what is kindness?

I have returned from the Asia-Pacific Library and Information Conference where I had many wonderful experiences, including a conversation with Kathryn Greenhill of Curtin University about kindness and libraries (one of Kathryn’s research interests). It was so exciting to meet and talk with someone with similar interests, and I can’t wait to read Kathryn’s research. For now though I want to gather together all the thoughts and opinions about kindness that I wasn’t even aware that I had before our conversation and give them some shape. What that might look like in a library is to come!

So, for me, kindness is,

Kindness is an expression of love, it is love in action. The love in action is love for me and for you.

Kindness is a cyclical process with distinctive ‘phases’ (this bit totally informed by nonviolent communication):

  • You notice that I have an unmet need – maybe you hear me tell you directly; maybe you sense something is amiss.
  • You communicate with me to clarify my need.
  • You consider whether assisting me to meet my needs might satisfy a need of your own.
  • If you decide to go ahead, we negotiate and commit to some action that will meet our needs.
  • We are both rewarded. Needs are met — perhaps not the original need you noticed, perhaps the need might be simple recognition, acknowledgement, or to matter to someone. Perhaps we start all over again…

Interruption: But what is a need?

A need is a value we hold dear in a particular moment. Connection, respect, safety, fun, self-expression – there are hundreds of needs. A nice list is available from the Centre for Nonviolent Communication

Kindness is characterised by particular needs, including

  • Love and respect for self and other. We agree on an action – it is not decided by one person and imposed on another.
  • Curiosity. You are genuinely curious to hear what it is that I am needing. You are willing to listen.
  • Vulnerability. Kindness is risky. You and I may need to take part in one or more open and honest conversations. We might even discuss feelings. We might take actions we may not usually take. Sometimes I will have to confront and let go of some preconceived ideas about you. This may be painful.
  • Mutuality. Everyone gains something: an opportunity to contribute perhaps.

Kindness is effortful, involving work and growth. I am actively learning about you and me, about what it means to be human, to be connected to another.

Kindness is a wellspring. Because all involved benefit from the kind action, it regenerates itself. Kindness is thus root, trunk, leaf, and seed.

Kindness is a spiritual practice: a way of observing the world around me and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things, of all things including me.

Kindness is itself a human need.

Kindness might also be:

  • “I’m just doing my job.” Yes, my job is what I get paid to do, but if my actions can be mapped to the descriptions above it is kindness.
  • “I’m just doing what anyone else would have done in the circumstance.” Yes, and if it maps to the description above it is kindness

Finally, kindness might look like but is not:

  • Actions motivated by sympathy, pity, guilt
  • Actions born of power or privilege – charity that imposes a gift upon another, something I don’t need plus an expectation of gratitude
  • Kind people/unkind people, just moments where we any person is or is not inspired by their own need to connect, contribute, to express kindness.

What did I miss? Is there something in particular that did or did not resonate for you? All comments appreciated 🙂

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