strength of their elevation experiences.[iv]
According to Fessler, the mind processes exposure to extremely realistic depictions of events as
if they are immediate, real, and personally affecting us. Seeing other people behave kindly leads
an individual to experience a sort of vicarious reward. We feel uplifted by seeing others behave
in a positive manner, even though we are not the beneficiaries of those others’ actions. The
principal outcome of that positive emotional experience is that we are then motivated to behave
in a kind manner toward others. That is how kindness can be “contagious.” If you explain that
to people in the context of our contemporary “informational environment,” then people will be
able to make choices about what they expose themselves to.[v]
Think, for example, of the uplifting human-interest stories at the end of the always-depressing
network news broadcasts. Broadcasting routine acts of kindness usually prompts enormous
viewer response, including financial contributions, publicity, and letters of support.
On the other hand, our motivation to behave in a kind manner can be undermined by the
“informational environment” in which we live. Fessler says there is good reason to believe that
if you are a consumer of media with denigrating public rhetoric, hateful political discourse, and
anonymous hostile exchanges between people, you will have a darker view of the world than
consumers of media that depict people who see others as valuable, and are willing to make
sacrifices to benefit others. So, you will not have a positive emotional experience when you
observe others’ kind and cooperative behavior, and you will not be kind in turn.
Thus, if you think the world is full of cooperative people who value each other’s welfare, and
you see someone’s behavior from this point of view, you experience a rewarding emotion, and
consequently are motivated to behave kindly yourself. Ever since the advent of video games and
explicit television programming, people have worried about their influence on our families, and
on our mental and physical health. Fessler thinks we ought to be concerned about the kinds of
media we consume and how it affects our worldview. We can, and most likely must, make
choices about what we read, listen to, or watch in the modern media.
It is hard to imagine that positive thinking about each other would lead people to experience
greater emotional rewards that lead to more positive behavior. But if we assume that people
are only interested in their own welfare, this will degrade our own behavior and emotions. This
condition consequently will degrade our mental health, cardiovascular health, and
In short, if we want more kindness in our lives, we should expect that others will be kind, we
should be careful about what we’re putting in our minds, and we should stop walking around
being cynical about life.
“There is perhaps no surer road to peace than the one that starts from little islands and oases
of genuine kindness, islands and oases constantly growing in number and being continually
joined together until eventually they ring the world.”- Father Dominique Pire (1958 Nobel Peace
A Spiritual Perspective
In December 2019, I heard Dr. Barry H. Corey, President of Biola University, speak about his
book, Love Kindness. He spoke of the brave and daring quality of kindness, insofar as it takes
courage to be vulnerable with those with whom we disagree. We can be kind and strong,
accepting and firm in our convictions; he illustrates this theme as a life “with a firm center and
soft edges.”[viii] He urges us to be open, to listen, to “love kindness” as we “do justice.”[ix]
This is risky, particularly when people disagree about deeply held values, because others might,
and often will, reject our kindness. We are encouraged to persevere because the point of being
kind is not to be respected or befriended; instead, the point of being kind is so that we can be
respectful and friendly, in order that those who would denounce us might hear what we have
Corey’s talk that day was almost entirely secular. I did not know that Biola University is an
evangelical Christian university, and so I had no conscious bias, just pure curiosity. His
religiously based firm center is just one of a world of conflicting firm centers. The goal is to
allow our soft edges to blend without compromising our firm convictions.
Among other reasons, Corey wrote the book to work on overcoming his own insecurity and
pride. He initiates discussion with others whose moral values he believes violate his own. And,
he accepts them as they are. He cares about how the “rising generation lives out the way of
Jesus in an increasingly polarized and mean-spirited culture.”[xi] The stories of how he
developed accepting and close relationships within the LGBTQ community reflect his effort to
engage in conversation about subjects that other Christian leaders condemn.[xii] Corey has
realized that antagonistic, threatening sermons from a bully pulpit just don’t work. Instead,
Corey — on a personal level — is learning to live with the strength of his religious convictions
while listening to people and being fully present so he can understand.[xiii]
He writes, “I pray Christians are afforded the freedom to express our beliefs with gentleness
and respect. We should be able to do this civilly in the context of religious freedom and in a
society that reveres pluralism rather than one voice being superior to another.”[xiv]
Corey is making a religious case for the same purpose as Dr. Fessler is making a scientific case:
Intentionally living a way of kindness is a radical, yet highly effective, way of managing conflicts
and allowing all to be heard and accepted.
We each can define kindness for ourselves, but I have noticed that kindness generally reflects
many commonalities: openness, willingness to be vulnerable, respect for the dignity of others,
and the intent to cultivate intimacy.
Life is a series of relationships that need maintenance, care, and understanding. Navigating
relationships, building them, or letting them go, requires informed action. If we reach
conclusions based only on our own inference of others’ actions or words, we fail to gain
valuable intelligence. Kindness makes us pause, inform ourselves by asking questions, and avoid
a rush to judgment.
The person who wants to understand engages in a never-ending process of replacing judgment
with curiosity. This is kindness, refusing to condemn without learning the “truth” from the
other’s point of view, no matter how outlandish it may seem to be.
“Choose being kind over being right and you’ll be right every time.” — Richard Carlson
HOW TO’S — PRACTICAL METHODS OF LEARNING TO BE KIND.
In the course of our legal traditions and scientific explorations, people take positions based on
“evidence.” As any trial lawyer knows, there are always experts who will provide opinions based
on compelling “facts” that will favor one side or another. Yet, facts do not change minds.
Everybody sees the world and what happens in it through their own lens.
Confirmation bias may in part be to blame for the unceasing battles over public policy.
Confirmation bias is a mental shortcut that makes you unconsciously seek information that
affirms your beliefs while overlooking information that contradicts your beliefs.[xv]
Cognitive scientists and professors Steven Sloman (Brown University) and Philip Fernbach
(Univ. of Colorado, Leeds School of Business) explain why people believe things that are not
true. They have conducted studies that show that people think they know far more than they
actually do. People tend to oversimplify, become overconfident, and develop great passion
about serious issues. Sloman and Fernbach have demonstrated that when people realize that
their level of confidence is not justified by their knowledge, they moderate their position.[xvi]
Sloman and Fernbach do not suggest that we each acquire all the knowledge necessary to
support our positions. In fact, they state that it is not even possible. They explain that thinking
is a “social process” and that what we know is a result of our interactions with others around
us. “[P]eople are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual
brains but in the collective mind.”[xvii] Accordingly, vehement arguments about important
issues are largely based on information from friends, newsfeeds, and social media that confirms
Some politicians may actually discourage collaboration to dig in and examine an issue. Instead,
they prey on their constituents by oversimplifying issues and amassing supporters with appeals
to their fundamental “sacred” values.[xviii] If we understand that we do not know as much as
we think we know and that our knowledge depends on collaborative intelligence from the
communities around us, we can converse, ask questions, and listen, especially to those whose
opinions differ from ours. Then we can build on our collective knowledge to do amazing
Here are some suggestions for intentionally practicing kindness to encourage collaboration from
the personal level to the global level.
Be Kind to Yourself.
How many times has someone told you, “Take care of yourself”? This has been a difficult
concept for me to understand, much less implement.
It seems, however, that we can start by telling ourselves at the beginning of every day, “Be
gentle.” Being gentle is doing whatever you need to do to find relief from that “me against the
world” feeling that isolates and damages so many people. Likewise, saying yes to every demand
on your time can be so depleting that it is arguably a form of harm to ourselves.
Being kind to yourself by being gentle means that you are taking the time to learn to observe
yourself, your feelings, and your needs. Being gentle prepares you to come to the table every
day with a sense of awareness, readiness, and an “open” quality. Then you can slow down, hear
and be heard on issues and concerns, sort out the problems, and find solutions.
Here is one technique that impresses me every time I use it. In his book, The War for Kindness:
Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki challenges us
to “reverse the Golden Rule.” Treat yourself the way that you would treat others.[xx]
The task is to think of something you did that embarrassed you or made you feel ashamed or
incompetent. Now, think about a dear friend or family member who had done the same thing
and come to you for advice. Chances are you would not call her a loser or a disappointment.
More likely, you would reframe the action as one that does not define her, was not typical for
her, or was a mistake. No matter how many times we try to tell others that mistakes are good,
and we only learn when we make mistakes, we hold ourselves to a much higher standard. We
have to try harder to give ourselves a break.
See Yourself as You Are Seen.
While being kind to ourselves, we also need to find a balance between self-deprecation and self-promotion.
We need time to be thoughtful. In negotiation, or in any relationship, we need to
focus less on what we think makes us look good, and more on how others see us.
Sometimes, our efforts to act with kindness fail, and we are misunderstood or rejected. That
should not change our commitment to kindness. It is possible that our efforts to be kind may
reveal our own role in the conflict. Awareness of this activates our pride as well as our inner
critic. Both can elicit an unproductive escalation of the dispute.
Words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language matter. Our intent does not matter
if we are perceived negatively. When that happens, we are not likely to be heard, to get what
we want or need, or to get any cooperation. Even when we see ourselves as handling conflict
properly, we might just be wrong about that. How we think others see us doesn’t help our case
at all if we don’t communicate in a way that helps the other person understand our intended
Former English professor, police officer and police trainer George J. Thompson, Ph. D, creator
and principal author of Verbal Judo — The Gentle Art of Persuasion, is convincing:
Effective communication begins and ends with your ability to see yourself as you are seen. You
desperately need the ability to read an audience and to sense from their voice and body
language whether you’re coming across the way you want to, so you can adjust.[xxi]
Being able to adjust, especially in adversarial and highly charged situations, gives us a powerful
tool. We can use “words to redirect the negative force of others toward positive outcomes.”[xxii]
Know that Everyone Has Secrets, Burdens, Fears, and Insecurities, Not Only You.
In a world closely tied by instant communication, the quest for financial security, and the pursuit
of physical and intellectual strength and perfection, we all suffer in some way. Everyone has
problems, usually big ones. We are all worried about something.
About 35 years ago, I cured myself of road rage when I came to this realization. After someone
cut me off one day, I wondered whether he was really the jerk I assumed he was, not following
the rules of the road and endangering lives. I asked myself, “What is the likelihood that every
person who cuts me off on the road is a jerk?” Very small. Then I asked, “What is the likelihood
that a person who cuts me off is rushing because of an emergency, is suffering the loss of a
loved one, or is just distracted, angry, late, or oblivious?” Much more likely; we have all
been that driver.
It didn’t matter that I was a law-abiding citizen driving properly (that day), and he was legally
wrong in driving recklessly and posing a risk to the rest of us. What mattered was my discovery
that the likelihood of the other driver having a malicious intent to harm by cutting me off on
the road was almost nil, and that safety on the road requires a cooperative effort, including
So every time someone tries to squeeze into my lane, or nearly grazes my new car, I say to
myself, “It’s his turn to be frazzled. It doesn’t matter.” The moment serves me well. I get to think
that I’m giving someone the benefit of the doubt, I’m trying to help, and I’m cooperating, so I
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” — Plato
Recall the Feelings You Have Now during the Pandemic and the Black Lives Matter Crises.
The spring of 2020 will go down in history for many reasons, but I hope that as we gradually
emerge from crisis, people will treat this time as a turning point. I hope we reimagine our work
and personal lives. I hope that the “new normal” is the fellowship, compassion, and innovation
that flourished during the quarantine. I also hope that more of us will act to demonstrate that
Black Lives Matter. I hope that these acts will be fueled by a commitment to overcome our own
obstacles. Our personal obstacles have blocked the way of Black people for hundreds of years
in the United States.
What has the coronavirus pandemic given us? With great sacrifice, we are seeing people risking
their lives to help others, people reconnecting with old friends and family, people finding that
we’re all in this boat together fighting a biological enemy.
What has the Black Lives Matter crisis given us? We have been given the challenge to do the
right thing, and urgently, no matter how difficult and uncomfortable that might be.
Politicians who do not see the urgent necessity of cooperation and collaboration are committed
to the “us vs. them” philosophy and an unabashed persistence in keeping their knees on the
necks of the world. When we are in crisis, in desperate need, in matters of life and death, we
can and do take care of each other. This attitude can be the foundation for an entirely new
world when we emerge.
We have an amazing opportunity right now, and I can’t believe we are the ones who get to
choose how to move forward. We are literally in the midst of “rebooting,” or “pressing the reset
button.” Just imagine wiping the slate of our lives clean by purging our assumptions and
judgments about people. Just imagine how the constituents of sworn enemies could influence
leadership by insisting on communication to hear people they don’t know or understand. Just
imagine anyone else making that effort to understand you. Theoretically, it is a simple task.
Force yourself to think idealistically, and just treat people with kindness.
In 1987, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Ronald Reagan said:
Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In
our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all
the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us
recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences
worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And
yet, I ask you, is not an alien force already among us? What could be more alien to the
universal aspirations of our peoples than war and the threat of war?
. . . .
My message today is that the dreams of ordinary people reach to astonishing heights.
If we diplomatic pilgrims are to achieve equal altitudes, we must build all we do on the
full breadth of humanity’s will and consent and the full expanse of the human
If only our leaders could hear this. Maybe they will. We can act in a kind manner if we can learn
to expect kindness and cooperation from others. The UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute can prove
it. So can Dr. Corey from Biola University. And so can we.
“You can accomplish by kindness what you cannot do by force.” — Publilius Syrus (1st century
There are ways to begin to hear each other and find solutions. We must work to eliminate our
assumptions and expel the vitriol. The reason is that we need to collaborate as a
conglomeration of communities to survive. We need only be curious. We need only ask
questions and gather information. To do this, there is only one prerequisite. That is to have
the intention of being kind.
The more we listen with the intention of understanding what other people need, the more likely
it will be that our own message will be heard and understood by others. Then, we will be able
to gather the courage and momentum, save ourselves, and save each other.
We have the imagination and collective knowledge to do it.
(at approx. 9:00–9:50)
[iii] Sparks AM, Fessler DMT, Holbrook C (2019) Elevation, an emotion for prosocial
contagion, is experienced more strongly by those with greater expectations of the
cooperativeness of others. PLoS ONE 14(12):
(at approx. 18:00–22:00)
[vii] Georges Pire — Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Wed. 13 May 2020. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1958/pire/biographical/
[viii] Corey, Barry H., Love Kindness (2016), pp. xiv-xv (and throughout).
[ix] Id. at xvii.
[x] Id. at 183.
[xi] Id. at xix.
[xii] Id. at 53–74.
[xiii] Id. at 83–84.
[xiv] Id. at 81.
[xvi] Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think
[xvii] Id. at 5.
[xviii] Id. at 16.
[xix] Id. at 17.
[xx] Zaki, Jamil, The War for Kindness — Building Empathy in a Fractured World (2019).
[xxi] Thompson and Jenkins, Verbal Judo — The Gentle Art of Persuasion(2013), p. 2.
[xxii] Id. at 3.
[xxiii] Address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, New
York. September 21, 1987. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Ronald